A Harlem soul food fix


It’s Sunday morning in Manhattan, and you’re hungry for something more substantial than a bowl of organic granola or a fresh fruit platter with the ‘bobo Sunday brunch’ crowd sipping lattes on that Upper East Side corner. But where to go for food that’s hot, filling and served with soul? Jumping aboard the A–Train just minutes north to 125th Street, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in the table-bending weekend feasts on offer in historic Harlem.

Most Manhattanites looking for their soul food fix find it at one of two venerable weekend haunts: Sylvia’s (328 Lenox Ave) and Amy Ruth’s (113 W 116th St). The former, tucked discreetly in a workaday shop row on broad Lenox Avenue, likely takes credit as Harlem’s most famous soul food address, and Sunday brunch here sees gospel singers serenading diners as they put away sinfully large plates of southern-fried chicken and sweet potato pie, washed down by massive jugs of iced lemonade.  Open on Sundays from 11am, reservations are recommended since there’s nothing quite like a tortuously snaking queue and the sweet scent of honey-roasting ribs – outside a restaurant which seats, at a push, just 35 or so – for building up an unholy hunger.

If Sylvia’s seems just too busy – or you simply can’t wait until 11am for a table – Amy Ruth’s, open on Sundays from 7.30am, comes in a close contender for a soul-food spread. Less frequented by out-of-towners than Sylvia’s (which, admittedly, sees the occasional tour bus pull up for lunch), order a smothered pork chop with fried eggs and grits, a 'Rev. Al Sharpton,' a vast plate of fried chicken and waffles, or, for the insatiable appetite, a 'Lloyd Williams': waffles with rib-eye steak, supplemented perhaps by a side or two of corn bread, then sit back and loosen your belt accordingly.

Alternatively, venture just a little further uptown to Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too (547 Lenox Ave) for Sunday brunch amid the chequered tablecloths and Motown soundtrack of a Harlem that's long gone. Munch on popcorn shrimp, homemade meatloaf or Louisiana catfish in a place named after owner Norma Jean Darden’s Sunday School teacher aunt, Maude. Across town at 110th St, its sister restaurant, Miss Mamie’s (this one named after Darden’s mother) dishes up the same comfort fare, with guests such as Bill Clinton stopping in sometimes for its family hand-me-down recipes. And vegetarians need not feel left out of the Deep South fun: choices for the piled-high veggie platter include oozing mac n’cheese, candied yams, collard greens and a helping of good old fashioned mashed potatoes.

Finally, as if all that weren’t more than enough to tide you through ‘til lunch, the now locally legendary Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (700 W 125th St) opens its Sunday doors at midday to provide patrons with the rib-sticking tastes of the south. Start off with fried green tomatoes and Creole-spiced devilled eggs, muster up the appetite to follow with a massive plate of pulled pork or brisket, rounded off with sides of barbecue beans and simmered greens.

And when you’ve finally polished off your last bowl of grits, ribs, or peach cobbler, there’s plenty of ways to walk it all off. Praise the Lord for your brunch at the Cathedral of St John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave at 112th St), on which work begun in 1892 and is still going strong, take a tour of the Apollo Theater (253 125th St at Frederick Douglass Blvd; tours 11am & 1pm on Sundays) where legends including Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington have variously taken to the stage, wander the area’s historic Hamilton Heights and St. Nicholas districts, or catch the gospel choir in action at the Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 W 138th St, services 9am and 11am on Sundays). After all, there’s always room for just one more helping of southern-style red velvet cake to reward you at the end of it.

Further reading: Lonely Planet's New York articles.