If you don’t already reside in Harlem, there’s always been a reason for hungry people to gravitate to this neighborhood across 110th Street in Manhattan. The district has long been the go-to neighborhood for Southern/soul food as well as West African and Ethiopian restaurants.
But it wasn’t until Ethiopia-born, Swedish-raised super chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster in 2010 that a lot of New York got on Harlem-bound subway trains and began exploring the increasingly diverse food options of this fabled neighborhood. Today there’s much more than injera bread and delicious chicken and waffles happening in Harlem.
The neighborhood is crammed with remarkable restaurants. Everything from bodacious barbecue to perfect Neapolitan pizza to extremely gratifying ramen and cocktails. And yes, when you get a craving for chicken and waffles, cornbread, and luscious pork ribs, Harlem restaurants still have the city’s best soul food too.
Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant
New York City isn’t really known for its Ethiopian restaurants. (For that, head to Washington, DC.) But Abyssinia might save you a trip.
Ethiopian food is unique and fun to eat with dining companions. There is no silverware. Just take some spongy injera bread and scoop up rich stewed meat and sautéed veggies from the shared platter and insert in waiting mouth. The best bet is to order one of the combo platters (with or without meat).
The wood-burning oven at this diminutive Italian eatery is the star of the show, the culinary altar from which the best edible offerings materialize. The menu at Babbalucci (331 Malcolm X Blvd.) consists of a dozen-and-a-half pizzas (both with tomato sauce and pizza bianca); the DOP, topped with tomato sauce, burrata, speck, and a balsamic reduction is a taste explosion on the palate. The other side of the menu is a classic Italian concoction with primi (various pastas) and secondi (hearty meat dishes).
This popular west Harlem spot began life as a food truck before food trucks were so fashionable. In 1988, though, they found a brick-and-mortar spot in Syracuse before finally setting up shop here in Harlem.
And Dinosaur seems here to stay. Perpetually packed, the restaurant’s southern barbecue is some of the best in the city. People point themselves here from all the five boroughs (and New Jersey) just to dig into the fall-off-the-bone ribs.
“Rice is Culture” is the slogan of this casual counter spot. It’s true. And if you visit Fieldtrip, you may walk out thinking, rice is damn delicious too. Started by talented chef JJ Johnson, who garnered a ton of attention when he was the chef at nearby The Cecil, Fieldtrip’s specialty is rice bowls—bowls filled with hard-to-find Carolina Gold rice and topped with things like fried chicken, braised beef, crispy fish, and seafood gumbo.
This location is the basis for what Johnson hopes will be many other Fieldtrip outlets (as of now, there is a second location in Rockefeller Center).
Lolo’s Seafood Shack
In various parts of the Caribbean, family-run, no-frills, seaside seafood-centric eateries are called “lolos.” And this family-run spot does a great job of mimicking them—minus the seaside location, of course—with a menu that is loaded with island flavors. The peel-and-eat shrimp boils are perfect for a large-ish group of friends and the fish fry basket is worth the trip to Harlem.
Harlem is sprinkled with soul food spots, including super tourist-filled restaurants like Sylvia’s. Melba’s, though, has a much more local vibe to it.
Opened in 2005 by Harlem native Melba Wilson, who actually got her start at Sylvia’s, this eponymous eatery serves up classic soul and Southern fare, but some dishes have a twist. Southern-fried chicken and eggnog-spiked waffles, anyone? Yes, please. Spring rolls stuffed with black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cheddar cheese? We’re already in line.
This six-table restaurant (243 W 116th St.) run by three women from Senegal serves up West African fare with aplomb. Specifically, the focus is on the cuisine of Senegal and the stew-y delights here are delicious. Think: stewed lamb in a rich peanut sauce over rice, whole fried red snapper and fish-stuffed samosa-like dumplings.
You’ll never eat here. But a list of Harlem restaurants would be incomplete without a mention of this famous (and famously impossible to get into) Italian restaurant (455 E 114th St.). Basically, people own tables and you pretty much have to be the recipient of their generosity via an invite.
The food here is standard Italian-American fare, but it tastes a lot better than it really is just knowing you finally got a table at Rao’s. The only real way to get table at here is to get on a Los Angeles-bound plane and plant yourself at the outpost there, which is far less discriminatory in who they serve food to.
Ramen. Oysters. Kitchen. Cocktails. That does sum up what’s on the offer at this most unique of Harlem restaurants, but doesn’t at all prepare the diner for what’s in store. ROKC (3452 Broadway) serves up killer ramen, including the tantalizing brothless sea urchin and salmon caviar version, as well as tsumami—Japanese drinking snacks—like tender pork buns and urchin-topped deviled eggs.
It’s hard to outshine the food at ROKC but the inventive cocktails manage to do just that. The expertly crafted cocktails have odd ingredients but after a sip, you’ll wonder: why don’t more people put Parmigiano in their cocktails? Or, for that matter, Earl Grey tea or soy milk or butter?
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson made a name for himself at iconic and upscale Midtown Nordic restaurant Aquavit. Then in 2010, he went uptown and opened up Red Rooster, a now-iconic Southern eatery and one of the most famous Harlem restaurants, anchored on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and West 126th Street.
The menu is big on comfort with classics like shrimp and grits, fried chicken, sweet potato and coconut soup, and for a sweet finish, salted caramel doughnuts.
If you woke up this morning and thought: I am really craving Somali food, then point yourself to Harlem, specifically to 116th Street and plant yourself at Safari. The city’s only restaurant that focuses on Somali cuisine, Safari is a fun culinary journey.
First-timers should dig into a plate of hilip ari, roasted goat that’s marinated for six hours in East African spices, and then piled high on a mound of rice. Also worth saving stomach space for is chicken suqaar, marinated and sauteed fowl.
Translated as “under the house” in Italian, this Neapolitan pizzeria is, not surprisingly, in a partially subterranean space and happens to make some of the best southern Italian-style pizza in New York.
Sotto Casa’s menu offers the usual pies one would find at a pizzeria in Naples but also boasts some inventive pizze bianche, or white pizzas (aka without tomato sauce) with toppings like black truffle spread, Gorgonzola, and Brussels sprouts.
David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes here and here.