Harlem has five zip codes, and it touches two rivers. That’s a lot of restaurants to narrow down into one list, so we divided the neighborhood into three different guides. This one focuses on central Harlem (from Fifth Avenue to the east to St. Nicholas Avenue to the west), where you can find excellent pizza, sushi, Senegalese food, and more.
For more great dining options in the area, check out our guides to The Best Restaurants In East Harlem and The Best Restaurants In West Harlem/Hamilton Heights.
Vegan Hood’s fried chicken has marvelous, expertly seasoned skin, but the pea protein faux chick’n underneath doesn’t taste like an afterthought either. It only gets better from there: The super cheesy mac and cheese is nice and gooey, and the greens are brimming with flavor. They’ve nailed these soul food classics, but we’re most impressed with the oxtail. The faux meat has a velvety and chewy texture in all the right places, and it comes covered in gravy that we’d happily eat alone with their rice and peas. Come by on the weekend to enjoy a lively brunch scene in a room covered in flowers.
Thanks to their tandoori platters that sizzle loud enough to hear through walls, Indian Summer has been Harlem’s go-to Indian spot for a while now. All of their tender tandoori options arrive with a perfect char, and you’ll find some seafood selections that aren’t always on standard Indian menus. But the dish you shouldn’t leave without trying is the battakh khumb wala, a duck breast with super crispy skin sitting in a spicy, creamy almond-saffron sauce. When the weather permits, you can sit at a cute cafe table in the enclave a couple steps below street level.
Mo’s Burgers started as a street cart selling burgers and hotdogs in front of the eponymous Mo’s barber shop in the ‘90s. Since then, Mo has upgraded to an orange food truck that serves everyone in the neighborhood looking for an affordable lunch. The burgers, which cost $2.50, are thin and otherwise unremarkable, but there’s a generous condiment bar—and everything tastes better when you’re getting this much of a deal anyway. These days, Mo might not always be open when you get there, but if he is at his usual spot at Lenox Avenue between 117th and 118th Streets, stop by for freshly grilled meat and fantastic lemonade.
We can’t help but go into Safari, one of Manhattan’s only Somali restaurants, with tunnel vision. To put it simply, their goat rocks. The tender, spice-soaked meat falls right off the bone, and it’s perfectly complemented by a side of fluffy yellow rice. Other menu items that make it hard to choose: beef suqaar, vegetable sabaayad, and classic crispy sambusas. Safari is worth all the visits it takes to try the whole menu, though keep in mind that it is a meat-heavy menu and not ideal for vegetarians. (All meals are halal.)
This Harlem Caribbean spot serves spicy jerk meats, oxtail, and sometimes seafood from hot dishes at the counter. Go for their jerk chicken or ribs covered in a great smoky jerk sauce that’s on the sweeter side. Almost all the meat plates are served with rice and peas and cabbage that’s cooked down until it’s tender, but make sure to order a side of very cheesy mac and cheese for the ultimate plate of comfort food. If you’re set on a specific menu item, get here earlier in the evening, because they do run out of things.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
If you’re looking for soul food, Harlem has plenty of options. But if you’re looking for a great neighborhood spot where it's easy to grab a table and make a few friends, go to Melba’s. The chicken and waffles are mandatory, the short ribs are also excellent, and the collard greens are some of the best in the city. If you're by yourself, grab a seat at the bar.
The Noodle is a more spacious version of The Handpulled Noodle, its sister restaurant in Hamilton Heights, and it's where you should go for perfectly chewy hand-pulled Chinese noodles and handmade dumplings in Central Harlem. You can get your noodles extra-thick, chopped, or made from rice in a cumin beef soup or in a stir fry. There are five levels to navigate, from no-spice to five-chili. Think hard before you choose. This place is serious about heat.
The next time you have a date or some relatives staying in a hotel in Midtown, bring them to this nice American restaurant for some meaty pork belly and confit duck that you’ll want to pick up like a turkey leg at Medieval Times. If you want something more intimate, make a reservation and sit in the dimly lit downstairs area. Clay is also great for a nice solo meal at the bar if you come during their daily Happy Hour.
If it’s one of those Sundays when you have no plans to leave your apartment but you feel like you should really be out in the world, head to Barawine. It’s the kind of place that’s suited for drinking a glass or three alone, especially on Sundays, when they also have live music. This place is split into two sections, with a long bar on one side and a small dining room serving a big menu of French-ish American food on the other.
When this soul food spot moved out of its original home in a Harlem brownstone two years ago, it lost some of its allure. But it gained a lot in return, including a prime location on 116th Street as well as an expanded cocktail menu with potent bourbon and moonshine concoctions. Of course, the food remains the main draw here, and it ranges from jumbo shrimp and grits sprinkled with bits of applewood-smoked bacon to pulled pork sandwiches served on shiny brioche rolls. And yes, the oversize portrait of James Baldwin’s smiling face, complete with a crown that’s been “bought and paid for,” made the move too.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
Sylvia’s is a Harlem institution. For soul food, this is the biggest name uptown—and for good reason. They’ve been open since 1962, and there happens to be a street named after Sylvia. So if you haven’t already eaten here, stop by. Get some catfish, ribs, or fried chicken with a side of mac and cheese. The space is huge (so feel free to bring a group), and there’s a gospel brunch with live music on Sundays.
Harlem is a mecca for fish fry lovers, and this spot right off 145th Street is arguably the best in the seafood category. Run by the same family for almost 50 years, it’s a takeout place where the whole process runs like a well-oiled machine. Try the whiting, served on its own in a small paper basket or in a sliced-bread sandwich. Get a side of fries if you want, but definitely say yes to the sauces, hot and tartar, that come on the side. Don’t wait for your neatly packaged feast to cool—carry it to Jackie Robinson Park, just across the way.
The Edge is the kind of place you wish you had below your apartment. This is a cozy all-day spot with low ceilings, red brick, and a handful of tables, and (maybe because it’s run by two sisters) it feels like eating in someone’s home. The menu is a mix of Jamaican stuff (jerk chicken, for example), British dishes like fish and chips, and American classics. This is an especially good place for brunch, which they serve daily.
There’s only one place on this guide whose owners were the subject of a portrait by artist Jordan Casteel, and it’s Benyam on Frederick Douglass Blvd. But aside from being a part of a major exhibit at the New Museum, Benyam also makes fantastic Ethiopian food. We recommend you try a bit of everything via the meat or veggie sampler. Round things out with a St. George or two, one of the three Ethiopian beers they carry.
This terrific, slice spot specializes in crunchy-edged square pies. There isn't much room inside, but their sister spot Lucille’s, a plant-filled coffee and cocktail bar, is located just two doors down, and they really don’t mind if you bring your pizza over. Order the broccoli rabe and sweet sausage or the pepperoni cup-packed grandma square pie to-go, then head down the block for martinis, rum punch, and beers.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
Do you have your heart set on eating exactly one big spoonful of mac and cheese along with a single rib, a piece of fried chicken, some candied yams, and either four or five green beans? If so, go to Jacob’s. At this Harlem buffet, you scoop your own food and pay by the pound, and you can get everything from okra and oxtails to spaghetti and fried chicken.
Abyssnia is an ideal neighborhood spot to bring a friend or a date if you don’t mind sharing some excellent spicy beef stew off of the same plate. The food here is Ethiopian, extremely good, and all of the vegetable dishes are vegan. Get the meat or vegetable combo, and between the different stews, injera bread and vegetable sides, you’ll have a ton of food for around $20 per person.
Vinateria is a Spanish/Italian restaurant in Harlem with a minimalist dining room that's perfect for date night. There are a lot of small plates to share, they have some great wine and cocktails, and they do a really good brunch. Plus, there are plenty of seats outside in the summer.
LoLo's Seafood Shack
Up front, this place doesn’t look very big, but if you head past the counter, you’ll find a little dining room and a decent-sized backyard with some picnic tables. It’s sort of like being at the beach, minus the ocean. The food is a mix of Caribbean and New England-type stuff, and they also do things like jerk chicken and bunch of sandwiches on johnny cake. If you're feeling festive, supplement your meal with a carafe of rum punch.
If you live in the area, come to Kingston once a week for jerk chicken. This is a casual Jamaican spot with colorful portraits of Bob Marley on the walls and lots of rum cocktails. The food, like curry goat and braised oxtail, is all really good—but the jerk chicken is the best thing on the menu. Instead of a dry rub, it’s covered in a vinegar-y sauce and stays nice and juicy.
Harlem Shake opened in 2013, but it was designed to look like a diner from the 1950s. That might sound cheesy, but it really isn’t. Or maybe it is, and we just don’t care. The burgers are good (kind of like a fancier Wendy’s), they do a Snoop chili dog, and we’re particular fans of their red velvet shake.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
There are two things you need to know about this French-American restaurant right off of 135th Street. The first is that there’s a daily Happy Hour that runs from 4-8pm and involves $6 frozen margaritas and pina coladas. The second is that they have picnic tables on the sidewalk. During the day, this is a great place to bring your laptop and get some work done. At night, bring some friends and eat some mac and cheese.
Everyone should be aware of their best neighborhood sushi spot. For anyone who lives near 125th Street in Central Harlem, that sushi spot is Yuzu. The rolls and pieces here are all moderately priced (most are under $10), and there are a few different sake options that you can make a flight out of. Yuzu is casual and relaxed, and the bar works well if you want to just stop by for a solo meal.
The area near the 116th Street Subway Station has a bunch of Senegalese and West African food, and Pikine makes some of the best. The space is just a single room with some booths and TVs mounted to the walls, and it’s exactly the sort of place where you could bring a group and hang out for a few hours. We especially like the whole fried red snapper and the dibi lamb, both of which come with your choice of side. Choose the couscous as your side, then mix everything together.
Eating at Cantina Taqueria on 111th Street is like attending a town hall with nicely fried fish tacos, unlimited chips and salsa, and a sign on the wall that says “Tequila Street.” There are two locations of this Mexican restaurant (one right above Central Park and one on the corner of Malcom X and 126th Street). Both are suitable for big groups of people who want to drink a few margaritas each, and both have Happy Hours that run until 7pm during the week.
The Cecil Steakhouse
The Cecil is an upscale American restaurant that shares a kitchen with the famous Jazz bar Minton’s Playhouse. Even though the menu reads old-school (steaks, some good clams casino, caesar salad), the restaurant is sleek, with low turquoise velvet booths and colorful paintings on the walls. If you just want to meet someone for a martini, there’s a pretty big bar area that feels distinct from the dining room space and often has live piano music.
The Southern food at Red Rooster is good. But that’s not why you come here. You come to Red Rooster because few other NYC restaurants feel as alive this one. The bar area is always mobbed, the DJ spins funk and soul tunes, and people generally appear to be having a blast here. Whether you come for brunch or a late-night dinner, it’s going to feel like the kind of party where you actually know people.
At Babbalucci, you’ll notice a wood-burning oven in the back of the dining room. That’s what makes this place an above-average neighborhood Italian restaurant. They do about twenty different pizzas in two different sizes (with toppings like prosciutto and gorgonzola) in addition to a full menu of pastas, small plates, and proteins. This place isn’t huge, but it’s cozy and family-friendly, and the little front patio is a great place to drink wine when it’s nice out.
Ponty Bistro is a mix of several things. It’s part Mediterranean, part African, and—with stuff like a lobster BLT and truffle mac and cheese—part Midtown-at-lunchtime American. It’s an interesting blend, and you probably won’t find escargot, kale salad, and Senegalese steak together at any other restaurant. There’s a lot of outdoor seating here, and the indoor dining room is great for a slightly upscale date night. Swing by and eat steak tartare at a candlelit table with someone you like.