Harlem Cocktail Contest and Foodie Boom Mirrors Neighborhood Change

Solomon and Kuff, on 133rd Street in West Harlem, mixes pan-Caribbean tastes and European gastro pub style food.

A dash of green tea syrup, a splash of vermouth and a shot of Hendrick’s gin. Bartenders vied to create a host of new drinks in this month’s Uptown Battle of the Bars, highlighting the cultural cocktail of Harlem’s emerging restaurant scene.

As apartment rents soar in other parts of Manhattan, Harlem has seen an influx of bargain-seeking residents with disposable income — and a wave of entrepreneurs eager to feed them.

Countless food bistros and bars have opened across the neighborhood since 2012. In Central Harlem one can find Japanese food at Yuzu, Italian a few blocks away at Babalucci, and contemporary American a door down, at Corner Social. Just as gentrification is transforming real estate across Harlem, it is also changing the culinary culture that has long defined the historic area.

Black-owned soul food restaurants which originally dominated the Harlem food scene with items like creamy collard greens, smothered chicken leg, and buttery grits, have become increasingly hard to find due to higher rent and progressively diversified neighborhoods.

In the 1920s and 1930s Central Harlem had over 125 entertainment places including speakeasies, cafes, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints, bars and grills, said late jazz musician Murray L. Pfeffer. In the decades following the Harlem Renaissance the area became drug and crime-ridden. Many eateries were torn down, grazed, or left dilapidated.

In the 1990s, Harlem underwent a revival as retail stores like Starbucks began to creep uptown. Sidewalks, train tracks, sewers and other infrastructure were installed and a shopping center began to flourish in Central Harlem, bringing residents from other areas of Manhattan uptown. Harlem’s dining scene was ripe for change, too.

In the early 2000s, rent was still relatively cheap and there were many dilapidated and vacant buildings available — remnants of the drug-riddled past. Residents began to open businesses — including restaurants — inside them, ushering in what, Uptown Battle of the Bars co-founder, Karl Franz Williams called the “first wave” of entrepreneurship in 2008.

A restaurateur himself, Williams opened his first Harlem restaurant, 67 Orange Street, during this time. But when financial markets crashed and recession swept in, many were forced to close.

By 2013, a second business wave was gathering. As the economy rebounded and rents across town kept climbing, more New Yorkers moved uptown. The median income in Harlem leapt from $31,474 in 2009 to $36,112 between 2010–2012, according to NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Entrepreneurs jumped on the chance to cater to people who could afford to dine out.

Now, Lenox Avenue is dubbed “Restaurant Row,” and Central Harlem is the main artery for scores of new restaurants, home to the biggest increase in dining and nightlife, and the economic heart of Harlem.

Corner Social, an upscale restaurant/bar that opened at the corner of 125th street and Lenox in 2012, is now surrounded by three other new restaurants, including Cove Lounge, which serves Southern comfort food and specialty cocktails.

Manager Camille James said that she has seen at least five more restaurants open since 2013 on the surrounding blocks.

Other areas are ripe for expansion. Construction sites dot 130th street to 140th street, west of Broadway, and Columbia University is also expanding along this stretch. Williams believes that in a few years this area will be a huge nightlife and entertainment center.

The Harlem boom has come at a price. Many longstanding Black-owned restaurants have closed due to rent increases, competition, tougher leasing requirements that can now include a proven business record and costly deposits.

The first recorded sale of the building that houses Corner Social was in 2005, when it was sold for $4.6 million. One year later, it was resold for a whopping $9.1 million, almost doubling the price, according to Realtor.com. Rents for studios above the restaurant have jumped from $1,300 in 2009 to $1,895 this month and from March to April, Harlem had the third highest average rent increase of 5.5 percent, following SoHo and Tribeca, said the Manhattan Rental Market Report.

And while the new restaurants create jobs, they’re often started and staffed by newcomers, providing little relief to long-time Harlem residents, who are increasingly pushed out by luxury housing and a limited job market.

Across the street, sprawling chains Whole Foods and Bed Bath & Beyond are going up, tell-tale signs of gentrification.

“Business in Harlem is no longer a market for inexperienced first-timers. You must really have your ducks in order,” said Williams. “Longtime residents feel unwelcome in the new restaurants.”

Even so, Williams has played a key role in driving the fundamental transformation. In 2009, he and several Harlem business owners were looking to improve business. While wealthier people were moving uptown, they often weren’t eating there. So, he founded Harlem Park to Park, a network of about 150 local entrepreneurs, to host events like Harlem EatUp! and Harlem Restaurant and Retail Week.

Through that organization, he created the Battle of the Bars in 2010, with his partner Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, in a bid to boost exposure and camaraderie among Harlem restaurants. It worked.

Restaurateurs describe a supportive, collegial scene.

When Los Angeles native Matthew Trebek opened his Hamilton Heights Mexican restaurant Oso in May, neighboring restaurateurs told him if he ever needs anything they would be there to offer assistance.

“The Harlem food scene is soulful. Everyone knows each other,” Trebek said. “The Battle of the Bars brings all of the locations in Harlem together.”

In January, Williams opened his third restaurant, Solomon and Kuff, on 133rd Street in West Harlem. The rum hall has a rustic feel, amber bar stools, brown brick walls, wooden chairs, and a scratched burnt orange floor.

The menu mixes pan-Caribbean tastes and European gastro pub style food, with items like red curry stew and wild cod fish and chips — mirroring the cultural mix that’s, for now, still playing out across the Harlem food scene, and the neighborhood.

“We all have a common cause. We’re passionate about Harlem,” said Williams.