HARLEM — Frederick Douglass Boulevard's restaurant row gets all the attention, but Anahi Angelone, owner of Corner Social, thinks Lenox Avenue is quickly gaining ground.
"If you ask me, Lenox Avenue is a lot more Harlem than anywhere else," Angelone said. "The townhouses, the churches, the soul of Harlem, you can feel it more on Lenox Avenue than anywhere else."
New restaurants and stores have begun popping up on the avenue known for its wide sidewalks and historic buildings. Now a new sidewalk cafe crawl on June 18 that's being called “Summer Sizzles on Lenox” is looking to highlight all that the avenue has to offer.
Eight restaurants — from Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster to Lenox Avenue pioneer Ristorante Settepani and newcomers Boulevard Bistro — will offer special appetizers and cocktails as participants stroll up and down the wide avenue enjoying the offerings.
"Decades ago, people wouldn't step out on Lenox Avenue without being stylishly dressed," said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, executive director of Harlem Park to Park, which organized the event with Experience: Harlem.
Many people thought that Lenox Avenue, because of its classic look, would be the first avenue to develop the sort of restaurant and bar scene that has sprung up on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
But some of the same things that make Lenox Avenue great had also held it back. On Frederick Douglass Boulevard, many of the buildings were new, built after older decrepit ones were bulldozed as part of a larger redevelopment plan.
Those new buildings were built with the dimensions and amenities that restaurants and bars require. On Lenox Avenue, many of the buildings are in a historic district, so they are older and require more effort and even permission to alter.
In addition, the large number of churches on Lenox Avenue makes it more difficult for restaurants to get liquor licenses because of the rule mandating 200 feet between churches and schools and establishments that serve alcohol. Many new establishments have had to settle for beer and wine licenses.
Angelone said Corner Social exceeded the mandatory distance from a church by just 14 feet.
"A lot of the focus has been on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. We didn't want Lenox Avenue to become the other restaurant row," Evans-Hendricks said.
So instead of bemoaning some of the issues restaurants face on the avenue, they plan to celebrate it.
"Landmarked buildings are what make Lenox Avenue special. Churches make Lenox Avenue beautiful," she said.
Leah Abraham, who opened Settepani in 2000, said she is finally seeing the type of development on Lenox Avenue that she envisioned when she launched her business.
"I applaud Sylvia for having stayed the course. I can't imagine it was easy in the '70s, '80s and '90s," Abraham said. "For many years there weren't very many new restaurants on Lenox Avenue, just us and Native. I'm thrilled we have enough businesses now to do an event like this together."
The idea of using sidewalk cafes to promote Lenox Avenue plays to the area's strengths, Abraham said.
"No one has the sidewalks that we have. We easily have the best sidewalks in the city," she said.
For the crawl, Angelone said Corner Social will be mixing up some super secret cocktails that she said she was not at liberty to reveal.
Abraham said Settepani will offer some playful bites like chickpea fritters, smelt with tequila sauce and for dessert, tequila and lime gelato made on site.
Evans-Hendricks said she's excited about the area's future.
Businesses are coming in to fill the gap between lower Lenox Avenue below 125th Street up to 130th Street and beyond. Harlem Shake, a retro burger restaurant, recently opened on 124th Street.
There are rumors of a new tapas restaurant near 131st Street, a new Lenox Lounge is planned for Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th streets, and restaurateur Richard Notar has said he plans to open Notar Jazz Club at the former Lenox Lounge site.
"It looks like that vision is finally coming to fruition," Abraham said.
Tickets that provide access to the drink and food specials at participating restaurants are $10 at the door but are being sold 2 for 1 in advance. Bracelets may be picked up or purchased after 6 p.m. on the day of the event at Carver Federal Savings Bank on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue or at Native Restaurant at 118th and Lenox Avenue.