The space on the corner of Park Avenue and 118th Street was a big white empty box when the Gatanas family first looked inside. It was Dimitri, the eldest son, however, who immediately had a vision, and wow did he make it come to life, literally, towards the end of 2016. The place had been empty for two years, but Dimitri had never paid much attention to it. After a fire happened in their Garden Center, a block away, Dimitri felt that a "shining star appeared," and told him that he needed to take this, and make it his own by opening up a coffee shop - filled with plants.
In addition to the family's history with plants, Dimitri has his own personal passion for collecting. As far as I could tell, Urban Garden Cafe will always be a work in progress, as Dimitri and his wife, Sarah, continue to travel and bring items back to their coffee shop. With one wall painted by a local graffiti artist, and the garden theme carried throughout, every nook is filled with antique and bistro tables, church pews, a parking meter, a seat "taken" from a commercial airplane, miniature chairs from India for young ones to sit on, and an array of colorful items used as both decoration and for sale. Pointing down at the cement floor and then over to the grass mats, Dimitri described UGC as "Urban culture meet nature, and then laughing he added, "hoarder meets a picker."
Sarah then joined us and spoke humorously about their travels. I love how they are able to share their passion for traveling and discovering. One of their excursions took them to Kentucky because Dimitri had read that they have great flea markets there. Little did he know that he would have to send a truck out to pick up all that they had purchased, including the front of a bus, which is now in the cafe. Completely entertained, I could have sat for hours more listening to the couple reminisce about their adventures. "I have encountered many eccentric, neat guys who have accumulated things over the years," and apparently Dimitri is the perfect person to take them off their hands when they are ready to give them up.
The menu pairs well with the plant based theme and the relaxed environment that has been created. It has inspired the food that is served. Due to their love of nature, the family decided to offer meatless options, more like a Mediterranean diet, which makes perfect sense, as it reflects their Greek background. "I love that I can continue our family traditions in a modern way."
On my first visit I had a "Pan de mie con queso" - a mix of Greek gruyere and fontina - "We are giving the Italians a bit of love" - the sandwich was simply done in a panini made on a thick slice of fresh brioche with tomatoes and pepperoncinis. Gooey and maybe the best classic grilled cheese sandwich possible, and it was served on a perfectly dressed mix of lettuce leaves.
When I inquired about the coffee, Dimitri chuckled. We use beans roasted in New York, and the guys from the company were kind enough to teach us the business. He admitted, "we knew nothing about making a good cup of coffee and certainly had no idea how to make the leaves or hearts on top of a cup of cappuccino." I can attest, however, that they have now mastered both.
In addition to the sandwiches and salads that are served, the shop is like a mini gourmet market filled with interesting healthy snacks, oils, vinegars, wild flower honey, Greek cheeses and yogurt, oatmeal, hot sauce, dark chocolate toffees, Greek gum and Greek mountain tea.
It is not just about a cup of coffee at Urban Garden Cafe, however, there is so much to discover, one needs to spend days to absorb it all. More importantly, though is to be sure to strike up a conversation with Dimitri, his brother Alex, his mom, dad or his wife, Sarah to understand the commitment, the passion and the love that they each feel for their latest project - and each other. "Passion at its absolute finest," is how Dimitri phrased it. "We are having fun and that is the most important part. We are not pretentious, we are just providing for the community every way we can imagine... I trust this community and I am very proud of it...and I am only trying to transmit positive vibes."
Dimitri shared that he does not believe that the garden center, across the street, will last forever, so it is a good idea to extend the family business in a way that exudes the spirit of the neighborhood today. He prides himself in supporting some of the local artists, and he has even begun a community compost project. "I want to preserve the history by reclaiming items - serve good food to the world, and allow people to come and relax in a welcoming environment. Continuing, "I am not just saying it, we are really intertwined with the neighborhood." Dimitri then reminded me of the story he had told me when I visited the Garden Center a few weeks before. "It is ironic that my grandmother is standing on a rooftop garden in the first page of the book, "Images of America - East Harlem Revisited." She is on 117th Street. "We survived through some hard times but I always went back to my grandparent's roots and knew we could make it. He ended by saying, "I embrace all the things my grandma told me to do. I started walking and never knew what I was going to find....and here I am."
When I tried to describe the setting of UGC to my husband after I returned from my lengthy visit, I realized that I could never do it justice. Therefore, a few days later, I found myself back on 118th Street with my husband in tow. This time it was on a snowy Saturday afternoon. The vibe was slightly different in that there were more people coming and going, rather than those that were nestled in their corner space reading and working during the week. Although I did spy one gentleman with the New York Times spread out before him, sipping on coffee and looking like he was settled in for the remainder of the afternoon.
People commented to me that there just is not another place like this in the neighborhood. Everyone seems to have instantly gravitated towards UGC, and they are so appreciative of having a spot like this to purchase a good cup of coffee, something light to eat, and the pleasure of enjoying a conversation with others in their community.
A'dar Cafe and Lounge is now MO NA HOOKAH LOUNGEI was hungry and cold when I noticed A'dar, a brand new addition to the corner of 116th Street in early 2017. Standing behind the counter, Laila greeted me with her beautiful, sweet smile and invited us to sit down, as she immediately began making us a cup of tea. Laila then presented the Manhattan Sideways team with a few of her sweet and savory pastries - there were Pastilla filled with either chicken, beef or shrimp, mini quiches, sandwiches, croissants and scones. Everything made by Laila.I was totally taken by this woman and her story, not to mention her adorable little boy, who sat quietly playing in his stroller while his mom worked. Laila came to New York to study accounting in 2010. "This was my dream," but while here, she reconnected with Monir, whom she had known as a young girl in Morocco. A few years later, they were married and she joined the family business across the street.Monir came to the States in the 1990s, and had been running The Kiosk, a Moroccan restaurant, when he met Laila. According to Laila, her mom did not understand why her daughter needed to spend her money continuing to go to school. "You should cook and bake, because that is what you love," her mom protested. Laughing, Laila went on to say, "I love to do too many things." To me, it seems that she has found the best of both worlds. She is able to run the family business by doing the accounting, and to bake her wonderful treats and serve them to her eager customers.A'dar is the perfect coffee shop to either stop in and grab a quick bite, or settle down with a laptop or a good book. The Moroccan theme is carried throughout the space with tiles, fabrics and artwork hanging on the walls, as well as the coffee mugs, which are handmade in Morocco.It was not until I walked into the adjoining room that I discovered another large area that Laila told me is the lounge, which has been open for four years. She proudly pointed out that the artwork on the walls belongs to her brother-in-law, and that her husband made the couches and other seating. According to Laila, the word A'dar means "house," and with the brand new redesign of the space, she and Monir are hoping to make people feel like they are "coming home."
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.
A Harlem mainstay, this jazz supper club was founded by saxophonist Henry Minton in the 1930s. It quickly gained popularity among local jazz artists as a place where they could not only perform their music and experiment freely, but also indulge in a heaping plate of soul food — on the house.Minton’s house band was impressive enough on its own, led by the renowned Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. Yet its regular performers were just as acclaimed, including musical greats from Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker. The creative improvisations of the band and the star-studded string of visiting artists gave way to a new style known as bebop in the 1940s and helped develop the sounds and methods of modern jazz.
After I had been sitting for a while by the window in the front room drowned in red floral prints and warm smells, Amanda, the young lady serving customers behind the counter, led me through the red door into the kitchen. Lee, his son, and another employee stood together, working to finish another tray of Rugelach. There was an unglazed chocolate cake beckoning like a temptress from a table nearby, the scent of apricot and dough about to be baked filled the air, while the whirring of the freezers echoed in the background. "This is where the magic happens," Amanda declared. Well, after tasting several of Lee Lee's famous Rugelach – a Jewish flaky pastry dough rolled and filled with a variety of fillings including nuts, chocolate and jams - I can confidently state that there is magic involved. Alvin Lee Smalls came to New York from South Carolina when he was twenty years old in 1962 and found himself working in the kitchen, of New York Presbyterian Hospital, peeling onions. He remained there for many years, learning the ins and outs of the kitchen and cultivating a love for cooking that would carry him through much of his life. While speaking with Lee, I learned that it was on Christmas day in 1987 that he decided to bake Rugelach for the people at the hospital from a recipe he had found in the newspaper. Lee's take on Rugelach was met with wild approval from his co-workers, and his destiny has been tied to the pastry ever since. In 2016, Lee proudly told me that he makes about 700 Rugelach a day and even more for the Jewish holidays, when he works around the clock to supply his customers with his delicious desserts, all made by hand, all made with love. In addition to the Rugelach, the bakery offers incredible cakes, danish, and cookies.I sat with Lee for quite some time listening to his stories, while also observing the steady flow of customers that continued to march in and out of the screen door. Some were regulars who Lee greeted warmly, while another astounded me by saying that despite living in the neighborhood for years, she had never bothered to drop in. After sampling some of Lee's Rugelach, however, she announced, emphatically, that she would definitely be back. "People are just so surprised that this black man makes Jewish pastries!" Amanda told me. "I love sweet," Lee said and added a piece of advice to live by, "but if you're going to eat something sweet, eat the good stuff."