Last Updated on September 17, 2019 by Top Brunch Spots Staff
Harlem is well known for its soul food restaurants and West African eateries (shout out to Little Senegal), but there’s more to the neighborhood than just the best brunch in nyc and stellar chicken and waffles. You can get some of the best BBQ in NYC, exceptional chocolate chip cookies and old-world New York pizza at the best Harlem restaurants in NYC.
Best Harlem restaurants
Husband-wife team Kenichi and Keiko Tajima garnered critical kudos for their poultry-focused Harlem nook, until it closed abruptly in 2014 after its lease expired. Following the widespread success of their summer pop-up at a Tasting Social event space in East Harlem, the duo made the relocation permanent, serving their full all-fowl menu within the 31-seat, jazz-soundtracked dining room. As with the O.G. Mountain Bird, every manner of bird is broken down and judiciously used—ostrich tartare is paired with capers, cornichon and a foie gras terrine, and a head-to-toe chicken tasting plate incorporates heart bourguignonne, wing lollipop and liver mousse.
Everyone from neighborhood families to leather-clad bikers makes the pilgrimage to this perpetually packed Harlem smokehouse. Nestled under railway tracks, the bluesy, bare-brick hall slings jalapeño-crowned Texas brisket; fleshy, pull-off-the-bone pork ribs; and thick-battered fried green tomatoes drizzled with cayenne-buttermilk ranch dressing. The meats, nursed over hickory in four computerized smoking pits, are South-worthy on their own, but even more so when slicked in the smoky-sweet house BBQ sauce: The secret-recipe condiment magically transforms a notoriously tough Boston butt cut into one of the city’s most lusciously viscous pulled porks.
Red Rooster Harlem
Some of the city’s most popular restaurants serve food that satisfies on a visceral level—consistent, accessible, easy to like. Places where the music, crowd, drinks and space explain, as much as the menu, why it’s packed every night. It’s a scene that sums up the instant and overwhelming success of Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem bistro, Red Rooster. The restaurant’s global soul food, a “We Are the World” mix of Southern-fried, East African, Scandinavian and French, is a good honest value. But it’s outshone here by the venue itself, with its hobnobbing bar scrum, potent cocktails and lively jazz. Like an uptown Pastis, the sprawling space is inviting and buzzy—the place to be, north of 110th Street.
Owned by Sylvia Woods, known around these parts as the “Queen of Soul Food,” the Harlem restaurant has been a neighborhood staple since 1962, doling out down-South specialties including chicken-and-waffles, saucy barbecue ribs and cowpeas with rice.
If you thought getting a table at Per Se was tough, try getting into Rao’s. On second thought, don’t. Rao’s (pronounced “RAY-ohs”) is really a private club without the dues. To eat here, you’ll need a personal invite from one of the heavy hitters who “owns” a table. CEOs, actors, politicians, news personalities and neighborhood old-timers have a long-standing arrangement with legendary owner Frankie “No” Pellegrino, and that’s what ensures a seat at one of the ten tables. In fact, reading this review is probably the closest you’ll get to Rao’s.
The wildly popular Levain Bakery has been drawing the pastry-loving masses since 1995. Its 3,000-square-foot facility in Harlem does double duty as a retail shop and the center of its mail-order production. You’ll find their massive, chunky cookies in homespun flavors like chocolate chip walnut, oatmeal raisin and dark-chocolate peanut butter chip.
This noodle house keeps a huge swath of uptown—everyone between 107th and 145th Streets between Riverside Drive and Central Park West, to be exact—sated with its handmade Hakata-style ramen. You can opt for shio (veggie- and chicken-stock based), shoyu (chicken stock and soy sauce) or the silky warmth of tonkotsu pork-bone stock. The creamy pork-bone stock for the spicy tonkotsu ramen is simmered on high heat for six hours to release the flavor of the marrow and is seasoned with house-made spicy soybean, roasted garlic and spicy sesame oil.
The slices of Margherita at this 1933 East Harlem original are super thin and shorter than you’ll typically find, which means the average person—okay, fine, we—can easily wolf down five to six slices each, especially when they’re fresh from the oven with that bubbling, browned cap of creamy mozzarella beneath that zippy sauce.
Portraits of jazz giants hang on the walls of this perpetually packed two-story Harlem fave. A bottle of Frank’s RedHot dresses every table—a sign of the soul food goodness to come. Indeed, the richly battered catfish or the fried chicken and waffles platters (many named for famous African Americans, including Rev. Al Sharpton and Michelle Obama) go down peppery-sweet with a splash of the hot stuff. Long spears of delicately fried okra are delivered lightly crisped, and the baked mac ’n’ cheese is gooey on the inside and bubbly-brown on top.
Earl’s Beer and Cheese
Tucked into the no-man’s-land between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, this craft-beer cubbyhole has the sort of community-hub vibe that makes you want to settle in and become part of the furniture. The well-priced suds (including rotating craft brews and cheap cans) and slapdash setup appeal to a neighborhood crowd, but it’s the madcap bar food that makes it destination-worthy. Try the NY State Cheddar, a grilled cheese featuring an unstoppable combo of braised pork belly, fried egg and house-made kimchi.
Lolo’s Seafood Shack
An ode to Saint Martin beach shacks, this uptown seafood joint serves Belizean conch fritters with lime-zest rémoulade and baked shark with salsa verde on its Caribbean-teal backyard patio.
Elevated Ethiopian food matches the sleek environs at this uptown eatery, featuring a crisp white dining room, warmly lit by candles and an elegant chandelier. Sample lemony azifa, a lentil spread served in crunchy endive shells instead of traditional injera bread, and doro wett, a slow-cooked chicken stew, given a craveworthy kick from a blend of ginger and berbere spices. Considering all this decadence, settling your bill brings a welcome surprise: A meal at Zoma comes refreshingly cheap.
This East Harlem hole-in-the-wall may serve the city’s best al pastor tacos, sliced to order from a rotating spit crowned with a hunk of grilled pineapple. The tortilla-to-meat ratio is perfectly balanced.
Named after a fabled Venetian beach, Lido sailed into town in 2011, landing in a mainly West African neighborhood in Harlem. The restaurant falls into the modern-Italian camp, which means the menu incorporates influences ranging from North African to French. The best approach to Lido is to treat it like a tapas bar, snacking your way through dinner. The salt-cod fritters are particularly good, fluffy and furnished with a garlicky French aioli, while a pea-shoot salad is sent spinning in a Roman direction with mint leaves and burrata.
The 60-seat space, with its globe lights and powder-blue banquettes, evokes a classic bistro, while dishes range from the traditional (beef bourguignon) to the bold (Senegalese fish balls).
Cocktails aren’t the only focus at ROKC (“ramen, oysters, kitchen and cocktails,” FYI). The kitchen doles out three varieties of ramen: a soy-and-fish-based Tokyo, a chicken-and-fish-based Kyoto, and best, a bowl of creamy Sapporo ramen featuring broth imbued with house miso, bobbing with chicken chashu, fresh corn and bean sprouts. It’s an unexpected combination—whimsical cocktails and warming ramen all the way up in Harlem—but ROKC makes it work.
French partners Samuel Thiam and Romain Bonnans (A.O.C. Bistro) are behind this Harlem spot, highlighting Gallic classics—steak au poivre, niçoise salad and tarte tatin. Match your mains with a selection from the mostly French wine list or an aperitif off the cocktail menu. The rustic digs include a ceiling covered in vintage wallpaper and an arch over the bar, sourced from an old upstate church.
Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant
Daniel Reta and his wife, Frehiwot, cook the food of their native Ethiopia at this 18-seat eatery, decorated with green-washed walls and photos of the old country. Herbivores can opt for the veggie combo (an assortment of stewed lentils, string beans, collard greens and cabbage), while meat lovers can chow down on chicken doro wat (a red-pepper paste curry) or kitfo (beef tartare kicked up with hot peppers).