A Guide to Harlem, a Historic Neighbourhood in Uptown Manhattan

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Photography via istock

This buzzing New York destination is home to many a creative legend, quaint brownstone and iconic restaurant.

It’s early on a Thursday evening in Harlem and we’ve already dined on fried chicken and sweet potato creme brûlée, caught a live performance of ‘Just A Friend’ by rapper Biz Markie in a laundromat-turned-nightclub, and wandered through a graffiti-filled brownstone building. The night’s still young—we have several stops ahead of us.

The group of journalists assembled for this walking tour is visiting Harlem for what Renaissance Hotels has dubbed a Global Day of Discovery: a summer day when 160 of their hotels in over 35 countries host a day of jaunts through the secret gems and hidden spots of the vibrant neighbourhoods where their properties are located. Next year, Renaissance will open a hotel right next door to the iconic Apollo Theatre, which is why they’ve invited a group of journalists to get to know the thriving neighbourhood in uptown Manhattan. From the time of the artistic and intellectual movement dubbed the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s right through to present day, the multicultural district has been home to creative legends like Louis Armstrong, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Tupac Shakur, and is showing no signs of slowing down.

“Harlem is about family, it’s about feeling good. It’s a neighbourhood,” says Melba Wilson, the restaurateur behind Melba’s, an iconic soul food restaurant that’s been thriving on 114th Street for nearly 15 years. “I’m born, bred and buttered right here in the village of Harlem,” she quips, before celebrated Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson takes over to explain how Wilson’s friendly neighbourhood joint paved the way for other culinary destinations in the neighbourhood like his own famed Red Rooster. For this year’s Day of Discovery, the two teamed up to create a special menu for the journalists dining at Melba’s: black-eyed pea hummus, a Spanish watermelon salad, an Aguachile seafood bowl, oxtail fried rice and fried chicken with caviar.

“What does the word ‘restaurant’ mean?” asks Samuelsson before we dig in. “It means to restore your community.” The spirit of camaraderie and community is evident everywhere you go in Harlem. Read on for some of our favourite stops from the tour:

Melba’s
The restaurant, just a block away from Morningside Park, serves up Southern classics: fried chicken with eggnog waffles, mac and cheese, Charleston-style jumbo shrimp. It’s also open for brunch on weekends, offering up dishes like sweet potato pancakes, fried chicken and french toast, and cheesy omelettes with grits.

Harlem Shake
The retro diner serves up everything you want from a greasy spoon—milkshakes, burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs—as well as wine across three cheeky categories: cheap, good, bougie. The buzzy local hangout hosts weekly open mic nights, and has been paid a visit by everyone from Questlove to Janet Jackson to Jimmy Fallon. Bonus: it’s also female-owned.

Dapper Dan x Gucci atelier
This appointment-only atelier on Lenox Avenue is a collaboration between the legendary Harlem tailor Daniel Day and luxury house Gucci, offering made-to-measure garments and limited edition accessories. According to the New York Times, “the ground floor features the main showroom and fitting area; the second floor is reserved for “V.I.P.” customers like Jay-Z and Beyoncé; and the basement is for production.”

Harlem Haberdashery
This family-run boutique is the retail arm of 5001 Flavors, a custom-made clothing company that has dressed superstars like Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Beyonce over the course of its 25 years in business. Run by local couple Guy and Shay Wood, the store sells everything from t-shirts and sunglasses to sneakers and bespoke jackets.

Harlem Parish
Built in 1907, this Gothic-style church with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows was once a gathering ground for immigrant families and parishioners. It now functions as a community arts centre, hosting fundraisers, concerts and even SoulCycle events. All events at the venue are catered by local neighbourhood restaurants, with 10% of the proceeds going back to Harlem organizations. The night we stopped by, a trio of dancers showcased some “hip hop ballet” moves, which was followed by a private concert by Grammy Award-winning musician Judith Hill and an interpretive dance performance by Virgil Dey of The Ruggeds.

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