By Gilana Gelman
I may live in Harlem, but I’ve never been to Sylvia’s Restaurant, Amy Ruth’s, or Red Rooster. I know that I could—there is nothing stopping me. But these are famous places, the territory of presidents and pundits. Not of someone like me, whose idea of an eccentric evening is cooking breakfast for dinner. Someday, I’m sure I’ll find out what I’ve been missing when I eat at one of the Harlem “classics,” or a newer Harlem hotspot.
And then there are the chain establishments lining 125th Street, the same places found in every suburban shopping mall and that, for all of Harlem’s distinctive character and cultural history, somehow still have Apollo Theater-worthy wait times. (Come to think of it, there is a particular booth in one of those restaurants that, if you happen to look out the window, you’ll see you’re pretty much sitting on top of the marquee to the Apollo Theater.) And in addition, of course, all of the expected institutions of fast-food Americana are never more than a few steps away.
The story here falls somewhere between Red Rooster and McDonald’s, in more ways than one.
Five or six years ago, Susan and Sam Yang took over a sleepy coffee shop on Amsterdam Avenue at 140th Street, called Café One. As a comfortable spot adjacent to the City College of New York, by all rights it should have been filled to capacity with students during every open hour. But until the Yangs came along and cracked some kind of secret neighborhood code, it never was.
I asked Susan how they decided to take a chance on Café One. She and her husband, she said, had a lot of experience operating small businesses. This was an opportunity to branch out. As we spoke, I gestured at the roomful of customers, to the line still forming even though typical lunch hours had ended. “I remember this place used to be near-empty with the previous owner,” I said. “What happened?”
“We started to get to know our customers. What they liked to eat and drink. We learned their names. It turned out that calling, ‘Jill, your sandwich is ready!’ sounded better than, ‘Order 55 is up!’ And people just kept coming back. If we had a little bit more room, I’d like to add more variety.” (The space, by the way, is about the size of your grandmother’s living room.)
On that four-block section of Amsterdam Avenue, a game of tug-of-war is being played. I observe it through the front windows of Café One as I hear Susan call out to someone named Michelle that her soup and hummus sandwich are ready. The old guard—takeout Chinese, Halal carts offering lamb platters and falafel, and the corner delis that sell everything else—yanks back against a neighborhood that won’t stop rolling out one-off sit-down eateries and hipster coffee poetry-slam houses. Not all of the new places make it, but spaces don’t remain unoccupied for long. It’s kind of fun to watch, and to take bets (benignly!) on which ones will survive a year.
I’m thinking about the connection between a neighborhood’s restaurant culture and the food that’s accessible to–and desired by–the people who live and work in the neighborhood. Who will fill the gaps, if these get out of step? If one reads Yelp reviews (and if one believes Yelp reviews), the citizens have agreed upon what the Yangs have already figured out: that success is as much about feeling welcome and familial as it is about the food.