My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during a 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'd 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.
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, the Japanese version is traditionally served in a cone — and 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.
Sojourner Coffee, located on W 116th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr and Frederick Douglass Boulevards in Harlem, is more than just a place to grab a fresh brew; it's a tale of a community coming together and a couple turning dreams into reality. When the previous coffee shop, Shuteye, closed its doors in September 2020, the neighborhood lost a cherished gathering spot. Locals Madison Ritter and James Miller live at 112th St and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and were regulars at Shuteye. Madison, a bartender, and James, a barista since 2008, felt the loss and saw an opportunity where others saw an end. The couple decided to use their savings — initially intended for an apartment — to invest in the community they loved and bring the coffee shop back to life. It wasn't just a business opportunity for them, but a way to fill a void that had been left by the pandemic. "It's been great. We love the neighborhood, we love our community. We have really wonderful regulars. One of 'em over there, Kendall's, one of our favorites, " Madison laughed with one of her mainstay customers. The team have got involved with local artists. When we were at the store, they were displaying the work of Emo Kiddo — and plan to continue with regular exhibitions. Barista Jacob Scherer said: "We've all got a bit of art in our background, so we feel it's important to use the space to contribute to that a little. "And what about the name? "A sojourner is a person who’s on a path, and they're taking a break on their journey, " said Madison.
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.
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.
It is always comforting to know that there is an excellent pizza place in the neighborhood, and Harlem Pizza Co. might be the perfect one. As owner, Alper Uyanik so aptly put it, "It is always worth one trip and then you can decide for yourself - take a chance, we think it's worth it. " The pizzas are made to order in their brick oven by Chef Jonathan Shepard with innovative names like Hot Bird (roasted chicken, fresh mozzarella, arugula and hot sauce) and The Hangover (sausage, broccoli rabe, tomato, taleggio and pecorino cheese, and basil). Alper opened a few small cafes and restaurants before transitioning to finance for some twenty years. But, in 2014, he decided to go back into hospitality and pursue his love and passion for "serving food with integrity. " Having lived on 118th Street since 2008, Alper felt that he knew the area well, and, at the time, felt that there was "literally nothing in food or other retail shops, besides the old-time favorites. " He could never find "other alternatives" for dining nearby. With the development and continued Renaissance of Harlem, restaurants began to arrive, but Alper did not believe that the quality was necessarily coming with it. When I asked, "why pizza? " Alper replied quickly telling me that the current location that he occupies was a pizza place, so why not pursue this concept. The difference, however, is that it was originally New York style pizza sold by the slice from a wood burning oven. "The model was wrong. We cook our pies in less than a minute, and this is how an oven like this should be used. " With high end ingredients including fresh mozzarella and burrata made by a fourth-generation family in Brooklyn, Alper and Chef Jonathan pride themselves in all that goes into their pies. The space is also filled with their personalities. A warm, friendly vibe, with outdoor seating in the warmer months, and the thought provoking pictures hanging on the walls by world renown photographer, Chuck Fishman. Watching the incarnations over the past several years while living in Harlem, Alper and Jonathan then made the decision to open Harlem Burger Company on the corner of 118th Street and Fredrick Douglass Blvd, where they have been serving quality burgers since mid 2016. Their hope is to create a brand out of these two restaurants with a view to open other locations in the future. "We are just taking what we know, adding our passion and hoping we can make it work. "
What do you do when an iconic New York food is nowhere to be found in Harlem? For Andrew Martinez, owner of Bo’s Bagels, the answer is to make them yourself. After being in the hospital for a few weeks with an intense bagel craving, he returned home and began experimenting. Before he knew it, he was popping out amazing bagels that his friends were devouring. He then began making them for parties and selling them at the farmer's markets. When there was a line down the block after only a few days, Andrew knew that it was time to open up his own brick and mortar shop. Having established a presence in the neighborhood by constantly selling out of bagels at the farm stands and catering breakfast for corporations, Andrew had a reputation for making incredible food. “It was always about the bagels, ” he said. “[It was] not how we necessarily planned to get started, but once it took off that became our thing. ”Andrew shares credit with his wife, Ashley Dikos, for their success. “I could not have done any of this without her. We are both equally responsible for where we are today. ” The pair met while working at a restaurant. Over the years, Andrew had managed many eateries. “She was not in the food business at all — I roped her into it. ” Ashley left her career behind and helped him start Bo’s. “Despite having never managed a restaurant, she is probably the best manager I’ve ever had. ”One of their most popular bagels is the za’tar. Andrew gets it straight from a farm in Lebanon, thanks to his sister-in-law. It is shipped a couple of times a year, and according to Andrew, no place makes za’tar better than Lebanon. "If you asked me five years ago if I wanted to be in the bagel business, I would have said 'nope. ' But wow, has it changed our lives! " he added. "The people in Harlem kept saying that they knew we needed this, but no one bothered to do it, so I did. "Andrew grew up in New York City and prides himself on the community environment in his bagel shop. The first thing to draw the Manhattan Sideways team's attention was a huge bagel hanging on two strings outside. The interior lighting is warm and inviting. The aisle leading from the door to the register is spacious, unlike other bagel chains, giving enough room for children to roam around and for a stroller to comfortably fit. The seating comprises metal tables with tall chairs, neatly tucked away on one side of the shop. On the walls hang artwork by local artists that are available for purchase. This inviting space has allowed Andrew to establish a relationship with the Harlem community. “We know everyone now — we are watching babies be born and turn into toddlers, so we decided to make mini bagels for them, ” he said. “We’re so busy on weekends sometimes we can’t handle the amount of people that come in. ” But they do, and they do it well. Though it took a few years, the shop has become a household name in the community. Andrew’s new focus is expanding the brand and hoping that other New Yorkers will learn about him and his scrumptious bagels.
Nature and urbanization have often not worked well together and yet, many profess otherwise, believing in the therapeutic, restorative effects that a bit of greenery can have. Situated underneath an elevated train track amidst the incessant whistling, rattling and shaking of whirring locomotives and the chatter and horns of the bustling streets, I discovered the Urban Garden Center. It is a whimsical, unassuming little contradiction, bringing the wild beauty of nature and an equally wild urban world to one place. Walking through the outdoor paths of the Urban Garden Center, I found a charming refuge from the city, filled with intertwined branches, trees, and string gardens (clumps of moss cradled in strings with plants growing from them). Farther through the aisles, was a semi-covered section that resembled a greenhouse, as well as cactus gardens, orchids, barrels of bulbs, and hanging plants. (The greenhouse is not truly indoors I realized – there is just a frame of a roof, but Dimitri Gatanas, one of the owners, suggested that "It makes it feel like people are walking indoors. " The Urban Garden Center is owned and operated by the Gatanas family. They have lived in the city since the 1940s. I have had the pleasure of meeting several members of the family when stopping by, learning pieces of their history from both mother Aspasia and her sons. Dimitri told me that the Urban Garden Center has been around almost as long as his family - since the 1960s - though it has gone through a few iterations. They originally opened on 89th Street, and then moved to 86th, and later to 102nd. In 2010, the sons discovered an empty lot underneath the train track, running from 116th to 117th Street, and converted it into its present day green oasis. Aspasia told me that when her boys came to her to say that they had found the perfect space to move their long-established family garden center, she thought they were insane. "It had no electricity, no running water, no bathroom and I was supposed to smile and say, 'great. '" She then went on to say, "When you're around this long people take notice, no matter where you go. " And, while sharing the family's collection of New York stories and photographs, Dimitri was quick to point out an old photo of his grandmother, Calliope Gravanis, standing on a rooftop in Harlem. He was proud to elaborate on his mom's comment, “Our family has gotten to know the neighborhood really well over all of these years. ”