Wanting to experience a new part of New York City, we decided to sign up for a Harlem tour. In full disclosure, our stomachs led us here. The idea for the trip started with the recommendation to eat at the Red Rooster, the hot new soul-food-with-a-twist creation of Chef Marcus Samuelsson.
As part of my extensive research, I Googled “best Harlem tour” to find the Harlem Heritage Tourism & Cultural Center. I figured we couldn’t go wrong with such an authoritative name.
Just down the street from our lunch destination, we found our tour headquarters - an eclectically decorated storefront with posters, pictures and furniture scattered throughout the modest space.
Joseph, who I spoke with on the phone to reserve the tour, welcomed us with a big smile. A few minutes later after getting to know our fellow tourists, the owner Neal gave a passionate recap of his Harlem roots and the leaders who shaped the neighborhood’s development and the civil rights movement.
Then Neal handed us over to our guide Andy, who bragged that he was just a few days shy of his 85th birthday.
Colorful, liberal, animated and sharp as a tack, Andy outpaced us by about 10 steps most of the tour.
He shared stories of his own youth as he pointed out prominent residences, former speakeasies, churches, stores and eateries.
Harlem is making a comeback based on the real-estate prices Andy related. It’s easy to see why after an easy subway ride into Harlem from Central Park South and witnessing the hearty character of its brownstone residences, churches and other architectural gems.
It certainly helps that new residents like Marcus Samuelsson are moving into this gritty yet historically elegant part of Manhattan. Just opened in 2010, his restaurant Red Rooster stands like a proud crowing beacon, bringing fresh flavor to this historic neighborhood.
Framing the kitchen, which takes center stage as you walk into the restaurant, is a black-and-white wall lettered with recipes. The copper, metallic tones of the decor are inviting and the wait staff is as warm as the cornbread served with sweet honey butter and tomato jam.
For added comfort, we paired our corn bread starter with a spinach salad topped with radishes, caperberries and goat cheese. For the main course, an order of the fried yard bird is a must. The chef owner’s grandmother’s recipe of meatballs served with lingonberries, braised green cabbage and dill potatoes is another good call and a fitting homage to the chef’s Swedish roots.
Before we left, the waitress took us downstairs to show us Ginny’s Supper Club, a modern interpretation of the bygone days of speakeasy glamour. Next time, she suggests we come here for a special menu of food, fun and dancing.
While our official Harlem tour ended at the Red Rooster, it also started here with lunch. We had come full circle, but left with a belly full and mind open to new ideas about what it’s like to live as a New Yorker.