Harlem has long been one of Manhattan’s most independently-minded neighborhoods, and that spirit is strong near the main artery of 125th St., where the B line stops at St. Nicholas Ave. These three nearby restaurants are all run by smart entrepreneurs who have kept it local.
‘World-famous’ soul food
Sylvia’s Restaurant needs no introduction for most New Yorkers. The late Sylvia Woods’ 56-year-old spot is packed even on Mondays, filled with tourists, business folk in pinstripe suits and locals getting takeout from the original lunch counter the South Carolinian took over in 1962.
Woods passed in 2012, but her family keeps the recipes alive, including those for chicken livers, fried shrimp, turkey wings, and of course the fried chicken and barbecued ribs that are, as the menu says, “world-famous.” Served with two heaping sides, a platter of them together is $22.95.
Harlem’s Little Senegal boasts West African home cooking and more
Those sides may be the real stars. They include collard greens, mac and cheese, buttery little biscuits, green beans with peppers and the candied yams that are like “a sneaky dessert,” says server Da Shona Johnson, whose favorite combo is the $21.95 Atlantic salmon with real Southern style potato salad and a dish of those sticky-sweet yams.
Sylvia’s Restaurant: 328 Malcolm X Blvd., near W. 127th St., (212) 996-0660
Only in Harlem
All-day cafes are all the rage, but Lenox Saphire does it in a way that’s distinctly Harlem. Stop in at 7:30 a.m. for a cappuccino and a pain au chocolat, or catch live jazz over dinner at the bar in back on Thursday nights.
Surprisingly good, cheap meals line Upper West Side train stop
The menu is influenced by the French-African flavors of Senegal, where owner and executive chef Fara Fall grew up. Fall, who drove a taxi and made deliveries when he first moved to New York 17 years ago, also runs Chez Lucienne down the block and Harlem Dandy near 115th St.
For lunch, try the $14 “international maffe,” Fall’s riff on the Senegalese peanut stew, made with vegetables instead of meat. (It’s served with white rice and the house-made hot sauce, a thick mixture of softened tomatoes, onions, and Jamaican hot chilies pureed until soft and smooth). Another specialty is fish or chicken with yassa sauce ($16), made from a mountain of slow-cooked sweet onions.
Still more magic happens in the basement pastry kitchen, where chefs trained in the art of French patisserie back home (Senegal was once colonized by the French) make proper baguette, tarts, croissants and dozens of desserts.
Lenox Saphire: 341 Lenox Ave., at 127th St., (212) 866-9700
Quick food on the Upper West Side, from banh mi to Indian dishes
Dominican for days
The steam table at Tropical Grill & Restaurant seems to stretch for half a block long, filled with salmon and oxtails, pork chops and ribs, or the crackly skinned roast pork known as lechon. Pile up a plate of those with rice (yellow, white, or yellow with pigeon peas), stewed beans (black or red), sweet plantains, green bananas, vegetables or half a dozen other sides of your choosing. Or order a foot-long griddled sandwich like a $7 Cuban.
Tropical is the labor of love for Jose Monegro, who opened it in in 2003. He’s since added two more, one on W. 116th St. and another on E. 172nd St. Though the chef whose cooking built Tropical’s fan base retired in 2012, she passed on her tricks for things like the spice mix for the rotisserie chickens, which are skewered nose to tail and roasted for hours before being served by the quarter, half or whole. (At lunch, those are $2.50, $5, or $9).
There’s nearly always a line of regulars who all know how to order — take a number, then catch the eye of your favorite server — but Monegro keeps that moving dizzyingly fast.
Tropical Grill & Restaurant: 2145 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., near W. 127th St., (212) 531-0233
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