Special Occasion Dining in Harlem
If you do not think of Harlem as a destination for celebratory dinners and date nights, you should. A Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, a lively eatery co-founded by a celebrity chef, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a legendary gathering spot are among our top picks for special-occasion dining.
2363 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (between Odell Clark Place and 139th Street)
Restaurants do not get much more intimate than Belle Harlem. The narrow space holds an open galley kitchen and a long wood table that seats 12, the maximum number of diners who can eat here at one time. The menu changes seasonally, and much of the produce comes from the restaurant’s rooftop garden. Recent delights included mac-and-cheese spring rolls with smoked Gouda béchamel and bacon marmalade, fried chicken with a lemon-ricotta waffle and jalapeño-truffle-banana syrup, and Australian Wagyu filet mignon served with smoked Gouda and mushroom cream sauce, spinach, and a red-wine reduction. Chef Darryl Burnette, his wife (and restaurant co-owner) Melissa, and their team will leave you wanting for nothing… except a reservation for a return visit.
271 West 119th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards)
Like Belle Harlem, BSquared changes its menu seasonally, though you can count on standbys such as lobster mac-and-cheese and hangar steak with fries. Seafood is a specialty, with “Little Guy” and “Granddaddy” seafood towers sure to please even the pickiest pescatarians. But if entrees of fried catfish, pan-seared sea bass, or Thai coconut curry halibut (served recently with a squash chutney and candied pepitas, or squash seeds) are not to your liking, you will find a number of nonfish options as well, such as braised beef ribs or cauliflower steak. If you book a reservation in advance, you can also choose the four-course chef’s menu—perfect for the indecisive omnivore.
210 West 118th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards)
With its dark walls, tufted banquettes, and glimmering gold accents, the Cecil Steakhouse exemplifies uptown glamour. The menu, however, offers classic steakhouse fare: prime rib with smashed red potatoes and portobello mushrooms; New Zealand lamb chops with spinach and oyster-mushroom sauce; an Angus beef burger with cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, and tomato; clams casino; pan-seared salmon with grilled shrimp, asparagus, and a white wine, tomato, and caper sauce. Less-traditional options include a grilled veggies and quinoa platter and sides such as sweet plantains and okra fries. Before dinner, enjoy a drink in the lounge where, accompanied by live piano music, you can sip one of the house cocktails such as the Don Thelonious, Monk’s Dream, or Espresso Martini.
553 Manhattan Avenue (at West 123rd Street)
As a farm-to-table restaurant, Clay sources the ingredients for its seasonal menus from small local suppliers. Kick things off with a house cocktail (Traveling Light, a medley of vodka, lemon, honey, egg white, mint, and orange flower, is a go-to) and an appetizer such as grass-fed steak tartare served with pickled ramp, celery root, and cured egg yolk or roasted nuts with fried sage and buckwheat. For entrees, choices might include pasta with house-made pork sausage and kale; confit duck leg with celeriac, smoked farro, and collard greens served with a blueberry gastrique; or pork tenderloin complemented with traditional apples and not-so-traditional chili sauce. For a sweet finish, try the chocolate budino, a type of custard, with merengue chips and spiced candied pecans. In warm weather there is outdoor seating, but with its stone-top tables and monochromatic palette, the interior is just as inviting.
251 East 110th Street (between Second and Third Avenues)
The brick, wood-planked, and plaster walls of this 31-seat eatery give it the air of a bistro in a quiet, out-of-the-way French village. While the seasonal menus do have a distinct French flavor, other influences are apparent too. In addition to the thoroughly Gallic beef tartar with quail egg, frisée salad, and mustard confit on grilled flatbread, starters on the winter menu include spiced pork ravioli with garlic chips and a red and white endive salad with feta cheese, dried cranberries, and pancetta—a veritable United Nations of flavors. Entrees such as vegetable tart with a goat-cheese quenelle sit alongside broiled lobster with grilled grit cake and glazed parsnips and black Angus tenderloin with kale purée and roasted eggplant. Leave room for dessert; the sticky toffee parsnip cake with Granny Smith compote and vanilla ice cream is worth a celebration in and of itself.
310 Lenox Avenue (between West 125th and West 126th Streets)
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is a driving force behind this eatery, named after a famed Harlem speakeasy. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, but the cuisine is proudly American, with global flourishes that pay tribute to the country’s melting-pot heritage. Appetizers range from healthy (a salad of roasted beets, burrata, baby turnips, and toasted sunflower seeds in a thyme vinaigrette) to the sinful (fried chicken and sweet-potato waffle with hot honey-chili sauce). Bourbon-glazed ribs with spiced poached pears and potato salad; shrimp gumbo and grits; and fried catfish with black-eyed peas, smoked bacon, couscous, and pickled fennel salad are among the stick-to-your-ribs entrees. If you want to share, consider a dinner for two such as the jumbo jambalaya with crispy catfish, shrimp, mussels, and fried oysters served with black seafood rice and roasted parsnip or the Taco Truck, featuring pulled jerk chicken, pulled short ribs, grilled shrimp, pico de gala, house-made corn tortillas, lime-chili crema, and charred peppers. Not so hungry? You could likely make a meal of the cornbread with apple butter and the mac-and-cheese with collard greens side dishes. Or maybe you want to start with dessert: Gimme Smores, a mélange of graham-cracker and marshmallow ice creams, a chocolate waffle, toasted marshmallow, and chocolate sauce, will satisfy even the most demanding sweet tooth. Red Rooster also hosts live music or deejays every night. On Tuesday nights the six-piece Juke Joint plays covers of 1960s and ‘70s soul and R&B; the Nate Lucas Quartet plays live jazz every Sunday night.
196 Lenox Avenue (at West 120th Street)
Classic Italian comfort food with a dollop of glamour: That describes Settepani to a T. For instance, you can start with hearty traditional minestrone or an unlikely salad of grapefruit, kalamata olives with fennel, and red onions in a balsamic vinaigrette, among others. In addition to tried-and-true entrees such as spaghetti Bolognese, osso buco, and mushroom risotto, options include the vegan pumpkin mac-and-cheese with a shitake ragù and the crispy tofu and polenta with spiced pumpkin mash. Like all other self-respecting Italian restaurants, Settepani has a well-rounded wine list, but it also offers seasonal house cocktails such as the Drunken Apple (warm apple cider, Maker’s Mark, orange, and winter spices) and Herb-an Licorice (Hendrick’s gin, St. Germain, Galliano, lemon, and basil).
381 Lenox Avenue (between West 129th and West 130th Streets)
Harlem’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Sushi Inoue offers three omakase options, ranging from extravagant to very, very extravagant. The eponymous sushi master, Shinichi Inoue, personally selects the fish daily, which determining what each night’s sushi, sashimi, and hand-roll courses will be; each is crafted in front of the diners, adding an element of theater to the evening. The saki assortment is a worthy complement to the painstakingly created dishes. In addition to omakasi, you can order à la carte, though again, each night’s offering depends on the day’s market selection. One thing is for certain, however: You will not find California rolls, salmon-and-cream-cheese rolls, or other only-in-America options (or what sushi purists might call “abominations”) here.
328 Malcolm X Boulevard (between West 126th and West 127th Streets)
Sylvia Woods founded this Harlem institute in 1962, and her family still owns and operates it. If you never thought of soul food classics such as Southern fried chicken and grits or grilled Carolina catfish as “special occasion” food, you will after indulging in Sylvia’s versions. Sautéed chicken livers, barbecued ribs (with “Sylvia’s Original Sassy Sauce”), and smothered pork chops are other options. A champagne cocktail, such as the Lenox (champagne, Grandma Julie’s Fruit Punch, and a shot of Hennessy cognac), will add to the festive ambience, as will one of the famed desserts such as sweet-potato pie or strawberry bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Live music on Wednesday nights ups the fun quotient even more.