While it may be premature to herald a new Harlem Renaissance—at least in the culinary arena—the legendary district has never felt more vibrant. From fancy French bistros to tiny grilled-chicken joints, and from classic soul-food buffets to organic-smoothie and sandwich shops, Harlem is quietly emerging as a foodie haven. And despite the much-needed epicurean upgrade, Harlem remains a family neighborhood, which means diners can still expect some of the City’s heartiest portions at reasonable prices, even at the area’s poshest places. Once you’re in the neighborhood, all the best of Harlem—from the famed Studio Museum in Harlem and the iconic Apollo Theater to its legendary churches and elegant row houses—is just a short walk away.
Charles’ Country Pan-Fried Chicken
2839-2841 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-281-1800
For many folks, Harlem’s version of soul food means one thing: Sylvia’s Restaurant—the legendary Lenox Avenue eatery made famous by film stars and politicians. But some 30 blocks north at Charles’ Country Pan-Fried Chicken, there’s plenty more soul food on offer. The Charles here is Charles Gabriel, a longtime Upper Manhattan chicken master who recently reopened this tiny, unpretentious spot after a car crashed into it two years ago. Today, folks come from all over to fill up their plates from Gabriel’s buffet, which heaves with crisp, moist fried chicken, creamy macaroni and cheese, smoky collard greens and sweet-yet-tangy candied yams. It’s a hearty, all-you-can-eat affair. And at $10.99 for lunch and $13.99 for dinner and on weekends, it’s a budget-friendly indulgence.
308 Lenox Ave., 212-289-5555
Frenchman Thomas Obaton is the chef behind the stove at Chez Lucienne, the first fancy French bistro to open in Harlem. The year-old 60-seat eatery comes courtesy of Obaton and a pair of alums from posh restaurant Daniel—Matthew Tivy and Jerome Bougherdani. Dishes are très Rive Gauche; the dinner menu features everything from beef bourguignonne and poached sole quenelles with crayfish emulsion to wintry coq au vin. On weekends, Obaton offers crepes, including classics like Crepe Suzette, ham-and-cheese and even Nutella-filled for $9.95 each. During the week, there’s a $10.95 lunch special, which includes a sandwich with soup or a small salad, or a meal-size salad with soup. (You can enjoy an ulra-rich croque-monsieur with ham, melted cheese and béchamel sauce.) Bon appétit, indeed!
137 E. 116th St., 212-410-2450
The past decade has seen a boom of authentic Mexican taco joints in Spanish Harlem, including the latest, El Aguila, Centro de Comida Mexicana. In this brightly lit corner space, a small team of taco makers whips up soft-shelled wonders filled with the likes of chorizo, grilled pork, beef asada and even tongue. They’re topped with chopped onions, cilantro and squeezes of lime, and paired with classics ranging from hearty corn tamales to rich pozole—a traditional soup made with pork and corn. The icy fruit drinks are refreshing all year round, and there’s a traditional Mexican-style bakery in the back with endless bins of sweet pan dulce.
22 E. 125th St., 212-860-3000
This Harlem newcomer is a welcome addition to the neighborhood—a healthy salad spot with an emphasis on fresh, grilled and organic goodies. Island Salad is a labor of love from owner Milo Reed, who wanted to offer a nutritious alternative to the area’s heavier fare. The results speak for themselves: pressed sandwiches and wraps burst with grilled chicken, fresh mesclun or homemade hummus. Create your own salad with ingredients like fresh veggies, dried fruits, prepared meats and cheeses from around the globe. Gourmet smoothies, like a spicy raspberry ginger beer, reflect Reed’s Caribbean origins. It’s all good for you—and with everything under $10, it’s good for your wallet, too.
244 Lenox Ave., 212-880-2200
Harlem resident Charles Belanger isn’t exactly a conventional chef, nor is he a regular restaurateur. Rather, the real-estate entrepreneur has a knack for picking great locations and for cooking fine food. Both of those qualities helped him wind up with Spinners, his new rotisserie-chicken spot on Lenox Avenue. Opened in late 2009, the restaurant is all about chicken—whole and half birds spiced and marinated before a heat-filled spin session. Belanger oversees it all, along with flavorful homemade sides such as from-scratch macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and fresh carrots. Half birds begin at just $3.99 ($6.99 with a pair of sides), as do hefty half-pound sub sandwiches. Belanger built out the cozy dining room himself, which feels—much like the food—homey, casual and unhurried.
264 Lenox Ave., 212-831-5292
Recently relocated from the West Village, Tonnie’s Minis is the kind of place you should consider entering at your own risk—mainly because Tonnie Rozier whips up hundreds of delicious cakes, cookies and, most notably, cupcakes each day. The danger begins immediately upon entry: Rozier’s youthful staffers offer free samples of his daily mini-cupcake "shots." They usually come in three flavors—chocolate, red velvet and vanilla—and are topped with buttercream, chocolate or cream cheese frosting. They’re available in larger sizes, too: California (aka medium) and Hollywood, Rozier’s version of large. Each can be topped with sprinkles or coconut for a true custom-cupcake experience. For those craving something a bit more substantial, there are towering layer cakes (dark chocolate, carrot or red velvet), chewy chocolate-chip and oatmeal cookies and sweet potato pies.
80 E. 116th St., 212-348-9010
Harlem’s latest nightlife hit is The Kiosk, a North African–themed hookah lounge smack on bustling 116th Street. The place is as authentic as it is exotic. Casablanca-born chef Mounir Najd offers equally tasty and affordable lunch and dinner menus: Moroccan sandwiches stuffed with grilled meats, sun-dried tomatoes, spicy pesto and fiery harissa sauce, along with sizzling platters of tender meats, kebabs, hummus and rice. Naturally, you can also sample heaping portions of traditional couscous, fragrant with chickpeas, fresh vegetables and spices. But the real fun at The Kiosk is in those hookah pipes, which can be found in its after-hours lounge along with drinks like the house-made sangria and a fizzy Kir Royale.
Il Caffe Latte
189 Lenox Ave., 212-222-2241
In business for just a year, Il Caffe Latte is exactly what Harlem needs: a friendly, contemporary café with an affordable menu of Continental comfort food. Owned by the always-smiling Young Han, Il Caffe Latte’s menu does pay homage to its Italian name, with dinner dishes such as penne alla vodka, black seafood ravioli and shrimp scampi. Still, the real lure here is breakfast and brunch, beloved by a welcome mix of Harlem hipsters. Topped with pico de gallo sauce, the Latin egg wrap is spicy and filling, while the huevos rancheros present a riot of color, thanks to blue corn tortillas, tomatillo sauce and guacamole. Han’s desserts are sized for sharing—heaping slices of apple or pecan pie, oversize cookies and the house specialty, Han’s homemade tiramisu.
Le Meilleur du Monde
2029 Fifth Ave., 646-525-6506
Jamaican-born culinary dynamo Millicent Clarke manages her cheery café and basically bakes and brews everything sold in Le Meilleur du Monde. Clearly taking pride in her homeland, Clarke’s coffee drinks are crafted solely with Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. The bean also spikes Clarke’s creamy homemade ice cream and is a perfect partner for her freshly baked bran muffins, rich chocolate cupcakes or chocolate-chip cheesecake. There’s no coffee, however, in the huge sandwiches Clarke serves in the crunchy baguettes she, yes, makes herself. And if you like what you’re drinking, then there are bags of Blue Mountain beans for sale. Sadly, at $38 per pound, they’re set at export prices as well—but a real treat to find in the City.