Visiting Harlem: Get Up There and Do It
Visiting Harlem has been high on my to-do list as I’m working on my current project, a book covering favorite neighborhood bars, taverns and dives of NYC. It’s called Great Good Places of New York to be published by Rizzoli in 2018. I trend toward Brooklyn-centricism these days (read: comfy, lazy, parochial), but got off my duff earlier this month for a long, full-day visit to The Land North Of Central Park: Harlem. Glad I did, too.
We took the 2 train up to 116th street, and walked a couple blocks over to Streetbird, a jumpin’ southern-inspired restaurant with a hell of a lively Sunday brunch scene, packed with tourists, post-churchers in their Sunday best, and a few folks at the bar in back, knocking back slushy drinks and watching football. Food was fine, drinks were good, and we were ready for a day of research. Remember: if you’re going to do some day-drinking, you’re going to need ballast. Food in the belly. Chicken and waffles fill that bill, believe me; the perfect fuel for visiting Harlem.
I wanted to catch some football, and right across the street was the enormous Harlem Tavern, built out of an old auto body shop in 2011. The outdoor brunch scene was staggering. Huge crowd. You just don’t see this in New York often. Must’ve been a hundred or more people out there having brunch, many under an awning and umbrellas on this blazingly sunny day. Inside, almost unbelievably, was even more crowded. The capacity of this place stunned me, with as many or more folks inside as out, all watching football on the 12 or so big screens, each with a mosh-pit of its own fans. Philly was near the front, Jets fans had the two big screens above the bars, and all the other NFL games ringed the huge room. You could track each team’s scoring (or fumbles) by the cheers or groans from the pools of fans around each TV. The Philly fans were the rowdiest, by a mile.
We slithered into the Jets crowd, and lo-and-behold, got drinks within a couple of minutes, thanks to a waitress whose hustle put Pete Rose to shame. The crowd was loud, friendly, considerate, and glad to be there, greeting each other with huge hugs and bottle clanks. I’ve been in a hundred crowded sports bars, but precious few where I wouldn’t be rudely bashed about in a crowd this thick. Worst I got was a slight brush and a “‘Scuse me, man.” I loved the place.
It was an unusual experience for me, being clearly in the minority here (the crowd was maybe 90/10 black and “other”) and it was a blast. Such a joyful, positive vibe. We stayed for the first half of the Jets game, then headed north to the other end of the sports bar spectrum: the small, hyperlocal watering hole.
Just Lorraine’s Place is just that, over on Adam Clayton Powell and 133rd Street. [Why do Manhattan’s west side avenues’ names up and change willy-nilly north of 59th Street? Bugs me. Ninth Avenue becomes Columbus for a while then, boom, it’s Morningside Drive. Eighth Avenue hits 59th and gets all swanky as Central Park West, then at 110th morphs into Frederick Douglass Boulevard. 10th turns into Amsterdam and Seventh hops the park and lands north as Adam Clayton Powell. Grumble, gripe…. Anyway.]
Just Lorraine’s is a peach. Local as hell. The bar was pretty full when we walked in, everyone watching the Jets, but an older lady, maybe pushing 80) scooted over to open up a couple prime seats for us. We slid onto the barstools, ordered a couple drinks and settled in. I love a locals bar; everyone knows each other. It’s like a football watching party in someone’s living room, one with a giant poster of Barack Obama waving from the stairs of Air Force One. Don’t see that in Brooklyn Heights very often. Here’s to visiting Harlem, y’all.
Interestingly, I ordered a Ballantine’s Ale, a brew you almost never see anymore. I noticed a couple other guys having it down the bar (when in doubt about what to order, it’s always smart to see what others are ordering at a locals bar, then follow suit). It’s a beer I’ve always liked, and it has a legendary New York pedigree, brewed right across the Hudson in Newark for decades before fading away like so many local beers. It was cool to see it again, and do like the regulars and down one, complemented by a paper plate full of salty snacks, served on the house. Ah, the quirky perks of a small, local bar.
Likewise, Colleen tried to order her dive-bar go-to, a whiskey sour, denied because Lorraine’s stocks no sour mix. She looked and saw that about half the crowd was drinking something red, and asked about it. Turns out they did have cranberry juice sho soon she was sipping a vodka cran. Like I said, do what the locals do.
After the game (Jets 22, Bengals 23. A heartbreaker.) we headed to Shrine on Adam Clayton Powell near 134th Street. This turned out to be a damn good move. The day was thick and sticky, my friends, like William Hurt’s mustache in Body Heat. We needed to cool it, and where better to do that than a Sunday afternoon jam session in Harlem? Shrine feels like its name, kind of holy, almost churchlike inside, or maybe more like a chapel. Small-scale and dark, the walls and ceilings covered in concert posters and album covers, the front has the bar and the stage is in back. The crowd was sparse (it was, after all, Sunday afternoon), about half locals and half tourists (which I consider myself when visiting far-flung neighborhoods in other exotic boroughs). As Colleen weighed her cocktail options, the woman next to her, clearly a regular, sung the praises of her favorite drink at Shrine: “The best Hennessy colada in the city!” Hennessy colada?? Damn. Sold.
We hung around for a set and enjoyed everything about Shrine except for the basement bathrooms, which were like a latrine from the tombs in Gangs of New York, only with more jazz posters on the walls. [Two movie references in one post!] After that, we walked over to Harlem’s east side (aka “Spanish Harlem”) for dinner at a Latino gastropub, which was fine, but not mindblowing. Still, an enjoyable end to a very good day visiting Harlem in the north country of Manhattan.
I’ll be including Harlem Tavern and Shrine in my book, and hopefully a couple more from more northerly Manhattan. If you have any suggestions for places in Washington Heights or Inwood, let me know about them. Hey, your favorites might end up in the book. You can see and buy more of my Great Good Places art on my website. Check ’em out here.
Harlem Tavern and Shrine are two of 50 bars I’ll be drawing and writing up for the book Great Good Places of New York: 50 Favorite Joints from the Five Boroughs (Rizzoli, 2018). You can buy all the art here. Check it out!