Marcus Samuelsson is a busy man: In the past two years, the award-winning chef has published a memoir, Yes, Chef; opened American Table Cafe and Bar in Alice Tully Hall and Uptown Brasserie at JFK Airport; appeared on numerous TV shows; and worked with philanthropies like Unicef—as a celebrity ambassador—and Three Goats Organization, a nonprofit he and his wife started to aid families in Ethiopia. In February, he’s hosting a special musical tribute to jazz great Carmen McRae, at his supper club, Ginny’s.
Recently, Gotham asked Samuelsson for a tour of his Harlem, pointing out favorite spots in an area he helped revive. He started at his restaurant, Red Rooster (310 Lenox Ave., 212-792-9001). “It’s my studio, constantly evolving: the food, the music, the art on the walls,” he says. “It’s an artistic journey, part of a shared narrative. I want people to walk in and know that this is for the community—by you, of you, and for you.”
Harlem chef Marcus Samuelsson outside the landmark Apollo Theater
In the three years since he opened Red Rooster—named for a storied Harlem bar frequented in the ’70s by Willie Mays and James Baldwin—the restaurant has become a Harlem classic in its own right. That’s largely due to Samuelsson’s hospitality and his ability to elevate comfort food to an art, borrowing from cuisines that chart Harlem’s history and his own: Southern, Swedish, Ethiopian, Caribbean, Mexican. “The menu tells a story, and acts as a guide,” he says. “There’s an incredible diversity in Harlem; it’s a mixed melody: Jewish, Italian, African-American, Latin. I see it on my morning runs or just strolling the avenue.”
Samuelsson points to a one-of-a-kind quilted map at the restaurant that features important sites in Harlem, including the Apollo Theater, where he serves on the board, and the Studio Museum. Paris Blues (2021 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., 212-864-9110) has been a local favorite ever since Samuel J. HargressJr. opened the lounge in 1969. “A great jazz scene—I particularly like Tuesday nights when Rakiem Walker plays.”
Samuelsson’s Red Rooster is a Harlem classic in its own right
When he has time, Samuelsson stops in at Lenox Coffee (60 W. 129th St., 646-833-7839), tucked in a narrow storefront a few streets north of Red Rooster, because he “loves their cappuccino.” For a quick break from work, Samuelsson likes to go to Sylvia’s, the iconic restaurant nearby, “and sit at the counter, just thinking about the history. It’s my little getaway.” (328 Malcolm X Blvd., 212-996-0660)
Signs of Harlem’s new vibrant spirit are everywhere: To the east, says Samuelsson, “Ricardo (2145 Second Ave., 212-289-5895) is a mainstay in El Barrio—fun and vibrant. I usually order the mojitos.” To the west is 67 Orange Street (2082 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212-662-2030), an updated speakeasy started by Karl Franz Williams in 2008. “67 Orange was one of the first in the New Harlem Renaissance. Karl’s cocktails are fantastic. Try anything with bourbon.” The Grange Bar and Eatery (1635 Amsterdam Ave., 212-491-1635) opened last June. With a farm-to-table menu the neighborhood bistro “has great energy.”