“People gravitate towards Harlem, ” said Leon Ellis, the accomplished entrepreneur behind Harlem Underground. Leon Ellis grew up on the island of Jamaica and went to college in Alabama. He would often stay in New York over the summers as he sold Black history books door to door to pay for his education. Upon graduating, he chose to remain in Harlem permanently and embark on a bevy of intriguing business ventures throughout the 1990s, including a gaming store, Emily’s — a restaurant named after his mother — and a barbecue joint named for his father. Today, his clothing shop is surrounded by two newer ventures: Chocolat, a full-service restaurant, and Ganache Cafe, a coffee shop. His projects as a restaurateur aside, Leon felt that he wanted to “spread the word about Harlem all over the world. ” With the neighborhood already a recognizable name, when Leon would travel outside the city dressed in Harlem gear, many people wanted to know where he purchased his clothing. Thus, Harlem Underground began with a mission: “We look to create an image or projection of what Harlem is — its music, its culture, its people. ”The shop hires local designers to create merchandise that revolves around the “raw theme of Harlem NYC. ” To Leon, this is the essence of his success. “Our resources are developed here, and we expend those resources here. We embrace the Harlem community, and we believe it embraces us. ”(Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after years of operating on 125th Street, Harlem Underground consolidated its locations and now remains open on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. )
We visited The East Harlem Bottling Company — owned by the husband-and-wife team, Darcie Siciliano and Leo Lauer — when they were celebrating their seven-year anniversary in August 2023. The neighborhood bar is on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 107th Street — and although the majority of customers are local, they are a popular drop-in for visitors to nearby attractions like the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, Museum of the City of New York and El Museo Del Barrio. We were attracted by the choice of outdoor dining, cozy tables and a sunny bar. We chose the bar! There’s a wide menu selection, with everything from fluffy Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes and Dos Waffles to the classic Bottling Co Burger and Buffalo-style Wings. They serve Schaller & Weber's pretzels and a selection of Mac & Cheese for those looking for comfort food. They’ve also found time to open a second venture, Perch — a cocktail and small bites bar, just a few doors down Lexington Avenue. The pandemic put the couple and their business to the test. In the midst of trying to open Perch in Spring of 2020, they were forced to adapt. "So everything got closed down, " Leo recalls. They innovatively sold growlers and worked tirelessly with organizations like Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, providing meals to those in need. "We spent a lot of time in the community, going to people that were having a tougher time than us, " Leo said. The Bottling Company is situated between major New York hospitals — Mount Sinai, Montefiore and Metropolitan. This connection with staff from those medical centers fostered a sense of camaraderie and support during the pandemic, as they provided meals and a place for healthcare workers to unwind. "It's been a roller coaster, but there was a lot of help from the community, " Leo said, expressing gratitude for the support from East Harlem. The couple not only adapted but thrived — from delivering meals to hospitals to turning their dishwashers into delivery guys and buying bikes for their staff, they navigated the storm. "We bought bikes for the dishwasher guys who had no work. We did family meals for all the staff. It was crazy, " Leo shared, reminiscing about the unexpected turns they faced. As Darcie Siciliano and Leo Lauer celebrate seven years in business, the East Harlem Bottling Co has become more than just a bar to the community… and their colorful draft beer chalkboard is cool too!
E 101st Street’s Lexington Pizza Parlour may sound like your typical New York slice shop, but all it takes is one meal at the family-run, intimate Italian bistro to see that the popular neighborhood eatery is anything but. Operated by local restaurateur Charles Devigne, the Lexington Pizza Parlour offers a wide variety of traditional Italian fare — from their signature Roman Artichokes to a six-layer Lasagna, Veal Saltimbocca to freshly made desserts from their in-house Harlem Baking Company — and of course, a comprehensive selection of hand-crafted, brick oven pizzas. “My wife can’t stand the name, ” Charles laughed, referencing the leftover moniker from its previous owners. While the “pizza parlour” denomination may belie the cafe’s full assortment of fine dining entrees, it’s a callback to 2015, when Charles first walked by the space on the way to drop his son off at school and noticed a previously undiscovered slice shop. “I came to this restaurant with my son for a slice of pizza, and I was really shocked to see the menu — the previous owners were Italian guys who had been in the restaurant business in Queens importing Italian products, ” he told us. “We started chatting and it was at that point that he told me he was looking to sell the place. We bought it from them, and I kept the name as it was. ” Building a restaurant from the ground up, Lexington Pizza Parlour quickly garnered attention — and some confusion — from New York diners, said Charles. “I really started to think about changing the name in 2019 — I was even sending out surveys for people to make a list of names, because it just was killing us, ” he added. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and overwhelmed the city’s hospitals, they shifted focus to support healthcare workers in need. Raising over $50, 000 for New York hospitals and delivering more than 18, 000 meals to field hospitals and overfull emergency wings alike, “we started getting a lot of press as Lexington Pizza Parlour, ” said Charles, who spent the early days of COVID-19 personally delivering pies citywide. “It was a really great thing to be a part of, and now it’s almost that we can’t change the name, ” he told Manhattan Sideways. “I’ve decided that we’re sort of a ‘culinary speakeasy’ — you have to come find us because somebody recommended it to you. ” Those who do find Lexington Pizza Parlour, however, keep coming back. “Our clientele is very loyal, ” said Charles. “Once they find us, get to know the space and my staff and enjoy the food, they become very special, loyal customers. One thing I know is that ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses are dying, unfortunately, and while we’re never going to get wealthy doing this, we have a great product and I’d rather make two slow nickels than a fast dime. ” He added, “It’s really become a family tree — there are different seeds of people, from the first customer base of a dozen people to everyone who they’ve brought since. I’ve come to make peace with the name Lexington Pizza Parlour! ”
Evan Blum, owner of Demolition Depot, has been in the business of salvaging and renovating architectural art for forty-two years. He grew up “entrenched in the arts, ” as he put it, since his father was an architect, his uncle was a well-known illustrator, and his grandfather was a craftsman, to name a few of the multiple examples he cited of artistic genes in the family. Evan had always had an interest in architectural artifacts, and upon seeing the beautiful and historic buildings around the city being torn down, he was motivated to save as much of them as he could by collecting worthwhile pieces, repairing them, and then selling them to new owners. “What we do is create art out of the construction waste stream, ” he explained. Sixty percent of what is in landfills comes from demolition, and by saving and re-selling the valuable parts of these buildings, he said he is able to minimize the amount that would otherwise be laid to waste, as well as keep the objects’ history alive. It is his attempt to “‘un-tragedy’ the tragedy of demolition, ” and to find interesting things buried within the mundane. Evan tries to repurpose as many things as he can, hence the eclectic and wide-ranging nature of his merchandise. While walking through the space on 125th Street, we were amazed by the sheer volume of fascinating and beautifully preserved items that we came across - and Evan pointed out that this is only one of his many facilities, so it is difficult to fathom the real scope of his collection. Each of the four floors of the shop housed a labyrinthine assortment of doors, stained glass windows, crucifixes, plumbing fixtures, mirrors, candlesticks, and more. When asked, Evan told us that there is not necessarily a single architectural style or period preferred by his clients. He shared the story of the rise in popularity of Gothic pieces after Cher started her Gothic furniture catalog in the 1990s. It used to be that no one wanted to buy anything salvaged from churches, he remarked, but after the catalog was released, the demand for the previously unpopular Gothic artifacts he had collected over the years surged. This is part of why he stores and saves everything he has found - as it is likely that at some point what was unwanted will become trendy and appealing again. When asked how he selects his pieces, Evan told us that his combined background in architecture, sculpting, manufacturing, and craftsmanship helps him envision which antiques would work well as focal pieces in modern spaces. In fact, a unique and integral aspect of his service is that he acts as “a designer’s designer and architect’s architect, ” giving clients his input on how to improve their projects and best utilize their spaces. While many of his clients are hotels and restaurants looking for distinctive additions to their décor, he also does work with set designers in search of elements for their latest film and TV projects, or celebrities who want to incorporate antiques into their homes. He has also outfitted some pieces in well-known museums, including the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While discussing his plans for the future, Evan mentioned that he will be starting an auction business, Harlem Country Auctions, behind the shop toward the end of the summer of 2017. Doing so will allow him to preserve even more artifacts, since he will be auctioning any art (e. g. paintings, sculptures, lamps, decorations) that are not "architectural, " and therefore do not fall under the purview of Demolition Depot. In the more distant future, he hopes to create his own museum where he will be able to display his salvaged art for the appreciation of the general public.
In the heart of Spanish Harlem, known to locals as El Barrio, is the Puerto Rican tapas bar, La Fonda. “We put Puerto Rican food on the map, ” said James Gonzalez, who became a partner in 2017 after having spent “forever” as a loyal customer. “With my background, I should have been anything except for an entrepreneur, but here I am. ”Puerto Rican immigrant Jorge Ayala had spent decades living next door to George & Gina’s, a small eatery named after the husband and wife team that owned it. When the couple decided to sell, Jorge worked out a deal to take over the lease and create a “restaurant of the people” that celebrated the Latinx heritage that was so meaningful to him and other transplants in the neighborhood. Fittingly, La Fonda’s dishes are “Nuyorican fusion, ” melding elements from the Boricua, Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno cultures. “Our food is all made the way a grandma would make it, but it’s not just the basic rice and beans that she would put on the table. ” Yes, La Fonda may make its sofrito fresh every day, and it is of course known for its chicharrón and slow-roasted pernil, but these hearty Latin staples take on an elegant new life under James and Jorge’s direction.
The Islamic Cultural Center of New York started in the 1960s with a vision of housing a mosque, school, library, lecture hall, and museum in one institution. Thanks to over ten million dollars donated by the Saudi, Libyan, and Malaysian governments as well as dedicated fundraising efforts by the Center’s board, the plans came to fruition in 1991. The completed Center, which spans a block on Third Avenue with an entrance on 96th Street, brought traditional Islamic architecture into New York’s modern landscape and created a safe space for the city’s Muslim population to worship.
UCG eats, originally named Urban Garden Cafe, has moved from 118th Street to 104th Street. 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.