Al fresco options worth the trip uptown
- Last Updated: 12:29 AM, June 22, 2012
- Posted: 10:28 PM, June 19, 2012
Central Harlem is the dining scene’s brave new world. The wind of change in the city’s historic African-American heart is less than a tornado but more than a breeze, especially on a warm summer night.
The real excitement is on Lenox Avenue between 125th and 127th streets. Four restaurants now sport big sidewalk cafes in the space of two blocks — a concentrated, cheerfully multiracial scene with food and ambience once unimaginable in Harlem.
The colorful umbrellas and laughter seem a world removed from where the NYPD, to widespread outrage, has set up nighttime street barricades two blocks north. Although the “new” Harlem remains racially and economically conflicted, Lenox Avenue’s outdoor-eating scene offers a glimpse of a more harmonious future.
Marcus Samuelsson’s delightful Red Rooster, launched in late 2010, wasn’t the first place to offer outdoor seating. Soul food standby Sylvia’s and younger French bistro Chez Lucienne had it first.
But Rooster has energized everything around it. The intersection of Lenox and 125th, served by the 2 and 3 trains and the M102 bus, suddenly feels like uptown’s capital corner, on the brink of a revolution that will bring new stores as well as places to eat.
The latest to join the party is Corner Social at Lenox and 126th. The sprawling, friendly restaurant looks like it could be in the West Village, with exposed brick, subway tile walls, punched tin ceilings, a 20-foot bar with 18 beers on tap and a long communal table.
Owner Anahi Angelone lived downtown and moved to Harlem three years ago. “I fell in love with Lenox Avenue and the architecture,” she says.
Angelone, previously a partner in several Irish bar-restaurants, wanted to take the plunge in her new neighborhood even before Samuelsson came along. “I had plans to find a location before then, but the opening of Red Rooster only made it more clear,” she says.
A big challenge to Harlem restaurateurs is the last thing you’d expect: churches. “It’s hard to get a liquor license because there are 400 churches, and you can’t be within 200 feet,” Angelone chuckles.
Corner Social’s location at 321 Lenox Ave. threaded the needle, and it’s been packed indoors and out since it opened as “Lenox Social” in March. (Angelone changed the name to avoid a dispute with Lenox Lounge, the atmospheric bar nearby that might be changing hands.)
Corner Social executive chef Jonathan Romans buys produce and bread from local purveyors, some in Harlem. Friday night I enjoyed heirloom tomato salad and softshell crabs that would be at home in any good modern-American bistro 100 blocks south.
But the best part was simply enjoying an al fresco meal and the polyglot passing parade on Lenox Avenue — a graciously proportioned boulevard that until recently was ridiculously underserved.
“Harlem’s avenues have such wide, generous sidewalks,” Samuelsson marvels. Rooster set up its outdoor seating last May.
The new restaurants are bringing the neighborhood urgently needed jobs. Samuelsson says 70 of his 100-strong staff are local residents, and Angelone says 90 percent of her team are.
Central Harlem lacked decent places for its residents to eat for generations, despite the fame of Sylvia’s and other touristy spots. Now, more cafes and bistros are in the works nearby — “We welcome them,” Samuelsson says.
Let the good times roll.