Updated: Feb 28
Harlem is known internationally as the Black Mecca of the world! Ever since the Harlem Renaissance—an early 20th-century boom in music, literature, dance and art—this neighborhood has been synonymous with black culture. That 1920s movement turned the neighborhood into a welcoming place for Black travelers, a center for Black culture and a symbol of socioeconomic status to those who planted roots here. It is no wonder Harlemites have so much pride!
Located in Manhattan, from 110th to 155th Streets, Harlem is often thought of as its own city or borough. At the heart is 125th Street. Strolling along 125th, you will notice many streets and avenues are co-named for its famous leaders and residents like Lenox Avenue co-named Malcolm X Blvd., 125th Street co-named Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., and Eighth Avenue co-named Frederick Douglass Blvd.
Between gentrification and the pandemic, Black-owned businesses in Harlem have been disproportionately impacted, like in the rest of New York City and the US. As a result, this blog post is a start to inspire you to support Black-Owned Harlem!
Tracing the history and statistics:
Harlem has been home to many races and ethnic groups including the Dutch, Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish.
Harlem was originally settled by the Dutch in 1658, but was largely farmland and undeveloped territory for approximately 200 years. The name comes from a city in the Netherlands, and was spelled “Haarlem.” When the British took over in 1664, they removed the extra “A.”
African American began moving to Harlem in 1904, when many of them living downtown were displaced due to the construction of Pennsylvania Station.
The Harlem Renaissance began in the 1920’s when more and more black writers, artists and other intellectuals began moving there, leading to a boom in artistic activity.
Since the late 1990s Harlem has become more upscale, with middle-class people attracted to the somewhat more affordable rents and convenient accessibility to other areas.
Today, Black people now make up 36.9 percent of Harlem, compared to 40.6 for Latinos. In 2020, Black residents held the plurality at 42.9, followed by Latinos at 40.6.
Meanwhile, the number of white residents increased by 18,754. Harlem's population grew significantly overall, from about 306,000 in 2010 to 326,500 in 2020 — an increase of 6.6 percent. As the Black population decreased by 18K, the white population increased by 10K.
Harlem was my home away from home when I attended Columbia University as an undergrad. Any free time I had, I would make my way to 125th Street to shop or eat at one of my favorite Black-owned restaurants. It was a neighborhood that felt most similar to home: Flatbush, Brooklyn. It also provided me exposure to a different population of the African Diaspora: African American. Every time, I go back to Harlem, I have a feeling of nostalgia.
In this post you will find:
How do you explore Harlem?
What are the best Black-owned restaurants in Harlem you must patronize?
Why Do I love Harlem?
Is Amy Ruth's Black-owned?
Who Owns Sylvia' restaurant in Harlem?
What is Harlem best known for?
This post is just a taste of black-owned harem restaurants. If you want a full scope, check out my Black NYC Travel Itinerary, where I featured how to spend a day in each of the 5 boroughs from a Black-Owned lens. There is even a bonus day excursion to Nassau County, Long Island. It contains a list of Black-owned spots to try for breakfast, brunch or lunch, dinner, desserts along with Black-owned businesses to patronize and things to do for day and night time activities.
Where is Harlem?
Harlem is located in Upper Manhattan, from 110th to 155th Streets. The 2, 3, A, B, C or D train to 125th Street will land you in the heart of it. It is bounded roughly by the Hudson River on the west; the Harlem River and 155th Street on the north; Fifth Avenue on the east; and Central Park North on the south. The greater Harlem area encompasses several other neighborhoods and extends west to the Hudson River, north to 155th Street, east to the East River, and south to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Central Park, and East 96th Street.
Below features in depth information on my 5 Favorite Black-Owned Food Spots to check out when exploring Harlem:
NOTE: Amy Ruth's is one of my favorite restaurants. While I was in college, it was Black-owned. However, as of 2016, it is now under white proprietorship.
Food Spot 1: Sylvia's
Address: 328 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10027
Order This: Fried Chicken & Waffles; Mac & cheese; collard greens; corn bread; lemonade
History of Restaurant: Sylvia Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food,” was the founder and owner of the world famous Sylvia’s Restaurant since 1962. Sylvia, born and raised on her mother’s South Carolina farm. Young and determined, Sylvia received her beautician’s license at night while attending Junior High School during the day and opened the first farmhouse salon in her hometown of Hemingway, South Carolina. Sylvia and her husband Herbert met when she was eleven and he was twelve while picking beans after school. In 1944, Sylvia married Herbert and started her journey towards a brighter future. They moved to Harlem, as she became a waitress at Johnson’s luncheonette. In 1962, after several years of dedicated service to her employer, Mr. Johnson recognized Sylvia’s entrepreneurial spirit and sold her the luncheonette. Julia Pressley, Sylvia’s mother, whom was a farmer and mid-wife, mortgaged her farm to loan her the money for the purchase. The then small luncheonette which consisted of 15 stools and six booths, has now flourished into a family-owned enterprise which consists of: Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, Sylvia’s Also, a full-service catering hall, Sylvia’s Catering and Special Events Division, a nationwide line of Sylvia’s Food Products, two deliciously amazing cookbooks, and ATOC, Inc., a real estate holding company.
Personal Experience: I have been frequenting here for years ever since college. Sylvia's is a go to place for soul food that tastes like from your grandmother's kitchen. Love to see so many Black people here! There is a reason why they are coined the Queen of Soul Food.
INSIDER TIP: They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. They have events such as Gospel Sundays and Live Music Wednesdays.
Food Spot 2: Melba's
Address: 300 W 114th St, New York, NY 10026
Order This: Fried Chicken Wings & Eggnog Waffles; Tres Mac and cheese; Melba's spring rolls; fried catfish
History of Restaurant: Melba’s Restaurant opened its doors in 2005 and has come to be regarded as the premier comfort food destination in New York City. Being 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. As a young adult working at Sylvia's, Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World restaurants, Melba saw firsthand what it took to own and operate a successful business. It was Melba who conceptualized and launched the popular Sunday Gospel Brunch, which generated a sixty-five percent increase in revenue within 6 months. This experience combined with her ability to organize, produce and execute promotional events led to partnerships with renowned restaurateurs. In 2004, Melba decided to strike out on her own. Today she is the proud sole owner of two Harlem based businesses, Melba’s Restaurant, and Melba’s Catering
Personal Experience: This spot is quite popular, which means there will be long lines! They have both indoor and outdoor seating.The vibes are right, and the food is delish.
INSIDER TIP: Make reservations! Otherwise you may be waiting up to a couple of hours to be seated.
Food Spot 3: Sugar Hill Creamery
184 Malcolm X Blvd (Lenox Avenue), New York, NY 10026
3629 Broadway, New York, NY 10031
55 Water Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 at Time Out Market
Order This: Andy Griffith: The vanilla for this classic comes from Réunion Island off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean and not the bottle stashed directly underneath the counter (kidding of course). The milk and cream from pastured cows in Kingston, New York
History of Restaurant: This is Harlem's Only Family-Owned & -Operated Ice Cream Shop. Dedicated to local collaborations and the best ingredients, they serve handmade, small batch ice cream and non-dairy frozen desserts, with both seasonal and classic flavors available year around. Many of the available flavors are inspired by their Caribbean and Midwestern cultures, as well as Harlem, their neighborhood of more than 15 years. As long time Harlem residents, the owners Nick Larsen and Petrushka Bazin Larsen dreamt of this ‘sweet life’ while living on St. Nicholas Ave and 148th Street. After years of growth in our respective industries, they opened the first Sugar Hill Creamery store in 2017 within the Mount Morris Park District of Harlem, their current neighborhood. On Halloween of 2020, they opened the second store in Hamilton Heights just blocks from Sugar Hill, their namesake and where everything began for them. They began shipping nationwide in 2020, and opened an outpost in Brooklyn’s Time Out Market at the start of summer 2021.
Personal Experience: While a little further out in Harlem, this is worth a trip. The ice cream is delish and the customer service is top notch.
Food Spot 4: LA Sweets NY
Address: 192 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10026
Order This: Red velvet cupcakes
History of Restaurant: L.A Sweets NY is a local bakery located in Harlem, NY. The L.A. in the moniker is actually the initials of the owner. They pride themselves on serving delicious sweet treats to their community. Offering fast service sweet treats such as cupcakes, cookies, sliced cakes, cinnamon rolls, cheesecakes & more! Additionally, they specialize in custom cakes and baked goods and the best part, they ARE VEGAN AND GLUTEN FREE FRIENDLY!
Food Spot 5: Chocolat Restaurant & Bar
Address: 2223 Frederick Douglas Blvd @, W 120th St, New York, NY 10026
Order This: Red velvet pancakes with sweet southern fried chicken; shrimp and grits
History of Restaurant: Mr. Leon Ellis is no stranger when it comes to food and hospitality in New York City. He pursued his education in food science and nutrition from Tuskegee University in Alabama. Not long after graduating, Leon decided that he wanted to open up his very first restaurant which he named after his mother. Emily’s Restaurant and Bar hit the scene in 1992 in East Harlem on 111th street and Fifth Avenue. For year’s, Emily’s was viewed as a highly respected establishment and that validated Harlem as viable business location. Always wanting to continue working on his craft and keep striving for more, Leon decided to open up his second location, this time named after his father. Oscar’s Famous BBQ bought authentic Texas style BBQ right to the heart of Harlem. In 2010, Leon decided open up Chocolat Restaurant and Bar located on Frederick Douglas and 120th street. Chocolat quickly became a popular establishment known for its beautiful design and incredible food.
Personal Experience: Looking for a great brunch vibe, this is the spot! Lots of beautiful Black people, good music, and tasty music makes it a great spot..