A Variety of Options to Entertain in Harlem

| By Derrel Jazz Johnson |

With the holiday season near, many people will be traveling across the world, and what better place is there to visit than the capital of the world, New York City?  Whether you are visiting or live in New York, here are some things to do in Harlem not only for visitors to Harlem, but for Harlemites themselves.

No trip to the most influential black metropolis in the world would be complete without a visit to the world famous Apollo Theater.  Opened in 1934, the Apollo recently underwent a spectacular renovation inside and out, and still hosts Amateur Night on Wednesday’s.  Entering the theater where legendary performers like Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Alicia Keys, along with thousands of others, have performed will give you chills.  Also, in this era of Instagram and Selfie pics, one must take a picture in front of the Apollo Theater.  It recently hosted the star-studded, New York Premiere of Black Nativity, and has numerous events lined up for the holiday season, including Ellington at Christmas: Nutcracker Suite, with two shows on Saturday, December 7, 2013.

Moca Lounge, which has been open for over a decade on the corner of 119th and Eighth Avenue, has been a staple in Harlem entertainment and nightlife.  With its Caribbean accent, Moca offers affordable appetizers, drinks, and entrees in a comfortable atmosphere.  I sampled five of the appetizers, and each one was mouthwatering.  The almond crusted chicken fingers were delightful, as were the jumbo fried shrimp and honey barbecue wings.  My two favorites were the Louisiana catfish strips that left me wanting more immediately after I finished them, and the wicked buffalo wings, a tasty spin to traditional wings.  The many signature drinks at Moca have colorful names like Booty Call, Nutcracker and Harlem Iced Tea, but at the suggestion of Matt McCoy, an entrepreneur and host of Erotic Poetry on Tuesday nights, I had The Force aka The Green Drink.  This cocktail packs a powerful punch, and the bartender Michelle served it with a glass of water, which is definitely recommended with all of the alcohol dancing around in it.

Moca features perhaps the best Happy Hour in Harlem, with $5 martinis, margaritas, wine and house liquor, and select beer for $3.50.  Even better, there are $5 martinis all night on Mondays and Tuesdays, and specials on appetizers as well.  There is usually a DJ spinning at Moca on Fridays and Saturdays, and often plenty of eye candy for both men and women, so if you are looking for a good place to meet singles or take a significant other, stop by for a signature cocktail like The Green Drink or a Booty Call to get your night started or ended on a high note.

National Black Theatre is a place to see world-class talents in the heart of Harlem for an affordable price.  The Last Saint On Sugar Hill and Casket Sharp are two productions being featured during the 2013-2014 season, and they also have a reading series on the last Monday of the month that features emerging playwrights.  For $99, you can purchase a season pass and catch all of the great works presented by the theatre founded in 1968.
A new staple in Harlem is Corner Social, a venue that has a food menu as diverse as the neighborhood it sits in.  Opened nearly two years ago by Anaha Angelone, Corner Social, located on the northeast corner of 126th and Lenox Avenue, features over a dozen appetizers.  The venue supports other businesses in Harlem, showcasing desserts from Make My Cake and Toni’s Mini’s, and they also have their bread supplied by Hotbread Kitchen.  The deep fried macaroni and cheese on the menu looked tempting and delicious, but I opted for the unique and very tasty scampi style shrimp, which has sofrito, fried plantanos and lime creama.  The entrees created by Chef Jonathan also are plentiful, with everything from lasagna, steak, crabcakes, and scallops, to sandwiches like jerk spiced chicken baguette and meatloaf sandwiches.  Like what you see on the menu?  Inquire about the catering service that Corner Social offers as well.
There are also traditional bar foods like burgers and buffalo wings. If you stop by, you have to have one of their 18 draft beers or over 40 in a bottle.  I sampled the Smuttynose Pumpkin seasonal ale and would suggest trying one.  With no entrée above $23, Corner Social is an ideal location for business meetings, a date, hanging out with friends, or grabbing an after work signature cocktail like the Uptown Mojito or Social Margarita.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is also a must-see when visiting Harlem.  Part of The New York Public Library system, the Schomburg, named after Arturo Schomburg, always has amazing exhibits.  One of recent memory included an exhibit of photographs from President Obama’s first year as POTUS and another celebrating the life of Malcolm X.  In one visit, you were able to see, through photographs, two of the most heralded men of color to ever walk the face of the earth.  One current exhibit of note is “Breaking the Barriers: The ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers” which runs until January 4, 2014.  The ATA is the oldest African-American sports association in the country, and was founded when the USTA was still segregated.  This untold story, and many others, can be experienced at The Schomberg.

For one of the most upscale dining experiences in Harlem, stop by Chez Lucienne at 308 Lenox Avenue near 125th.  Named in honor of the mother of its owner, Chez Lucienne is a French restaurant with a variety of appealing options.  The menu offers a lot of variety, and also has a late-night menu on weekends, prix-fixe lunch and dinner, and a Saturday brunch.  Some of the items on the menu include les burgers, either kobe beef, Atlantic salmon, vegetable or turkey, as well as foie gras, and many chicken and seafood entrees.  I had one of their signature dishes, coq au vin, which is chicken in red wine with pearl onions and mushrooms that left my belly both full and delighted.  I spoke with a frequent patron of the restaurant and she echoed some of the thoughts I had during my visit.  “I love the consistency of the food, the excellent service and the ambiance,” said Mavis Vann, a self-described foodie and fundraising executive who works and lives in Harlem.

If you are looking for entertainment with your dining experience, stop by on Friday or Saturday, where there are live bands performing.  Saturdays feature R&B and Funk and Sundays feature jazz for the many aficionados in Harlem.  Chez Lucienne will be the restaurant on my next date, and if you are searching for the same, or a place to meet with clients, coworkers or friends, you would be wise to make the same choice.

For a casual, yet unique dining experience, try Sarku Japan at 121 West 125th street.  This gem in Harlem features Japanese dishes prepared right in front of you, and features many low-calorie items for those watching what they eat.  If you live or are staying nearby, Sarku Japan, which recently celebrated their one-year anniversary, also offers delivery service.  I enjoyed the Deluxe Bento, a variety that includes salad, rice, a California roll, and tempura shrimp.  The informative staff is very friendly at the eatery, which hires primarily from the community.   With nothing on the menu above $10, Sarku Japan will make your stomach smile without leaving your wallet sobbing.

With not one, but two events attended by President Barack Obama, Harlem’s Red Rooster has become a hot destination.  It is also a place to see and be seen.  Celebrity Sightings often occur at Red Rooster, and they have a lot of social events happening as well in their performance space, Ginny’s Supper Club.  Though I have never eaten at the venue (and I’ve heard mixed opinions), I did have a wonderful time there on New Year’s Eve and also every time I’ve stopped by for a drink.  Have a meal there, or stop by for a cocktail.  I’m certain you will enjoy the experience.

Whether you are in Spanish Harlem, the heart of Harlem on 125th or northern Harlem, there are many wonderful things to experience, both old and new.  This list will get you started on the right track, and, hopefully, with a selection of late-night food and drink, it will help you end your night with delight as well.