To decide what might be hot in Harlem, one first needs to define what hot means to you. If that means clubbing in Chelsea with movie stars, models and the poseurs de jour, Harlem has never been that, nor is it likely to be anytime soon – but what Harlem is today is a cutting edge neighborhood that blends the best of the old with a clean, sharpened, but never pretentious new. Hot in Harlem is comfortable. Hot in Harlem is fun. But what’s really hot in Harlem is an international feel that maybe no other neighborhood in the boroughs can boast – because despite whatever you might think the mix in Harlem might be, today it’s French, African, Japanese, Chinese and a host of international players that are changing not only the landscape but the cultural feeling in the streets above Central Park.
The following are some of our favorite nightspots, and even day spots, but do consider this more of a first chapter in a continuing series and by no means comprehensive.
Going wrong at the Red Rooster on Lenox Av. would be difficult. Chef Marcus Samuelson brings an African/Swedish heritage to bear on a restaurant and dinner club that delights on any number of levels. Physically, two to be exact, with an open kitchen, casual upscale restaurant/patio at street level and a 50s retro supper club, called Ginny’s, complete with stage in the cellar – speakeasy style. In fact, the name Red Rooster, pays homage to a Harlem classic speakeasy of the same name. Fried Yard Bird, a dark meat chicken with white mace gravy and mashed potatoes brings a southern touch, whereas a Griddled Encrusted Salmon with Gazpacho could be Swedish for the fish, but lands on the palate more as a healthy American nouvelle treat that can be dirtied up with a cornbread, honey butter and tomato jam if needed. Drinks are as creative as a pickled vegetable Uptown Bloody Mary to spice things up and then there’s the music, which could be jazz on the fly during the week upstairs – or simply Alicia Keys doing a dinner show downstairs at Ginny’s.
$$$ – 310 Lenox Ave (between 126th St & 125th St) | (212) 792-9001 | http://redroosterharlem.com/
But should that be too difficult on the wallet or too oddly international, there’s always the American Legion – yes you heard that right, The American Legion Post # 398. And it’s like no Legion you’ve ever seen. Nestled in the basement of a brownstone on 132nd St. this Legion stands legion with some of the best jazz clubs in history – yet they still support an R&B DJ on Saturday night. Founded in the beginning of the last century it’s run by Legionnaires who pride themselves on their humanitarian and community programs ranging from educational to scholarship and veteran’s care, but there’s no denying that the entire downstairs operation is a throwback to neighborhood clubs like the Red Rooster of old – yet the vets keep this joint up to speed. A hand written sign on both of the entry doors defiantly proclaims, “Pull up your pants, or stay out!” – letting the new breed of belts-around-their-knees boys know that they can find somewhere else to hang lo – and let these real pioneers continue blazing American trails. Home cooked country meals during the day and bona fide jazz legends by night make this an absolute Harlem history gem. You must sign the guestbook upon entering, but after that, rules are few and fun is guaranteed.
$ – 248 W 132nd St. | (212) 283-9701 | http://colchasyoungharlempost398.com
Just a few blocks away lies the Shrine World Music Venue and if you’re in the mood for something different you might only wait an hour as acts change to fit maybe four or five a night. Run by West African, Abdel Kader Ouedraogo, Shrine sports an awning out front under a sign that used to read “Black United Fund Plaza” but now says “Fun” owing to one of the letters conveniently falling off. At Shrine, French is the language of choice, but that’s not to say you won’t hear Japanese, Korean or Italian, as the crowd here is decidedly international. Word of mouth across any great number of ponds brings films crews, budding artists and veterans to Shrine and there’s always a surprise in store. One night brought the Last Poets to play, showing the young hip-hoppers and rappers where the whole idea of putting rhymes to beats came from. See the full story on Shrine in this issue.
$$ – 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd | (212) 690-7807 | http://shrinenyc.com
Paris Blues Bar
Due south on what many still call 7th Av. (although none of the street signs say that) lies Paris Blues Bar and there’s a good chance that owner Sam Hargress will be there to meet you – that’s Samuel J. Hargress Jr. to you and he remains one of the true black entrepreneurs of Harlem. 52 years in business and 45 years with his own creation of Paris Blues, Sam passed on a partnership offer from his prior Jewish owners in 1969 and decided to hang out his own shingle, which still hangs today. Paris Blues now stands as the oldest same owner bar in Harlem and caters to a mixed crowd with jazz, blues and poetry slams. Jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon calls the place home and Bill Thompson, a mayoral candidate, is always welcome, as he has been for years, if things don’t work out with City Hall.
$ – 2021 Adam Clayton Powell Junior Blvd | (212) 864-9110
So let’s say you’ve partied a night away in Harlem but still aren’t ready to go home. A stop at LA SCAT on Lennox might be just the finishing touch you need. Owner Saundra (Sandy) Hamilton will be happy to welcome you to Patio Jazz on Sunday afternoons from 1-3:30 – but don’t call her place a jazz bar, as she prefers to explain that the acronym LA SCAT really means, Lennox Avenue Showcase for Artists. And what a showcase it is, even playing host to student field trips during the day. A clean local artist décor with paintings adorning nearly every inch of the walls and a small stage make LA SCAT a refreshing change from the dive bars one might have expected in an older Harlem. Be sure to call her number as the schedule changes often and her telephone info line keeps everyone up to speed.
$ – 449 Lenox Ave (between 132nd St & 133rd St) | (212) 234-3298
What’s hot in Harlem today? That depends on what kind of hot you’re in the mood for. Stay tuned for more.