My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during my walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events.
The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I had had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures - including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams - to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone.
The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother.
This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles - and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
I was intrigued from the moment I stepped inside the cafe and encountered the vast space surrounding me - even before I engaged in a conversation with the marketing director. Opened in 2012, the original concept behind Mist Harlem was to build something that would be a state-of-the-art event space - to have a place where people could spend a great deal of time. "People really do come for an entire day." They begin their day with a cup of coffee while working on laptops, move onto lunch, and then to have a drink at the bar. Towards the end of the day, patrons can dine in the restaurant before participating in the evening's poetry reading, dancing, or other activities. Mist hosts a variety of events, both corporate and artistic, for organizations throughout the city.
Crepe Master opened in November 2017. After a trip to Japan, owner Fumi wanted to bring the uniqueness of the country's crepes to Harlem. Unlike French crepes, Japanese crepes are traditionally served in a cone. They are a classic street food dish in populous cities throughout the country. Top recommendations include Chocobana, a sweet crepe comprised of banana, crushed chocolates, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, custard cream, and almonds, the Suzette, a simple butter, sugar, lemon crepe, or any savory crepe with tofu.
Bright colors abound inside the semi-covered market on West 116th Street - and it has been this way since 1994 when vendors gathered under one roof to sell their African wares. From traditional fabrics, and handmade clothing, to jewelry, accessories, and wood carvings, to native instruments, the collection at Malcolm Shabazz represents numerous countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Kenya. I found the experience to be exhilarating as I strolled through the stalls carrying on conversations with the vendors. There is a true camaraderie amongst them that is palpable.
Casa Latina is hailed as the heart of Spanish Harlem, also known to locals as “El Barrio” (meaning “the neighborhood”). Vicente Barreiro, a Spanish immigrant, founded the shop alongside his wife, Christina, in the 1960s, when the area was predominantly Puerto Rican. It specializes in records and musical instruments — particularly percussion instruments like congas, bongos, and cowbells. According to local lore, “If you don't find it in Casa Latina, you don't find it anywhere.” Vicente fondly recalls how the atmosphere was “electric” back in the day, rife with music and dancing. It was a hotspot for musical legends, from Tito Puente — “the king,” in Vicente’s eyes — to Celiz Cruz. “It’s hard to say a name that hasn’t been in this store.” Although other immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and China have now entered the neighborhood, Casa Latina remains a community staple and fuels the original Puerto Rican spirit.