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Lexington Avenue is East Harlem's New Restaurant Row

By Jeff Mays | October 13, 2011 6:52am | Updated on October 13, 2011 6:57am
Joy Burger Bar on East 100th Street is part of a stretch of restaurants on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem.
Joy Burger Bar on East 100th Street is part of a stretch of restaurants on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM—Betty Campbell-Adams opened an outpost of Lloyd's Carrot Cake, the business she owned with her late husband, on Second Avenue and 105th Street three years ago because she thought the area would provide a lot of foot traffic.

"It turned out to be a trying location," she said.

After the lease expired recently, Campbell-Adams moved the business to Lexington Avenue, between East 99th and East 100th streets, where business has improved dramatically.

"Lexington Avenue is a much better location because of the subway line and the bus line. The neighborhood is changing so rapidly. We are so optimistic about this location" said Campbell-Adams.

In fact, with restaurants serving everything from French and Mexican cuisine to burgers and "pitza," hip coffee cafes and a wine bar, a stretch of Lexington Avenue from East 99th to East 104th streets is quickly turning into one of El Barrio's most promising areas.

"There's an influx of different types of cuisine coming into the area and it is slowly becoming East Harlem's restaurant row," said Raphael Benavides, co-owner of Ricardo Steakhouse and an organizer of the East Harlem Taste Trolley tour of area restaurants.

Enrique Lerma, general manager for El Paso Restaurante, said they opened the location on 104th and Lexington after the success of their El Paso Taqueria across the street.

"Across the street was too busy. There was a line around the corner," Lerma said. "Lexington is the new hot spot for not only restaurants and bars but real estate."

And many of the new residential buildings popping up in East Harlem are feeding the boom. At the same time, 96th Street, the once rigid dividing line between East Harlem and the Upper East Side, is softening.

"Lexington Avenue has changed a lot over the last five years. Before, if you wanted something decent to eat, you had to travel to the 90s," said Trini Abrajan, co-owner of Lexington Social, a coffee and wine spot on Lexington Avenue between East 104th and East 103rd streets. His brother owns El Paso.

"Now, a lot of people are moving here from the 90s because they can pay half of what they pay in rent. Before, they didn't want to cross 96th Street," he said.

The change can be seen at places like East Harlem Cafe on 104th Street and the retro Joy Burger Bar on East 100th Street.

Guy Tavakoli, 24, who manages Joy Burger Bar, which is owned by his brother, said the number of patrons coming from below 96th Street has increased in the five years the restaurant has been open.

"It's good for business," he said. "The young people bring new life. It's what East Harlem should be like."

Dandy Wellington, 27, and Jelly Jells, 28, musicians with the Harlem James Gang, were grabbing an afternoon snack at Joy Burger Bar. Both said they enjoyed dining in East Harlem.

"It's transitioning from hole in the wall places to places with ambiance that want a clientele," said Wellington.

"And this area is hard to beat when it comes to bang for your buck," said Jells.

Proof of the area's change has come in the variety of food offerings, said Jells. As a vegetarian, he has been able to find everything from burrito's to "pitza" at Moustache Pitza that fits the bill.

"East Harlem is the next Williamsburg," said Jells.

The changes on Lexington Avenue haven't come without bumps. Mainstay restaurants like La Fonda Boricua, on East 106th between Lexington and Third, have recently gone out of business.

Along Lexington Avenue, a sign in front of Giovanna's, located next to Joy Burger Bar, said it had been seized by the state for non-payment of taxes.

But Campbell-Adams said as soon as one place closes, another opens.

"East Harlem wasn't on the same development schedule as the rest of Harlem, so as people are priced out of Central Harlem, the next logical movement is to come east," she said.

With the owners of El Paso preparing a fourth location in the area, Lerma was even more optimistic.

"In five years, there isn't going to be a line at 96th Street," he said.