Expert Picks

The Expert’s Guide to Harlem

Music expert Meera Dugal’s Harlem meshes vibrant jazz history with West African dance parties and some of the best Senegalese food in the boroughs.

Photo courtesy Harlem Stage

I’ve lived in five neighborhoods and three boroughs in my nine years in NYC, and Harlem is hands down my favorite spot. I was living a jazzhead’s dream during my first stint there—I had three musician roomies who would occasionally wake me up with their big band rehearsals in the living room (which is actually my preferred way to be woken up), and I was working at the National Jazz Museum. This past summer, I moved back to my favorite neighborhood for round two, and I hope not to leave anytime soon. There’s just nowhere else in the city I’d rather live—the music, food, and history are absolutely magnetic. I dare you to check out the following spots below and not fall in love.

Silvana

First, coffee! I loved Silvana before I even moved to Harlem for its yummy Mediterranean food and the amazing downstairs music venue (where I first saw the band I manage, Innov Gnawa). But the adorable upstairs café has become my favorite coffee spot, too. Harlem-based musician Imani Uzuri first introduced me to its Turkish-style cardamom coffee, a heavenly brew that’s not listed on the menu and is best had with a big dollop of honey. Silvana is decorated with African-inspired handicrafts and locally made housewares; you just might pick up a candle or funky piece of jewelry while you’re there. 300 West 116th Street (between Manhattan Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard)

Photo courtesy Silvana

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Sufficiently caffeinated, your next move should be to learn about the fascinating history of the neighborhood at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Home to historic works from the likes of Maya Angelou and Marcus Garvey, the library was founded in 1905 and moved to its current spot in 1980. Dedicated to the dialogue on race and the history of black people around the world, the center hosts important exhibitions and lectures on topics like Jim Crow laws in New York and Afro masculinity. As an additional perk, fabulous dance parties are held there the first Friday of every month. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard (between West 135th and 136th Streets)

Studio Museum in Harlem

The Studio Museum is the premier hub for visual artists of African descent, from Harlem to across the globe. Exhibitions and programs are extremely dynamic and represent a wide spectrum of work that is rocking the art world. Right now, it’s featuring my favorite artist, Julie Mehretu, in “Their Own Harlems,” an exhibition that draws on Jacob Lawrence’s use of urban life as a source of inspiration. But better head there quick—the museum will close in mid-January for a big renovation that will increase the space by 115 percent. Its presence will still be felt during the few years it is closed as it continues inHarlem, the museum’s curatorial branch that stages shows in other Harlem spaces and across the city. 144 West 125th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue)

National Jazz Museum

The National Jazz Museum is a must to learn about the vibrant jazz history that Harlem is so well-known for. The warm and intimate space houses cool artifacts from jazz legends, the famous Savory collection of rare radio recordings from the 1930s, and an extensive array of public programs that include yoga classes set to jazz music and conversations on jazz and social justice. 58 West 129th Street (between Malcolm X Boulevard and Fifth Avenue)

Chaiwali

A few blocks south of 125th Street is an eclectic spot offering a hipster take on Indian cuisine. The restaurant’s name means “chai seller”; not only does it have a stellar version of the milky tea, but it excels at all beverages, including cocktails with saffron, rose, and cardamom (you must order the mango-saffron Bellini). It also serves some of my favorite Indian street food, served with an elegant twist—I highly recommend the pomegranate bhel puri. If you pop in on the weekend, you can get a chai-spice French toast or opt for one of the eatery’s bestsellers (and hands down my favorite veggie burger in all the land), the kale burger. 274 Lenox Avenue (between West 123rd and 124th Streets)

Photo courtesy Chaiwali

Sugar Hill Creamery

This artisanal ice cream shop opened up this summer much to the delight of Harlemites. The store is cozy, with a warm and friendly staff serving up unbelievably fresh-tasting treats; its mint chocolate chip tastes like a whole bushel of fresh mint was ground into it. The flavors rotate constantly, and Sugar Hill has a bunch of seasonal options like peppermint bark; gingersnap cookie dough; and the hazelnut, cardamom, and coconut delight it calls Nutcracker184 Lenox Avenue (between West 119th and 120th Streets)

 

Harlem Stage

Harlem Stage is still somewhat under the radar, which is surprising, as it commissions and presents some of the most exciting work of contemporary artists across many disciplines. From poetry slams to a Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah residency, the work spans film, dance, music, performance art, and lectures. Plus it is located in a gorgeous brownstone-lined part of the neighborhood. 150 Convent Avenue (between West 133rd and 135th Streets)

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Photo courtesy Harlem Stage

Ginny’s Supper Club

I rarely like my concerts mixed with dinner service, but Ginny’s Supper Club strikes the perfect balance. Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s killer soul food just makes the music sound better, while curator Jono Gasparro does an amazing job luring the best of the cool kids in jazz and global music into the space, with hotshots including Brianna Thomas, Solomon Hicks, and Charenee Wade bringing their star power in what feels like your very own living room. 310 Lenox Avenue (between West 125th and 126th Streets)

Photo courtesy Rob Zucker

Bill’s Place

The speakeasy scene of Harlem is still kicking thanks to Bill Saxton, sax player and owner of Bill’s Place, a brownstone on 133rd Street (or what used to be known as Swing Street). The likes of Billie Holiday and Langston Hughes once haunted this joint, and the sounds of bebop still waft through the block when Bill and his wife, Theda, open up their place to a few dozen folks for two sets of music every Friday and Saturday night. The spot is BYOB, so bring something to share with all the people you’ll be squished up against. 148 West 133rd Street (between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue)

Shrine

There’s no party like a Shrine party. The sister venue to Silvana’s, named after Fela Kuti’s famous club in Nigeria, is the haven for African music in Harlem, with an array of live sets from emerging African bands on tour to wild weekend dance parties where DJs spin West African Top 40 late into the night. You will never dance as hard as you do on a good Shrine night. Bonus: It’s a great place to practice your French, as many of the patrons hail from Senegal and Burkina Faso. 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (between West 133rd and 134th Streets)

Keur Sokhna

After your wild night at Shrine, head down the street to Keur Sokhna to take a breather and nosh on amazing Senegalese food. It’s a no-frills kind of spot—I highly recommend the yassa (lemon, onion, and chicken dish), plantains, and mafe (a peanut butter stew). 2249 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (between West 132nd and 133rd Streets)