When it comes to dining in Manhattan, it seems downtown gets all the love. But as a Harlem resident for nearly 10 years, I'm always in search of places further up from the usual buzz. Whether you're heading to Lincoln Center or the Apollo to catch a show, or just eager to explore beyond your usual boundaries, here are a few restaurant gems I've discovered above Midtown.
And get the Chicken Parm, obviously. In a sandwich, in a platter, with pasta—however you prefer, but get it.
1. Piccolo Café
This cute Italian restaurant is easy to miss among the dozens of shops and cafés on Amsterdam Avenue in the west 70s. It's owned and run by Executive Chef Michele Casadei Massari, Alberto Ghezzi and Chef Gianluca Capozzi—three friends from Bologna, Italy. The place feels about as close to a real trattoria in Bologna as one can get without a passport. Piccolo means "tiny and cute" in Italian, and both the place and the menu live up to its name. Start your meal with the spicy marinated calamari or one of their homemade pastas such as tortellini, before moving onto the balsamic-glazed steak or grilled chicken served over creamy Venetian polenta. And don't forget to order a slice of the custard-filled Torta della Nonna; with hints of lemon and crunchy pine nuts, it's the loveliest way to end this mini edible vacation.
2. The Cecil
There's a whole lot of fusion going on at this elegant Afro/Asian/American brasserie. The menu features a global medley of dishes like Broiled Spicy Giant Prawns, Barbeque Brisket Egg Rolls, Coconut Grits, and Brazilian Feijoada Stew studded with Moroccan Merguez sausage. This airy spot on 118th Street is one to think about for your next special occasion or if you simply feel like stepping out somewhere a little different.
With its cheeky branding and funky menu, The Handpulled Noodle is Chinese food for the millennial set. Billed as "North Western Chinese Soul Food," the quirky shop in Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood specializes in chewy hand-pulled noodles, dumplings, and salads. The tiny shop deals in a swift take-out trade but the noodles are best served immediately, so wait your turn for one of the eight prized seats indoors. With protein options from lamb to seitan, there is something for everybody, plus a few key extras. (Hint: both the crispy scallion pancakes and the lightly-sweetened lychee iced tea are popular with the locals.)
The first incredible thing you'll try at Bustan is the bread. It arrives fluffy and fiery hot out of the traditional taboon oven on a long wooden cutting board with its own carving knife. I usually skip the knife and tear in with my hands, then scoop into one of their dips: hummus, taramasalata, tzatziki, baba ghanoush and spicy feta. The rest of the menu reflects flavors and dishes from the Middle East and North Africa and there is little that disappoints. For dessert, the hot, chewy and sugar-dusted Moroccan donuts served with a trio of dipping sauces are sweet perfection.
Technically, this cozy Hell's Kitchen wine and cheese bar is right on the cusp of midtown and uptown, but geography will be the last thing on your mind once you taste their signature chocolate cake—it's my single favorite dessert in all of New York City. It's dark, rich, and not-too-sweet, layered with thick ganache frosting, crunchy cacao nibs, and (this is the kicker!) a generous pool of rich, thick local heavy cream poured right on top. There are a lot of spectacular things on the menu—the spicy Chistorras in a Blanket and the Mac & Cheese with lardons are some of my favorites! But honestly, it's all an excuse just to get that cake.
6. Harlem Shake
There are a lot of good things on this retro-themed burger joint's menu, but it's the spicy jerk fries that get my vote. Generously seasoned and served hot out of the fryer alongside a small cup of jerk mayo for dipping, they're worth the trip no matter where you're coming from. Pick your favorite burger or one of their killer fried chicken sandwiches, and then cool things down with a straw-collapsing milkshake. Vintage lovers will dig the cheery 50s-style décor—complete with vinyl stools and an old-fashioned lettered menu board.
There are a couple of Parm locations downtown, but the Upper West Side one will forever be my choice. Parm knows what it does best and keeps the menu simple. Start with the fried zucchini: spiralized, then battered and fried, it may be one of the best-fried things you have ever tasted. Conversation will stop, and you won't be able to keep your hand out of the basket. The beet-infused Negroni sounds weird, but it works. And get the Chicken Parm, obviously. In a sandwich, in a platter, with pasta—however you prefer, but get it. Finish your meal with a slice of their picture perfect ice cream cakes. These pretty things seem like they've been pulled straight out of a Thiebaud painting, and taste as good as they look.
8. A.G. Kitchen
This colorful Nuevo Latino spot by Cuban celeb chef Alex Garcia serves up one of the best Cubano sandwiches in the city. Crisp toasted bread that shatters with the first bite gives way to that magic combination of ham, roast pork, pickles, Swiss cheese, and tangy mustard. Accompanied by buttery sweet plantains, it's my go-to order for brunch or dinner, but there is plenty on the menu that's worth a try. I love the mix-and-match "surf & turf" option that lets you choose your preferred proteins, sauces like guava BBQ or chimichurri, and sides. (I've tried out all the permutations, and you really can't go wrong).
Stylish, but down-to-earth, is how some describe this pan-Mediterranean spot on the East side of the park. The carefully curated menu features influences from Greece, Italy, and Turkey, with an emphasis on the vegetables, grains, cheese, and fish that those countries do so well. Try one of their signatures dishes—like the comforting Pappardelle Bolognese or the perfectly charred Octopus a la Plancha—or feast as a table in true Mediterranean style with one of their larger format entrees, like the whole fish baked in salt. The dessert menu is one of the cleverest I've tried, with dishes like a Pumpkin Cheesecake with chestnut crust and cider toffee that seem to feel equal parts surprising and familiar.
Looking for some equally awesome hidden gems in your own city? Here are a few quick tips:
- Get out of your comfort zone. Get in your car or hop on the train and check out a different part of town you don't usually visit. You don't need to go far to experience new things!
- Ask around. When traveling, we're often quick to ask for recommendations but we rarely do it in our towns. Pretend you're new in town, and ask people for their favorite spots—cab drivers, store clerks, delivery guys.
- Sign up for a walking tour or food crawl. These tours organized by dedicated foodies exist in just about every city. Search one out and play tourist for the day. You'll taste and learn new things, and maybe even make some friends in the process.
- Attend a local food festival or culinary event. For example, Taste of the Nation, a benefit to support No Kid Hungry, offers tastings from multiple chefs and restaurants, so you can sample their most notable dishes, desserts, and drinks—all in one spot.
You can purchase preferred tickets to No Kid Hungry's Taste of the Nation events at special Citi price of 10% OFF. Citi cardmembers will also enjoy exclusive event benefits, including: faster check-in to skip the line, special gifts and giveaways and access into the special Citi Lounge (at select events).