Once upon a time Harlem only had a couple of decent restaurants. Patrons had to put up with whatever sub par antics the restaurateur pulled if they wanted to have a meal uptown. Thankfully those days are gone for Harlemites, new visitors, foodies and Harlem lovers. You don’t have to put up with limited choices, recycled food or poor customer service any longer. There’s now a range of dining experiences, food types and price ranges for the Harlem foodie.
Oh- and forget what you thought you knew about Northern Manhattan cuisine. Harlem is not just soul food anymore. You can enjoy sweet potatoes and corn bread on Monday and Senegalese thiebu djeun on Tuesday without ever dipping below 96th Street.
So what should you eat in Harlem? It depends on what you’re in the mood for because now we have a meal for almost every palate. This is not a list about flash or big named egos. We want you to have the best time. This list is about you getting the most incredible food and service for your precious bucks.
TOP RESTAURANTS: 10 MUST HAVE HARLEM DINING EXPERIENCES
2620 Frederick Douglass Boulevard Harlem, NY
Harlemites consider Londel’s the real home of chicken and waffles. We couldn’t fill this list with glitzy hot spots without paying homage to our grandpa’s favorite players. Londel’s is an uptown gem. See if the owner is around and allow the O.G. (Original Gentry) Mr. Londel to bend your ear with way-back-when tales of how he’s fed all of the greats. The band alone is worth the trip. Sit outside if the weather allows and indulge in the fresh collard greens. This is an old school Harlem restaurant that has never faltered on food or service, and for this we are so grateful.
185 St. Nicholas Avenue Harlem, NY
You know that person you’re trying hard to impress? Hip and red hot, Mojo is the secret key in your back pocket. Here’s the caveat: please don’t come to this tiny and chic restaurant if you’re in a hurry. You can enjoy the splendid decor and music as you wait (and wait) for the mouth watering Mediterranean-inspired food. The well dressed upscale Mojo’s crowd (of all ages) is too confident and accomplished to put on pretentious airs. Have the chicken fritters and asparagus as the live music gets you in the mood for whatever the evening brings. The gorgeous stained glass picture window panels open in the summer as patrons lose it over the sexy grits.
3. Zoma: Essence of Abyssinia
2084 Frederick Douglas Boulevard Harlem, NY
Any list of where to go in Harlem that does not include the contributions of the newer direct from African residents is incomplete. Zoma is Ethiopian cuisine at its finest. The cinnamon, nutmeg, basil, coriander, cloves and thyme dance with your tongue in every dish. Don’t even get us started on the honey wine and sambusas. I really thought that I didn’t like Ethiopian food until I came to Zoma. Ease yourself into the sour bread and you will be back.
4. Billie’s Black
271 West 119th Street Harlem, NY
The owner Adrienne is an absolute sweetheart in this gay friendly Harlem soul food spot. The mac and cheese will be the best you’ve ever eaten and although we know that fried foods are not the healthiest way to go, take a diet day off to visit Billie’s Black. If you find the lights a little too bright for a romantic experience then speak to the staff and they’ll make the adjustment. They are incredibly accommodating; and unlike other spots in the area the Billie’s Black staff acts as if they appreciate your business. We’ve never had a bad experience at Billie’s Black. A great spot for people watching.
5. Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too
366 West 110th Street Harlem, NY
What are you doing for Sunday brunch? Don’t let all of the Columbia University students have all of the fun! When you visit Miss Mamie’s or her uptown sister Miss Maude’s you are not there for the ambiance. You are there for the authentic southern African American soul food and the soul food alone. They cater to everyone from former presidents to church ladies. And you know that the church ladies know soul food. Pass the corn bread and be sure to check out owner Norma Darden’s genuine family memorabilia on the walls. Preach.
57 Lenox Avenue Harlem, NY
Lolitas Restaurant! Where to begin? This is the best Mexican food we’ve eaten outside of Mexico. Throw on your jeans and head right over. This is where you go when you are hungry for fresh south of the border fare that will literally dance on your tongue. If weather permits sit outside while the kind and generous Lolita’s team caters to your every need. Lolita’s chicken nachos have made it impossible for me to enjoy this appetizer anywhere else. Yum.
300 West 114th Street Harlem, NY 10026
If you’re hanging with your friends, on a date or treating your family then this lovely eatery has something tasty to offer. Head to Melba’s and the smiling owner herself may greet you at your table. Don’t be surprised if you get into a convo with the folks sitting nearby. Melba’s always feels like home. Whether you’re there for Sunday brunch and mimosas or fresh fish and specialty cocktails on Friday the food is always a wonderful. In fact the soft biscuits and strawberry butter should be illegal. Find Melba’s on Frederick Douglass Boulevard along what the New York Times has called Restaurant Row Harlem.
8. Chez Lucienne
308 Lenox Avenue Harlem, NY
Francophiles, here’s your classic French bistro in Harlem. If you already love French food or want to get to know coq au vin and mussels in white wine then please discover Chez Lucienne. The crowd is a little touristy sometimes but if you’re headed over to their famous soul food neighbor please stop in here first. Live jazz band every Friday and Saturday night. And in the most surprising twist of all, Chez Lucienne is easy on the wallet.
9. Gospel Uptown
2110 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard Harlem, NY
Gospel Uptown describes its menu as “Healthful Soul Fusion” and multi ethnic nouvelle cuisine. This is one of the biggest spots in Harlem, perfect for a church group or sorority meet up. The owners see themselves as a gospel version of a Hard Rock Cafe. We don’t know about that but the food is decent. Most soul food spots ignore vegetarians — not Gospel Uptown. Check it out.
10. Red Rooster
310 Lenox Avenue Harlem, NY
Harlem foodies are on Red Rooster watch. Top Chef Master’s Marcus Samuelsson is currently staffing up for his eagerly anticipated new Harlem restaurant. The Wall Street Journal calls the celebrity chef’s future hot spot one of 15 new restaurants to watch this fall in NYC. Word is that Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster is slated to open by November 1st. Fingers crossed. Whenever it opens we’ll see you there. All “elevated American comfort food” entrees will be under $25. He has cooked for the Obama’s and now Chef Marcus Samuelsson can cook for you. As he said in the WSJ, “It’s a milestone for us and it’s not going to be rushed by anything else. When the restaurant is ready, the restaurant is ready.”
Bonus. Patsy’s Pizzeria, Restaurant & Bar
2287 First Avenue East Harlem, NY
World famous Patsy’s Pizzeria is a strong candidate for the best pizza in NYC. Although you may not think of pizza when you think of Harlem, Harlemites want access to the full range of foods. Why should we have less choices than any other neighborhood? Paty’s serves real Italian pizza that satisfies even the most gourmet palate. Add the juicy tomatoes, fresh mozerella, goat cheese and plump black olives. Leave your glad rags at home and pick up an addictive Patsy’s pie.
Honorable Mentions: Uptown Juice Bar for vegan Caribbean food, Patisserie Des Ambassades for the Senegalese dining experience and Native, mostly for the sidewalk seating. You can also find great food at several spots on our Harlem Nightlife Hot Spot List: Shrine, 67 Orange, Lenox Lounge, Nectar Wine Bar, Milk Lounge, Mobay’s, 5 and Diamond, Camaradas, and Chocolat.
Author and Multimedia Personality Abiola Abrams, the Lifestyle Passionista, writes and makes TV and web series about living your best life at AbiolaTV.com.