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A Family Affair: The Best Soul Food in Harlem

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Patrons sit outside at Sylvia's, a legendary soul food restaurant in Harlem. (Photograph by Richard Levine, Alamy)

Nearly a hundred years after the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, the storied neighborhood at its heart is enjoying another moment in the sun.

Perhaps no New York City neighborhood has honored and preserved its history as much as Harlem. Here, the past and the present visually coexist: Handsome row houses where Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Langston Hughes once lived commingle with thriving cultural institutions that celebrate and continue their larger-than-life legacies, such as the Studio Museum, the National Black Theatre, and the Schomburg Center

Amid recent revitalization efforts, there is a thread beyond history that holds the community together: food. Several long-standing neighborhood eateries continue to serve up some of the best soul food in Manhattan, along with a side of family and civic engagement—Harlem’s firmest foundations.

“I see food as major uniting and defining factor in Harlem’s dynamic culture,” says chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue. “The neighborhood is full of traditions, from families that have lived here their whole lives to people who have brought their traditions from other places,” he says. “Food is at the crux of tradition. It brings people together, allows us to celebrate and give thanks. I think the Harlem community really values that.”

Here are four neighborhood staples that feed Harlem’s soul—and keep the spirit of some of its most memorable culinary matriarchs alive:

Miss Maude’s has been a Harlem favorite for more than 15 years, but enjoys a much longer history thanks to its namesake, Maude Darden.

Darden and her husband John were well known in their hometown of Opelika, Alabama—she was a music and Sunday school teacher, he a country doctor—and eventually opened a drugstore that quickly became known for its desserts and ice cream.

Many of the Dardenses’ recipes—and, similarly, their entrepreneurial spirit—trickled down to their niece, Norma Jean, a former model and one of the founders of Miss Maude’s, which she named in honor of her aunt.

“People keep coming back to us because it’s good, down-home comfort food,” says David Seatts, one of the restaurant’s owners.Tip: Try the cornmeal-crusted Louisiana catfish, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and candied yams. Dessert is a no-brainer; the homemade peach cobbler has been voted one of New York City’s best. And don’t forget about Miss Maude’s sister restaurant two miles south, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, a paean to Norma Jean’s mother.

Family roots run deep at this establishment, too. Owner and chef Carl Redding named Amy Ruth’s after his grandmother, with whom he spent his childhood summers learning how to cook. A former Marine sergeant, Redding served as an aide to Al Sharpton for eight years before returning to his native Harlem to open Amy Ruth’s—fittingly on Mother’s Day—in 1999. 

At the time, the blocks around the West 116th Street property were run-down, but Amy Ruth’s injected new energy into the area. Though the institution has seen some financial difficulties, long queues—which include the odd celebrity—prove it’s here to stay.

Inside, orange-and-yellow walls are decorated with framed photos of Harlem luminaries such as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday—both performed regularly at Minton’s Playhouse three blocks away on 118th Street. Entrées are big on personality as well. Here, for example, the “Rev. Al Sharpton” means an order of chicken (fried or smothered) and waffles.

Tip: Skip the free cornbread and save room for sides of collard greens stewed with smoked turkey wing and mac and cheese with a crispy, buttery crust. Oh, and the fried chicken? Served blisteringly hot, it gives new meaning to the phrase “finger-lickin’ good.”

If you’re lucky enough to find it, Margie’s Red Rose Diner is a New York experience unlike any other. A testament to the treasures of culinary tradition, original owner Margie McCray opened the tiny restaurant in 1979, but closed for a brief time after her death three decades later.

Much to the delight of the neighborhood, it was soon reopened by McCray’s daughter, Akoya, and her police lieutenant husband Michael Bell, who have kept McCray’s spirit alive. Here, having a meal is more than just eating: it’s home-cooked made-to-order dining at its best.

Oftentimes, Akoya Bell will sit down and talk you through the menu before disappearing into the kitchen, only to float back through to see if you’re enjoying your selections—“How’s the chicken? Do you like how it’s prepared?” Don’t bother showing up on Mondays or Tuesdays; the restaurant’s closed. Walk-ins are welcome the rest of the work week, but come Saturday and Sunday, call ahead for reservations.

Time passes slowly at Margie’s, but once you visit, you’ll realize that this is a good thing. Whatever you do end up ordering, make sure to save room for some lemonade pie.

Having grown up under her grandmother’s care on a South Carolina farm, Sylvia Woods made her way to New York City and began waitressing—it was the first time she had ever set foot in a restaurant—at Johnson’s Luncheonette in the 1950s.

After waiting tables for several years, Woods eventually bought the luncheonette and opened her eponymous restaurant in the summer of 1962. Woods quickly became known as the “Queen of Soul Food” by friends and patrons, shoring up her status with a suite of self-branded products such as sauces, syrups, and cornbread mix, and expanding what was once a six-booth, 15-stool establishment into an eatery that occupied an entire block.

Sylvia passed away a half century after she opened the Harlem landmark, but her legacy remains. Today, the restaurant is run by her descendants. Grab a seat at the original counter, where you can watch cooks shuffle Sylvia staples (ribs, collard greens, and zesty fried chicken) out the door, and you will most certainly be tempted by the cakes displayed behind glass—the spongy coconut is a personal favorite.

Manager Zaqura Frierson, Woods’s granddaughter, has a theory on what sets the restaurant apart. “Sylvia prided herself on being lovely to everybody, so I think people come for that same feeling,” she says. “Anytime somebody comes in here, they get nothing but love. It’s like going to somebody’s house for Sunday dinner.”

Katherine LaGrave is a freelance travel writer and photographer who lives in Harlem. Follow her on Twitter @kjlagrave.

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