HARLEM — With its retro green and white booths, tin ceiling and neon burger sign, the new Lenox Avenue burger joint Harlem Shake was designed to look like it opened decades ago.
"It was as if they moved here in the late '40s or early '50s, put in the most modern stuff and never changed it," said the restaurant's designer Dennis Decker.
But on opening day Thursday, owner Jelena Pasic was more satisfied that lines out the door made it seem like the restaurant was a long-running staple of the neighborhood.
"Even today, the first day, it looks like we've been here for a while," Pasic said.
Pasic said her goal is to make Harlem Shake, located on the corner of Lenox Avenue and West 124th Street, a neighborhood institution. She plans to do that by serving tasty burgers and catering to the area while also attracting the many tourists who frequent Harlem.
"I want to create a bond with the neighborhood. This is the epicenter of Harlem, the ground zero of Harlem," she said.
Inside, there is a wall of fame with signed pictures of several famous Harlemites. The bathroom is lined with 300 old Jet Magazines to give it an old school vibe.
Pasic, who ran several restaurants and coffee shops in Washington Heights with her ex-husband before selling them during the divorce, said the choice to open a burger place was simple.
She loves the width of Lenox Avenue and, though tempted by the more developed restaurant row on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, she saw the growth of restaurants in the area — Red Rooster, Cove Lounge, Sylvia's and Harlem Social are just blocks away — as a sign that the neighborhood was ripe for a casual eatery.
"I tried to find a niche that wasn't filled," said Pasic, who has partners in the venture, including her husband, who is the head chef. "It was a no-brainer that Harlem needs a good burger place."
As the space was being built out, Pasic received some lucky breaks that helped with publicity. The first was the viral video explosion of the Harlem Shake song by a DJ named Baauer. The restaurant's fledgling Facebook page received 7,000 likes in one day on its way to almost 30,000 likes.
But Pasic says the restaurant was named Harlem Shake because they makes shakes and to honor the original '80s dance created at Rucker Park by the late Al B. and popularized in G-Dep's "Let's Get It" song of the 1990s.
Soon, Pasic hired an artist to spray-paint the protective plywood covering the space during renovations with the phrase: "Do the Real Harlem Shake."
"The sign turned into a tourist destination," she said.
It not only drew people out front for pictures but others came out to video themselves performing the original Harlem Shake dance. The sign has since been donated to Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a public school on 114th Street, for use as a prop in future performances, Pasic said.
"I made this restaurant for the old Harlem Shake," she said.
But she knew the food had to be good to draw customers.
The hamburger patty is made from 2 ounces of custom blended beef patties from celebrity butcher Pat la Frieda. The lean sirloin blend patties are ground fresh each day and served "griddled smashed-style" for crispness.
The burger is served on a toasted Martin’s Potato Roll and Pasic said they make many of the condiments, including the relish, at the restaurant. The fries are made from Kennebec potatoes that are cooked to be crispy in canola oil. As McDonald's used to do, a little beef fat is used in the oil to add savoriness.
"Even our fries are retro," Pasic said.
The hand-scooped shakes are made with Blue Marble ice cream. There is a "shortie" sized shake — named for the slang for girl — for ladies who are watching their waists but still want a shake.
There is a vegetarian fryer at the restaurant and they offer salads for those who don't want to chow down on the "Hot Mess" burger.
Coming next is a sidewalk café and plans to donate a portion of proceeds to local charities.
Diners said they were pleased.
"The burger was tasty. They did a really good job with this place," said Nephi Niven, 30, a photographer who lives in Harlem.
His friend Andrew Aguilar, 31, who works in marketing, agreed.
"It has that '50s style to it. There really is nothing else like it around here," he said. "It could be a regular hangout spot."