We stayed at Daughter #1’s Harlem apartment while in town for two weeks to celebrate daughter #2’s graduation, so I thought I would explore the rapidly changing wine and restaurant scene south of 135th Street. The past few years have seen a number of new restaurants and wine shops open here. Many are worth a visit.
The NYTimes recently did an article on Harlem’s French Renaissance (LINK) – and we ate at four of the restaurants featured there. Also, there are some good wine shops which are bringing a greater appreciation for wine to the area.
Harlem is changing, and relatively fast. Real estate prices in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn are driving younger people here to more affordable housing. With that influx come two things – the dilution of the African-American Harlem culture and the rise of gentrification. The newer restaurants reflect these two things, and the area is not without some tension as a result. But crime is down, there are more shopping and dining options, properties are being renovated, and there is some good in that. This transition period between what Harlem was and what it is becoming, is a time for pioneers to try new things. And the restaurant and wine scenes are full of pioneers.
I visited three wine shops during my stay. There are others, and my apologies for not finding and exploring them all. As readers of this blog know, I am an advocate of local wine shops and using the expertise of the staff in selecting wines to purchase. These shops have that expertise, if not great depth of selection from any region. If you want greater depth, the amazing shops of lower Manhattan are not that far away.
BTL (LINK) at 311 W 127th Street, has a connection with Maison Harlem bar and restaurant across the street. Run by French expats, both establishments offer French wines (and others). BTL is offering value-priced wines for the most part, and has a few New York wines in stock along with selections from the Old and New Worlds. I purchased a nice Gigondas red and a New York Finger Lakes Chardonnay here.
The Winery (LINK) at 257 W 116th Street has a few hundred bottles in stock (and a sister store in Tokyo). There is a temperature controlled case with high-end wines – the best selection of this level of wine that I saw, and cubbies with a bottle displayed upright and others laying down behind it – each with a good description of the wine displayed. There are wines from the old world and the new, decent selections of each in a variety of price ranges. Weekly wine tastings are a good way for locals to learn about less well-known wines stocked here or to expand their palates a bit. Eric White, the manager, brings a wealth of knowledge about his wines and the wine world in general – and selects the wines for the weekend tastings with care. I was very impressed with this shop, and found a couple of very nice Italian wines to take home.
Harlem Vintage (LINK) on Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 121st Street has been in business for over 7 years. Owner and former Wall Street exec Eric Woods stocks a variety of interesting wines – some I knew and many I did not, from the Old and New Worlds. We had a good conversation and Eric shows a good knowledge of the wines he stocks and the wine world in general. Like the other shops, there is a good variety of countries and regions to choose from, but little depth from any of them, which likely reflects a good assessment of the wine-purchasing public in the area at this point.
Expect high mark-ups on bottles and glasses of wine in Harlem – meaning it’s like most of Manhattan. Using my Delectable App (LINK), I found markups as high as 400% to be common. Corkage fees run to $35 and higher.
Barawine (LINK) at 120th Street and Malcom X Blvd (Lenox Ave) is a gem. Beautifully designed, with a small wine bar, common table, and a few smaller tables in front, and a larger dining room in the back. The wine list is more than adequate, the staff knowledgeable and efficient, and the experience there was very positive. We were there for brunch, and the menu is French with a few twists. Food is very good.
Vinateria (LINK) is at 119th and Frederick Douglass Blvd (8th Ave). Again, nice design – exposed brick and dark woods. A Eurocentric wine list of moderate size with some wine specials listed on a blackboard. There is a bar on the side of the front space in the L-shaped dining room. The food was very good, the staff knowledgeable, the wine mark-ups pretty high. We had dinner here with daughter #1 and her husband. It was very enjoyable.
Chez Lucienne (LINK) north of 125th St on Malcom X Blvd., Chez Lucienne pre-dates the more famous Red Rooster next door. The space looks older, with white tile walls and a small bar on the side of the long room; white table cloths. This place has some age and wears it well. The wine list is short, with some decent selections, leaning toward French with a few New World selections. The menu is more toward classic French dishes (coq au vin) which are done well. The staff is friendly and efficient. I inquired about corkage fees here and was told it was $35 per bottle.
Maison Harlem (LINK) at 127th and St. Nicholas is part bar part restaurant. The front of the space is a large fully-stocked bar; the back has about a dozen tables and shares space with the kitchen. Décor is old rustic wood. On one visit, a while ago, there was a jazz trio playing in the restaurant space. This visit, for lunch, was less crowded. Owned by two French expats and linked to BTL across the street, Maison Harlem offers well-prepared food, a moderate wine list, and a great casual atmosphere.
This is just a taste of what is available in Harlem now, as far as the wine scene goes. I am sure, that with continued increases in real estate prices in the area due to demand, that the old Harlem will continue to disappear and something new will emerge. This is a good time to visit, as the transition is still relatively early in its process. Manhattan is one of the world’s great cities, and Harlem is an essential element of what it has been and is becoming.
Copyright 2017 – Jim Lockard