Harlem's Foodie Renaissance

David Kaufman

Harlem has undergone a renaissance in recent years; new businesses have been setting up shop in the area, and the real estate market has been on an upswing—it's not unusual now for brownstones to sell for several million dollars. It was only a matter of time before enterprising restaurateurs discovered its charms and sought to bring their unique character and gastronomic obsessions to the neighborhood, making it an epicurean destination anew. Harlem's increasingly world-class culinary scene—with offerings including sushi, classic French food and farm-to-fork fare—serves as a barometer of that transformation. From historic Lenox Avenue in Harlem's heart to buzzy Frederick Douglass Boulevard on its western fringe, chef-driven restaurants, cafés and lounges are debuting at a record pace—often with both downtown-style chefs and decor. These newcomers have found a welcoming local clientele. And drawn by the global menus, friendly service and (relatively) less imposing price tags, hungry diners are heading uptown from across New York City as well.

Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Cove Lounge
325 Lenox Ave., 212-665-3455
This after-hours cocktail joint complements Lenox Avenue's increasingly upscale culinary hotspots, like Corner Social and celeb-chef Marcus Samuelsson's perennially packed Red Rooster Harlem. Owner Alyah Horsford-Sidberry is a Harlem native who clearly recognized her neighborhood's need for a stylish, sophisticated late-night drinking spot. Low-lit and vaguely industrial in feel with a concrete bar and hardwood floors, the bi-level Cove offers inventive drinks paired with a menu of Caribbean-influenced dishes. Cove cocktails are mostly fresh interpretations of old-fashioned classics—among the best are a Lenox Sidecar, made with cognac and grenadine; a Pimm's Cup flavored with raspberries; and a potent Smuggler's Cove featuring five different liquors, including rum, cognac and port wine. Shamelessly social, Cove Lounge is fronted on weekends by a doorman and velvet rope—so smart dress is advised. Once inside, there are bars on both floors, DJs spinning tracks, rib-sticking grub like the blue crab and grits—along with a Harlem crowd at its grown-up best.

Roasted red pepper and mozzarella panini. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Frederick Café Bistro
2104 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-222-0075
When it opened a year or so ago, Frederick Café Bistro perfectly captured the essence of Harlem's ever-changing cultural and culinary vibe. Tucked into a prime corner spot—and drenched with sunlight thanks to walls of windows—Frederick serves a perfectly assembled menu of coffee, baked goods and café fare with little fuss and a pleasant dose of history thrown in. Against a backdrop of iconic quotes from Frederick Douglass himself, which are written on the walls, diners can enjoy mugs of strong Lavazza espresso and cappuccino, generous smoked salmon and chicken panini and an extensive range of fresh pastries. Frederick is owned by the same folks that own Bier International, and they've styled their new spot with cozy wood banquettes and elegant iron chandeliers. Feeling friendly? Slide into the high-top communal table to mingle with locals. If you ask for takeout, you can enjoy an impromptu picnic at nearby Morningside Park.

Photo: James Higgins

Corner Social
321 Lenox Ave., 212-510-8552
Corner Social executive chef and partner Jonathan Romans is a veteran of luxe Manhattan kitchens ranging from Tribeca Grill to South Gate at the Jumeirah Essex House hotel. At Corner Social, Romans dishes up global takes on comfort classics, with an emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients. Indeed, nearby neighbors such as cupcake purveyor Tonnie's Minis and East Harlem's Hot Bread Kitchen are the ovens behind much of the restaurant's baked goods, while local urban gardens provide fresh fruits and vegetables. The restaurant's Lenox-facing front terrace offers some of Harlem's best people-watching—particularly while downing signature Romans dishes such as buttermilk fried oysters with pickled red onion and jalapeño mayonnaise or fried macaroni and cheese croquettes. Inside, pressed-tin ceilings, salvaged wood walls and floors crafted from reclaimed subway tiles give the Corner Social an only-in–New York vibe—with a decidedly uptown twist.

Photo: Toni Dolce/Purple Critter Media

Harlem Tavern
2153 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-866-4500
Much like nearby Bier International, Harlem Tavern capitalizes on New York City's ongoing obsession with European-style outdoor beer gardens. But while Bier International is design driven and cozy, the 350-seat Harlem Tavern sprawls over 7,000 square feet right where Frederick Douglass Blvd. meets W. 116th St. Like its layout, the restaurant's menu is also expansive—with over 40 different beers, from America, Europe and even Harlem's own microbreweries. Chef Darren Pettigrew hails from Dublin, and his menu reflects his European roots. A meal might begin with charcuterie plates, Mediterranean-style flatbreads or smoky mozzarella and ricotta fritters, followed by hefty mains like bourbon-braised short ribs and an organic chicken potpie roasted in a skillet. The setting indoors is a redbrick and dark wood dining room; outdoors, communal tables are shaded by parasols. With its something-for-everyone atmosphere, Harlem Tavern is typically packed—particularly during Sunday brunch, when a live jazz band is in the house.

Courtesy, Harlem Food Bar

Harlem Food Bar
2100 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-222-9570
Harlem Food Bar brings a much-needed dose of downtown-style, New American cooking to the heart of Harlem. Fronted by an industrial-looking facade and decorated with abstract, street-art-inspired wall murals, the restaurant is among Harlem's most demographically diverse and welcoming—unsurprising, given that the owners had a restaurant in Chelsea. The food is upscale bistro, with an artisanal and seasonal twist. The half-pound hamburger features Pat LaFrieda–crafted beef—de rigueur in some parts of town but not around here—while the Louisiana po'boy comes stuffed with shrimp and spiked rémoulade sauce. Vegetarians will appreciate the hearty veggie burger and the tropical-style grilled corn dusted with toasted coconut. And the modest wine menu is as approachable as it is affordable.

Courtesy, Jado Sushi

Jado Sushi
2118 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-866-2118
Jado Sushi may be a pioneer as one of Harlem's few sushi joints, but owner Nobu Otsu is a longtime neighborhood vet. In addition to living in Harlem, Otsu owns the nearby Winery, one of the neighborhood's top wine boutiques. Here at Jado, however, the focus is clearly on the food, which, as its name suggests, is devoted primarily to fish. Executive chef Shingo Kawamoto trained at Sushi Yasuda, one of the City's top sushi restaurants, while chef de cuisine Braulio Hernández comes from fusion favorites such as Zengo and Sushi Samba. At Jado, the sushi skews traditional but has flavorful pan-Asian and Latin flourishes. A simple ceviche starter packs a pomegranate punch, and oysters arrive with a fried panko crust; the hand rolls and sushi pieces are well sized and ocean fresh. The eatery has a reasonably priced wine and sake menu along with a handful of Asian-inspired cocktails. Perhaps best of all is Jado's slick, ultra-contemporary decor—with groovy floral-patterned wallpaper and crocodile skin–styled bathroom tiles, all designed by Otsu himself.

Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Lenox Coffee
60 W. 129th St., 646-833-7839
Open since December 2011, Lenox Coffee is proof positive of Harlem's arrival on the sustainable/artisanal/craft-made bandwagon. Located just off Lenox Avenue itself, Lenox Coffee feels transported from the East Village—or even Portland or Seattle. Cozy, with exposed brick walls and rustic wood furnishings, this is the kind of place to order up a shot or two and settle in for a while. The coffee, roasted by Stumptown, is crafted into hand-pulled espressos, cappuccinos and macchiatos, paired with Mast Brothers chocolates or a variety of baked goods. Owners Aaron Baird and Jeffrey Green met in music school, and they've paid close attention to Lenox Coffee's musical curation. There are regular open mic nights, along with low-key performances by local singer-songwriters.

Tuna tartar with avocado. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Cédric Bistro
185 St. Nicholas Ave., 212-866-7766
Named after owner Cédric Lecendre, Cédric Bistro opened in late 2011 on a prime St. Nicholas Ave. corner. Lecendre came to Harlem from the posh (now defunct) Upper East Side restaurant Le Bilboquet, partnering with co-owner Fabrizio Khanlari—a veteran of the upscale George Restaurant in London. Cédric Bistro completely lives up to its name; it is a classic Left Bank–style boîte serving Gallic comfort food paired with quality, mostly Continental wines. Starters such as pâté de campagne, foie gras ravioli and escargot de Bourgogne could not be more traditional. Main courses are slightly more global—such as Jamaican-style sautéed jerk chicken, roasted leg of lamb with couscous, and crisp fish and chips. There are mussels galore: varieties include curry and cream, Thai ginger and, of course, the tomato- and garlic-laden moules provençale. Cap off the meal with a warm tarte tartin or floating island—as French as you can get this side of the Atlantic.

Duck breast with celery leaf, bing cherries, walnuts & farro. Photo: Evi Abeler

Lido Harlem
2168 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 646-490-8575
Perched near the top of Frederick Douglass Boulevard's ever-evolving restaurant row, Lido takes both its name and menu from the fabled Venetian island of the same name. Light and airy—with a brick and light green design scheme—the restaurant's revamped modern Italian menu is dished up by chef Serena Bass, caterer and author of Serena, Food & Stories. With a focus on Northern Italian specialties, Lido offers little in terms of "red sauce." Instead, look for fare such as roasted chicken Milanese with asparagus and ricotta, gnocchi with truffle butter, or grilled baby lamb chops. Menus are seasonal and include spring/summer late-night goodies such as cheese and charcuterie plates or finger-food crostini such as salt cod and potato or rock shrimp with sea salt. Arrive for the weekend brunch—a lazy, all-afternoon affair featuring entrées such as a bacon, egg and cheese panini and spaghetti and meatballs. All-you-can-drink mimosas help wash it down.

Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Bad Horse Pizza
2222 Frederick Douglass Ave., 212 749-1258
High-quality, thin-crust, wood-oven pizza is a staple of most Manhattan neighborhoods, but it took Bad Horse Pizza to bring it to Harlem. Although a bit on the pricey side, Bad Horse has cultivated a dedicated following, since opening in April 2011, thanks to handmade dough, all-natural mozzarella and perfectly simmered sauce made from San Marzano plum tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil. Pizzas come in two sizes and include standard "pick-your-own-topping" pies as well as house specialties such as the Acropolis—featuring feta cheese and kalamata olives—and the jalapeño-and-cilantro-spiked Rio Grande; the aptly named Pig and Goat is topped with prosciutto and goat's milk cheese. There are salads—caprese and baby spinach among them—along with a handful of pastas. The offerings are paired with well-priced wines from a short list that includes California selections and perfectly chilled Prosecco and Lambrusco.