Food-world superstar Marcus Samuelsson has lived in Harlem for two decades. Here’s where he goes when he’s not at his own Red Rooster, one of the legendary neighborhood’s hottest hot spots, as told to Lonely Planet correspondent Brian Healy.

A row of historic Harlem brownstones on Lenox Avenue, Harlem, New York City, New York, USA
Harlem’s Lenox Ave has one of New York City’s most elegant streetscapes © Here Now / Shutterstock

Marcus Samuelsson’s morning commute

I’ve lived in Harlem for 20 years. When I walk to work, I see a beautiful street with brownstones. I live close to a park, so kids are playing in the park. Even if you live in New York City, it feels like you’re living in a village; Harlem is really a village of New York. I see elderly people walking their dogs in the park, I see people rushing to school or to work. You say “Hi” to each other. It’s a neighborhood where people say, “Hi, how are you?”

If you walk down to Settepani on 120th and Lenox, you see the neighborhood, you see the community. People coming in for coffee, people coming in for a friendly neighborhood “Hi.” Settepani is a great bakery – Leah and the family that owns it have been there for 25 years. They’re a staple of the community.

Across the street, there is a great store called NiLu. It’s how to experience Harlem: they have amazing bespoke pillows and candles and things that are very Harlem, around the history of Harlem. Like home goods – and tourist memorabilia or gifts, maybe if you’re going to someone’s for dinner and you want to pick up a candle, from Harlem Candle Co. Local makers, local businesses.

Thelma Golden and Marcus Samuelsson on April 07, 2022
Samuelsson with his friend and fellow Harlem cultural luminary Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem © Shannon Finney / Getty Images

The cultural side of Harlem

On a Sunday, the Parlor, which is owned by Marjorie Eliot, is an incredible Sunday afternoon. She plays piano and has jazz musicians invited to her apartment. She’s like 80+ – it’s incredible. And this is not a restaurant – you’re walking into someone’s home. And you put a little bit of money in a bucket, for the musicians. This is a Harlem experience!

The Studio Museum in Harlem is such a killer, not just in the Harlem historical space but also in the African American art community. That’s the place that Thelma Golden has been running for a long time, where you see the next generation and past/present/future African American artists, like Julie Mehretu, Derrick Adams, Kara Walker. It’s close to the Apollo – you can walk down 125th, you have the Apollo on one side – for music, a world-class venue – then you walk over to the Studio Museum, which is now rebuilding – a brand-new building going on.

You can walk up to Schomburg Center, connected to the library, where you have the biggest African American library in the world. You can really get the concept of “Why Harlem?” – all within 15 minutes of walking.

People walk by Canada geese at Harlem Meer, Central Park, New York City, New York, USA
The northern tip of Central Park – Harlem’s backyard – is a hidden gem © CHOONGKY / Shutterstock

A stroll from Central Park up Lenox Ave…

I love the northern side of Central Park. You have Harlem Meer, which is a little pond. They allow roller skating, there are kids biking, people fishing… The north side of Central Park is stunning, so it’s always a place where I take people. Walking up from 110th all the way up to Red Rooster, for example – you’re walking on Lenox, it’s amazing. On 116th, right off Lenox, you have the African market, where you can pick up incredible African fabrics.

People dressed up in costumes at the Three Kings Day parade in East Harlem, New York City, New York, USA
East Harlem is an ever-changing mix of communities – but the Latin spirit still runs strong in “El Barrio” © Here Now / Shutterstock

…and on to East Harlem 

There’s a fun new bar that opened up on 120th and Park called the Good Good – the vibe is great, celebrating new Harlem, young Harlem. There is great street food walking down 116th into El Barrio, which is Spanish Harlem. If you go east of Fifth Ave, all the way down Second of First Ave you’re in Spanish Harlem, with a small little marketplace called La Marqueta – it’s been there for maybe 80 years. There’s food, but there’s also salsa dancing. You’re in Harlem – but you’re really somewhere between Puerto Rico…and now it’s very Mexican as well.

There’s an aspect of Italian restaurants, too – Rao’s is the most famous Italian restaurant in the country. That blend between Italian American and Latinx American: there’s that blend in El Barrio, right there. Cuchifrito is a famous Puerto Rican pick-up joint. Old-school Puerto Rican diners: that speaks to that El Barrio. So Harlem is not one thing – it’s very diverse.

Harlem restaurateur Melba Wilson outside of her restaurant Melba’s, Harlem, New York City, New York, USA
Restaurateur Melba Wilson is ready to welcome you to her eponymous spot © Rob Kim / Getty Images

Happy hour, then dinner time

On 112th, you have one of these staple bars, called 67 Orange Street. That’s probably the top bar experience in Harlem – a cocktail bar, very curated, very good. Across the street from that, you have Melba’s, an icon in the Harlem community. One block from Red Rooster, you have Sylvia’s, which is still going strong. The Woods family is doing a great job, doing their thing. In Harlem, there’s so much history.

If you want really good fast casual, on 115th and Lenox, JJ Johnson has his Fieldtrip – you can get take out, and keep moving. It’s based on rice and rice bowls; you can have a shrimp topping or whatever. It’s a funky and fun experience.

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