HARLEM—It wasn't long ago that it looked like soul food in Harlem was in trouble. Stalwarts like M&G's Diner, Copeland's and Louise's all shut down within a year or so of one another.
Some blamed a gentrifying Harlem, others thought a new awareness and focus on health issues like high blood pressure and obesity led to the decline.
But soul food is now alive and well in Harlem thanks to its connection to the African-American culture that makes Harlem a top tourist destination. Along the way, some restaurants have developed their own take on soul food and some of the stalwarts have changed with the times.
"Restaurants like Red Rooster have reinterpreted soul food so we now have more options. Before, you only had traditional options like fried chicken and fried chicken with fried chicken," said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, a founder of Harlem Park to Park, a business alliance that includes several restaurants that cook soul food or a variation thereof.
At celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant — named after a famous Harlem speakeasy— he serves many southern classics with a twist. The fried chicken is fried yard bird with a white mace gravy. The macaroni and cheese is made with Gouda cheese. There's cornbread but you can get it with tomato jam. It's his take on comfort food.
"They are taking food that is traditional to us and approaching it differently," said Nikoa-Evans.
But at the legendary Sylvia's Restaurant, soul food is soul food, said Tren'ness Woods-Black, a third generation owner and founder Sylvia Woods' granddaughter.
"We'll be 50 next year because when people come to Sylvia's they are expecting a representation of African-American culture. People are coming because they want authentic soul food," said Woods-Black, who also serves as head of public relations for the restaurant.
"It has worked for the last 50 years and we are confident it will work for next 50 years regardless of who is in the neighborhood," she said.
Other soul food restaurants that serve traditional cuisine are Amy Ruth's and Melba's
That doesn't mean Sylvia's hasn't changed with the times. To address health concerns, the restaurant removed the pork fat that gives soul food some of its traditional, signature flavor. They lowered sodium and eliminated trans-fats, all before Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced policies to force restaurants to do so, said Woods-Black.
She thinks the demise of some of Harlem's soul food restaurant is due to gentrification. But it's not the changing population that gentrification brings but its rising rents.
"We own all of our properties. A lot of the other soul food restaurants closed because they could not afford the rent. Our brand is strong, nationally and internationally known, and able to survive gentrification," said Woods-Black.
Billie's Black, a bar and lounge that opened five years ago on West 119th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue, likes to keep its soul food on the traditional side with a few surprises, said owner Adriane Ferguson.
"Our soul food is classic soul food with a Caribbean spin," said Ferguson. "The food is healthy— other than the fried chicken—and vegetarian-friendly."
That means the food is cooked without meat seasoning. Ferguson said she prefers using olive oil to keep the food moist and spices and garnish like onions and red peppers to season it up. She prefers fresh vegetables. The menu features a selection of seafood such as shrimp.
"If it comes fresh out of the ground that's the best you can get. Some people don't know what a fresh string bean tastes like," said Ferguson.
As long as she keeps serving good food, Ferguson said she's not concerned about attracting patrons.
"There is an attraction to Harlem for its cultural richness. You can't dispute that part of that culture is what people eat," said Ferguson.