Harlem's 2nd Renaissance: Restaurants that Match its Jazz Legend

Once described as the community that gave “cool” an address, Harlem is home to cultural and now culinary legends. Passions run high in Harlem as do stylish surroundings, warm welcomes, earthy and innovative menus – attributes that could apply to all the members of this list. Its locals have deep roots and pride in this once-edgy neighborhood that is now one of the most attractive places to live and dine.

Recently the dessert at The Cecil was described as “somewhere between Harlem and Heaven.” And, Frederick Douglass Blvd. – Eighth Ave. north of 110th St. – is now known as Harlem’s Restaurant Row. But there is plenty to sample off that particular street.

And that pride gets passed from one generation to the next: Harlemite Melba Wilson, who owns Melba's just happens to be the niece of Sylvia Woods' of the iconic Sylvia's that opened its doors in 1962. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster, named after the legendary Harlem speakeasy that was located at 138th Street and 7th Avenue and more recently, Streetbird.

Come on uptown for a journey around the world reflecting the African diaspora. Check out the rich gastronomic heritages of Spain and Italy at Vinateria, the Afro-Asian-American fusion at Chef "JJ" Johnson's The Cecil and yes, down-home comfort food.

Entertainment at Supper Clubs will vie for your attention. You cannot go wrong trying out the early arrivals either – Zoma and Chocolat helped anchor the welcoming you'll feel on Harlem's Restaurant Row, part of an old neighborhood whose time has come. Naturally, arrive hungry!


Sylvia's "World Famous Sunday Gospel Brunch" is a classic experience whether you're a local or a visitor. Don't miss it. Down-home cooking done right and inexpensively, too. Sylvia's has been around since 1962 and has been pleasing the crowds with excellent dishes and providing a warm friendly atmosphere ever since. Former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama have dined here (he ordered the fried chicken and cornbread) as have Nelson Mandela and Magic Johnson. Sunday brunch is like a rare gem filled with heavenly songs and praise with a gospel choir. You may join in or sit back and relax while eating brunch and listening to classics while you dine on your waffle with fried or smothered chicken – still for under $20.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Founded by Sylvia Woods, the Queen of soul food back in 1962, this Harlem landmark is world famous and deservedly so.

Maria's expert tip: Soul senior Tuesdays; Wine-Up Wednesdays paired with live music; Karaoke meets Open Mic on Thursdays; Harlem Happy Hour daily 5-7PM. Sunday Gospel Breakfast, a must!

Read more about Sylvia's Soul Food →

Besides celebrity spotting – Serena Williams and big Bill Clinton – you'll dine with uptown church ladies in their Sunday best and savvy New Yorkers feeling at home in this soul food restaurant. Owner, caterer and former Wilhelmina model Norma Jean Darden serves up Southern comfort food, from smothered chicken and grits to collard greens and fresh-squeezed lemonade, all based on a historical collection of her family's recipes. Her catering firm backed into the restaurant business and we're glad it did. Lauded for the best fried chicken, best Sunday brunches in New York City, and entrees with two sides and cornbread for under $20. Come summer, a Saturday brunch will be added with a two-for-one deal on the morning mimosas. Cozy home-like ambiance. Miss Mamie's sampler of fried chicken, fried shrimp, short ribs and three sides should leave you with a big, fat, warm feeling. Leave room for the amazing cornbread.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Best fried chicken in New York City – on its very own or smothered in gravy – and a Sunday brunch favorite.

Maria's expert tip: Come summer, Saturday brunches will compete with Sunday brunch.

Read more about Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too →

Fun, festive, stylish and welcoming is what you will feel at Chocolat. Leon Ellis is a practical man, nevertheless he was among the first to open doors to his second restaurant on Frederick Douglas Blvd. when others watched and waited. Today, Chocolat Restaurant and Lounge is credited with helping to establish what we now know as Restaurant Row. Live jazz, art exhibitions, the delightfully blue-lit bar, and complimentary WiFi keeps you in touch while you dive into a decadent Weekend Brunch. This rich and vital gathering point for locals puts its money where its mouth is by supporting The Emily Ellis Scholarship Fund to provide college scholarships for Harlemites. Celebrate your Sunday with The Ultimate Urban Power Brunch with Raisin French Toast, Shrimp and Grits or panko crusted fish croquettes and yes, those grits.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: The 5 and Diamond offers an inviting ambiance, with a homey feeling that carries over to the menu.

Maria's expert tip: Don't stray toward the delicious, dark, desserts without trying the lumpy crab cakes first.

Read more about Chocolat Restaurant Lounge →


Streetbird Rotisserie opened in April 2015 by restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson. Its roots are in street food from around the world, and serves a variety of rotisserie chicken dishes. The decor includes a pair of Converse sneakers, hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier, and colorful graffiti. The 68-seat Harlem kitchenette is a tribute to the hip-hop and graffiti culture of the late 70s to early 90s, with a menu inspired by block parities and cookouts, and the surrounding neighborhood's cultural influences. Don't miss Notti Greens with roasted green beans, bok choy, chili and peanuts for a touch of Africa tossed in to the southern comforts.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Marcus Samuelsson does it again. Only this time the spotlight is on rotisserie chicken at very affordable prices.

Maria's expert tip: Brunch is served all day every day of the week.

Read more about Streetbird →

Ethiopian cuisine is rarely talked about outside of foodie circles, but one trip to Zoma and we're willing to bet you'll be raving to your friends about this African fare. Packed to the rafters with vegan and vegetarian options in addition to meaty delicacies, Zoma recently won Michelin's Bib Gourmand award, which recognizes the best moderately-priced restaurants. Regulars insist on ordering the honey wine to accompany your mega-sized portions of everything from kitfo (steak tartare) to awaze tibs (marinated and stir-fried lamb cubes served with onions and green peppers). And a heads up on dining etiquette: Ethiopians often eat with their hands, and Zoma encourages its patrons to follow suit.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Among the pioneers credited with kicking off the restaurant renaissance in Harlem.

Maria's expert tip: Ethiopians often eat with their hands â€" just be sure to use the right instead of the left.

Read more about Zoma →


Born, bred and buttered in Harlem, Melba Wilson knew she wanted to stay close to home so she could nurture and provide an exquisite yet comfortable dining experience to the community that raised her. Melba's Restaurant opened its doors in 2005 and has come to be regarded as the premier comfort food destination in New York City. The eponymous restaurant was the vision of its founder, niece to Sylvia Woods – the queen of soul food in Harlem. Start with a "comfortizer" like the inventive spring roll of rice, black-eyed peas, collard greens and cheddar cheese. The classic chicken with waffles will also bring a smile as will those beef ribs with a side of Tres Mac & Cheese. Not a meat eater? Try the country catfish, pecan crusted tilapia. Brunch has never been oh-so-decadent as when you dive into the eggnog waffles topped with strawberry butter.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Don't be surprised when you see Melba's guests hugging her hello; it's that kind of place.

Maria's expert tip: You can buy Melba's cookbook, but you cannot take the peerless service home.

Read more about Melba's →

With cocktail whiz Karl Franz Williams and a selection of 100 rums, some thought Solomon & Kuff (Rum Hall) was a modern-day speakeasy when it debuted in Dec. 2015. Now that Chef Christopher Faulkner is working his magic, the menu includes more than bar bites. Buttressed by his stints at Patroon, Melba's and Colors, Solomon & Kuff's lineup is peppered with West Indian influence featuring rustic dishes presented in a gastropub style. Even the name is spiked with history: named for the sons of a slave who secured his freedom and theirs. A dicey selection might include yucca fries complemented by a flavor-packed green chili aioli; Escovitch skewers paired with a decadent warm onion and pepper marmalade; and Jerked Japanese Eggplant drizzled with a rich red wine thyme vinaigrette.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Caribbean food is on trend, and Solomon & Kuff is one place that has sparked more interest in it.

Maria's expert tip: Don't miss the rum brulee, but do consider getting the larger size to share with someone you love – or at least like.

Read more about Solomon & Kuff →

Red Rooster Harlem celebrates the richness of Harlem's history, culture and ethnic influences, offering American cuisine that is inspired by chef/owner Marcus Samuelsson's culinary journey and influenced by the vibrant neighborhoods of Harlem – and New York City at large. Red Rooster's menu offers Samuelsson's take on American comfort food classics like Shrimp & Red Grits, Corn Bread with tomato jam and Helga's Meatballs from Samuelsson's Swedish heritage and his grandmother's recipe. Below the Red Rooster Harlem sits the lively music venue Ginny's. Some of the best jazz acts come through to perform at night and on Sunday they offer the popular gospel brunch. Enjoy a brunch menu on Sundays and a dinner menu every night of the week. The bar also offers specialty cocktails and a food menu.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Celebrity chef and activist, Ethiopian-born Samuelsson arrived in Harlem in 2005 to raves that continue.

Maria's expert tip: Sundays feature gospel brunches and jazz suppers at Ginny's Supper Club just below Red Rooster Harlem.

Read more about Red Rooster Harlem →

At this beloved, female owned-and-operated Harlem neighborhood restaurant, market-driven and vibrant – yet comforting – dishes celebrate the rich culinary traditions of Italy and Spain. Executive chef Carmen Gonzalez makes cult favorites for a loyal clientele of Harlem locals and visitors alike, from Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs with Creamy Manchego Polenta to Grilled Octopus with Crispy Potatoes al Pimenton. The acclaimed wine list is chosen from small producers, and is full of surprising yet accessible finds, while the artisan cocktail program uses house-made syrups, seasonal produce, and fresh-grown herbs from the restaurant's own windowsill garden. A large outdoor patio wraps around the restaurant (a corner building), and seats 40 – perfect for people watching, for weekend brunch, happy hour or dinner on this historic stretch in Harlem.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Happy new addition to the Harlem restaurant renaissance run by the ebullient Yvette Leeper and husband Adrian Bueno.

Maria's expert tip: Make sure to ask for the seasonal specials and trust the chef on this one.

Read more about Vinateria →

Afro-Asian-American fusion is what you'll find at The Cecil. In 2013, Chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson helped open The Cecil with Richard Parsons and Alexander Smalls. This Culinary Institute grad worked in New York's most esteemed kitchens including Centro Vinoteca, Jane, and Tribeca Grill and then took off for Ghana to explore the country's exotic markets. The Cecil is a chic brasserie with leather banquettes, but what is on the menu will turn your head. Chef Johnson recently revamped the menu leaving some diners perplexed when their favorites were replaced with braised goat dumplings – quite possibly the best way to start a meal at The Cecil – followed by glazed oxtails, and brown-rice grits. Nevertheless, African roots seep into every dish on the menu. Flavors from West Africa, the Americas, Caribbean and Asia, all merge at The Cecil.

Recommended for Harlem's Best Restaurants because: Chef Johnson has fused thousands of years' of foodways of the African diaspora into a single menu that, yes, keeps changing.

Maria's expert tip: Try the African cocktails like the Eye of Horus: scotch, Drambuie, ginger juice and cardamon.

Read more about The Cecil →


Meet Maria Lisella

No matter how many countries Maria Lisella has visited (62), this native New Yorker finds the world at her doorstep in amazing Queens where its residents speak 138 languages.

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