"Since I first moved here, a lot has changed in the restaurant scene. When I opened Red Rooster, comfort food was pretty much the only option. Now, you can find all kinds of food"
Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and with restaurants in New York, Bermuda, Gothenburg, and, soon, London, Marcus Samuelsson is the picture of the cosmopolitan chef. Where does he make his home? Harlem, one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan that could still be called a melting pot and the location of his flagship restaurant, Red Rooster. Samuelsson revealed his favorite local spots to Essentialist.
To me, Harlem is the coolest place in the city: it's where I've made my home and opened two restaurants, and I'm constantly inspired by the dynamic culture I find here. Harlem has everything you'd want in a community: a complex and vibrant history, diverse food, and trendsetting fashion, music, and art. There's really no other place like it.
For artistic inspiration
Harlem has always been a place for innovation and the arts. This couldn't be more apparent than at the Apollo Theater. Steeped in tradition, the Apollo opened in 1914 and has long been the place to find the best performing artists in Harlem. Although I've seen some great concerts there, my advice is to go to the weekly amateur night, which has been around since the 1930's. Get tickets ahead of time and prepare to be amazed at the talent that will come at you.
For local culture
Although a lot of visitors make their way uptown to experience the music of Harlem, I like to bring people to an area that is pretty much guaranteed to only have locals. That area is La Marqueta. East Harlem has hosted a variety of cultures. Today, Latin influence can be found everywhere—and this marketplace is the place to be on weekends. Some of the best Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican food in the city can be found in the vicinity, and the experience of eating there feels even more authentic thanks to the non-stop dancing and music. I like to go to two or three different restaurants and then sit on the street and watch the Puerto Rican dancers and listen to the Latin music all afternoon long.
The first place I recommend to someone who wants to see the “real” Harlem is Marjorie's, right on the tip of north Harlem. For years, Marjorie Eliot has been hosting parlor music in her home every Sunday at 4 p.m. This free jazz concert draws a great mix of neighbors, international travelers, and New Yorkers. You never know who you might find there—usually Marjorie plays for a bit and then lets her guests—who may include guitarists, trumpet players, and spoken-word performers—take over. Snacks are provided and the experience has a great homespun feel. Another long-standing music institution in Harlem is Paris Blues. Here, live music has been playing since the 1960s, there's no cover charge, and the comfort food doesn't get any better.
When I first came to Harlem, I fell in love with Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken, an institution that’s been around for over 20 years. Charles Gabriel has been pan-frying his chicken since he was a kid. It's comfort food, it's greasy, it's perfectly cooked, it's Harlem. You know that no matter what happens, Charles will be there to make some fried chicken. I love Melba's on 114th and Frederick Douglas. Melba Wilson was one of the first to welcome me to the neighborhood and her upscale take on comfort food has helped pave the way for new restaurants in Harlem. I also really love what they're doing over at Mountain Bird. The things chef Kenichi Tajima and his wife Keiko are doing with poultry are really inspirational, not just in Harlem but in all of New York. They've really brought innovation in Harlem dining to a new level.
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