Counter at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Photo by Laura James

The Uptown Restaurant Shuffle

by Laura James

Beginning in the Harlem Renaissance years, New Yorkers flocked uptown where nearly every eatery served traditional African-American dishes — fried chicken, collard greens, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese. But with waves of gentrification crashing into Harlem, a number of soul food restaurants have closed their doors. Wilson’s, 22 West (where Malcolm X used to do radio broadcasts), Copeland’s, and Wells Supper Club (birthplace of the chicken and waffle combo) along with many others have gone out of business in recent years. As rents have skyrocketed and Whole Foods has planted a flag on 125th Street, old-school restaurants have been replaced by upscale venues like Red Rooster (a favorite of the Obamas) and others.

What’s happening in Harlem is part of a growing debate in food circles about cultural appropriation. The central question of this often-contentious showdown: Is it okay to profit off of the adoption of a culture and cuisine that is not yours? In Oregon, a group of activists created a list of nearly 60 white-owned restaurants in the Portland-area that serve the cuisine of other cultures. One of the anonymous authors of the list (since deleted) noted: “These white-owned businesses hamper the ability for POC [people of color] to run successful businesses of their own (cooking their own cuisines) by either consuming market share with their attempt at authenticity or by modifying foods to market to white palates.”

In Harlem, it’s complicated; newcomers can be embraced if they make an effort to become part of the community — and work to improve it. So it’s not only, who owns the restaurant and what are these owners serving, but also: Do they live in the neighborhood? Have they gotten to know their neighbors? What do they give back to the community? Do they hire people from the neighborhood?

Oso, a Mexican street food restaurant in Hamilton Heights where the population and culture are predominantly Hispanic, is white-owned, a project of Matthew Trebek, the wealthy son of Alex Trebek, host of “Jeopardy!” However, the restaurant has not received backlash from the community. In fact, it has been welcomed in, possibly because the owners live and socialize among the long-time neighborhood residents.

Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster. Photo by Laura James

And though he also doesn’t have roots in the community’s history, Marcus Samuelsson, and his Harlem businesses Red Rooster and Streetbird Rotisserie, has become a part of it. Raised in Sweden, the African-descended Samuelsson founded Harlem EatUp, a four-day annual festival celebrating the diversity of the neighborhood’s cuisine. This boost to the uptown scene helped him avoid pushback.

Even in the midst of Harlem’s restaurant shuffle and the cultural appropriation debate, the iconic Sylvia’s has survived.

Sylvia’s Dining Room. Photo by Laura James

For over 50 years, the “The House of Soul Food” has continued to dish out the classic African-American cuisine –- despite the death of its “Queen,” Sylvia Woods, in 2012. The manager at Sylvia’s who goes only by his first name, Antoine, believes that an influx of tourists has helped the restaurant survive. “It’s always been like — come uptown to Harlem to check out Sylvia’s!” says Antoine. “This was a mecca for foreigners, not just local residential clientele. We had the rich who’s who coming from the Apollo and we had the neighbors.”

While other classic restaurants have closed, Antoine believes Sylvia’s will remain for the long haul. The way he sees it, more “gentrified” restaurants will not affect Sylvia’s, which represents the last bit of Harlem’s history. “There is this huge attraction to Black culture,” he says. “People seek what this culture brings.”

Dr. Cheryl Sterling, director of the Black Studies program at the City College of New York in Harlem, notes that there has always been a curiosity and a desire to participate in Black culture from afar. “Eating the cuisine is one way of safely sampling blackness without any real contact with black people.” says Dr. Sterling. “Sylvia’s restaurant, in particular, also stands as a beacon of self-progress, as it, at one time, was really one of the only viable black business in Harlem and was written about extensively as an example of agency in the community. People want to be a part of success. They want to come to Harlem and say they did something ‘authentically Black.’”

Antoine says that one of the most comforting things about Sylvia’s is walking in and seeing “the people I have seen my whole life.” It is a neighborhood establishment, through and through.