NYCGuide

The Best Restaurants In Harlem

A few soul food institutions, a Middle Eastern spot with Wednesday night karaoke, and the rest of our favorite places to eat in Harlem.
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photo credit: Emily Schindler

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 (between Fifth Ave. to the east, and Morningside Park/St. Nicholas Terrace to the west), where you can find excellent burgers, sushi, Senegalese food, and of course, soul food. For more great dining options in the area, check out our guides to East Harlem and West Harlem & Hamilton Heights.

THE SPOTS

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Southern

Harlem

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If you’re looking for soul food, Harlem has plenty of options. But if you’re looking for a neighborhood spot where it's relatively easy to grab a table, make a few friends, and have some great soul food, 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—and join in whenever a table starts singing Happy Birthday.

Sylvia’s is a Harlem institution. For soul food, this is the biggest name in town, 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 on Sundays and live music on Wednesdays. Make a reservation to avoid a wait on weekends.

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 smashburgers are among the city’s best, they do a Snoop chili dog, and we’re particular fans of their red velvet shake. They also have another location in Park Slope.

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 since 1974, 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.

You go to Amy Ruth’s for one main reason: the fried chicken. Sure, the cornbread is free and sides are always a good idea, but the chicken steals the show. We like to order The Rev. Al Sharpton (chicken and waffles), or The President Barack Obama, with fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes. It’s a casual spot, with paintings of Black leaders on the walls, and it’s larger than some of the other soul food standards in the area, so come here with a big group for brunch or dinner.

As long as you like pizza, Sottocasa is the kind of neighborhood spot that works well for any kind of night in Harlem—a date with someone you met at the grocery store, dinner with visiting family, or just one of those Thursdays that calls for a $38 bottle of wine within walking distance of your bed. The menu mainly consists of Neapolitan pies with charred crusts, wet centers and topping variations like brussels sprouts and speck. They also do gluten-free pies, salads, and calzones, and make a great negroni sbagliato here—as well as at Pastitalia, their pasta restaurant across the street.

NYC’s only dedicated Somali restaurant, Safari moved from its original location in the heart of Little Senegal to a corner on St. Nicholas Ave., after a fire. We’re just glad this casual, canteen-like spot reopened, so we can once again get our hands on their excellent plates of hilib ari with yellow rice. The roast goat is supremely well-spiced, and so are other dishes, like their chicken or beef suqaar, and the mango chicken. Everything on the menu is worth trying, and Safari also serves breakfast. Have yours with some cardamom-scented milky chai, or a lush mango lassi.

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. 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.

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 food (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.

The next time you have a date or some relatives staying in a hotel in Midtown, bring them to this New 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.

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.

Abyssinia is an ideal neighborhood spot to bring a friend or a date if you’d like to share 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.

Silvana has a lot going for it—it’s essentially a cafe, a Middle Eastern restaurant, and gift shop all rolled into one. In the morning, people sit at communal tables with their laptops and lattes for hours, taking frequent breaks to buy a new tote, or a candle they definitely needed. At night, people eat falafel plates, sabich and creamy hummus. Below the restaurant, there’s a grungy basement that hosts all kinds of artists, and never has a cover (except for Blues night on Mondays). They also have karaoke every Wednesday from 10pm-12am.

With some of the best sidewalk real estate in Harlem—possibly in Manhattan—this restaurant is the obvious choice for a sunny brunch on Lenox Ave. It also has a little backyard, plus some tables and a compact bar inside the long, narrow room. Instead of avocado toast, you’ll find a mix of interesting dishes—like breakfast arepas with steak, or shrimp curry with turmeric rice,  which reflect the owners’ Ecuadorian and Bangladeshi roots. There’s a bottomless mimosa deal at brunch, and an absolutely unmissable french toast with seasonal fruit.

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.

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 piña 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. In the evening, bring some friends and eat some mac and cheese. It's right next to the affiliated live music venue, Shrine, so you can plan to make a night of it.

With escargots and quiche Lorraine on the menu, Maison Harlem on 127th and St. Nicholas is the closest thing in the area to a classic French bistro. The vibe is more French hipster though, with worn tables, fairy lights and the Tricolore fluttering around the room. Old record covers enclose an extensive menu, which includes things like kale salad to balance out all the duck leg confit and boeuf bourguignon. There’s a narrow bar filled with regulars who’ll wish you good night when you leave, and though the prices are a tad bit high for a casual dinner, it’s a charming place for a neighborhood date, or brunch with friends.

Harlem has only one fresh bagel shop, but you’ll always leave it with more bagels than you planned to buy. Behind the giant bagel in the window is a full-fledged baking operation where the chewy-on-the-inside, and subtly crispy-on-the-outside bagels are made from scratch. They’ve got traditional varieties as well as some more adventurous ones, like za’atar, as well as a range of spreads. They also have well-stuffed specialty sandwiches, like the Nacho Camacho with chili, jalapeño cream cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a three-cheese bagel. Morningside Park is a conveniently short walk away.

The area near the 116th Street 2/3 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 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.

Vinatería is a Spanish/Italian restaurant in Harlem with a minimalist dining room and outdoor seating in warm weather. It's perfect for a date, particularly during happy hour. 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.

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.

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.

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