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Harlem Soul Food | It's History and Where to Find the Best Restaurants

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Soul food dates back to 1492. In the days of slavery, slave masters would give (to the slaves) cuts of meat for which they had no use or desire. These cuts included  pig feet, ham hocks, chicken gizzards, chicken wings, turkey necks, and pork fat.  Little did the slave masters (or the slaves-- for that matter)  know that these 'undesirable' foods would one day reach the masses worldwide, to be revered, appreciated, and much-desired.

(Free Tours by Foot offers a Harlem Food Tour as well as walking tours, including the Harlem Neighborhood Walking Tour, on which we usually will stop at Sylvia's Restaurant (see video below) for a sampling of classic soul food dishes).

Also, be sure to check out our full list of free, self-guided tours.


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Named SOUL FOOD because it touches and delights the soul, Soul food dishes include fried chicken, pork/beef ribs, collard greens, potato salad, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, smoked ham hocks and a host of familiar and delightful edibles.

Soul food has humble beginnings in the Southern United States, hailing from the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North/South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even below The Dixie Line -- going through Georgia and into Florida.

Yet....many soul food influences were developed in major cities like Chicago and New York City. Many freed slaves migrated from Mississippi and Alabama to Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, hoping to create better socioeconomic advancements for themselves. Freed slaves from the Carolinas, the Virginian states, and Georgia re-located to New York City and other places -- Up North -- for the same purposes of bettering themselves financially/socially.

Many freed African Americans were 'greeted' by rude awakenings in The North. They faced hardship securing jobs and many challenges as they sought higher education. They resorted to cooking/cleaning for 'white folks' houses. The cooks were well-received, often called, 'the help.'

The 'help' was always finding a way from 'no-way.' And so ....naturally, they did the best with what they had.

Some of our finest offerings in soul food, actually, come from major cities. Many Southerners in The Big Cities were forced to seek governmental assistance, public housing, powdered milk, peanut butter, and cheese.  The 'government  cheese' -- popular in the 60's, 70's, and 80's-- was the innovative force in a favorite 'contemporary' soul food dish, macaroni and cheese. When public assistance programs passed out the cheese (and whew, the lines were long), the 'recipients' made macaroni and cheese (affectionately known as Mac-N-Cheese).When 50 lb. bags of potatoes were distributed to the 'poor and less-fortunate,' the 'poor and less-fortunate' made potato salad. These are just a few examples of how soul food relates to life and survival. When life deals us lemons. we make lemonade. Make the best of it. The makings of soul food is truly a story of survival and has proven to be fortunate and victorious. Who would have ever known that Soul Food would be the result of celebrity chefs, millionaires, and respected entrepreneurs?

Amy Ruth' s Restaurant
116th Street/Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd.)

Southern-styled cuisine -- Up North --  starts with Amy Ruth's Restaurant. Do you want Soul Food? Amy Ruth's Restaurant responds. We will have some samples from legendary Amy Ruth's. Don't forget to grab a menu, which lists hours of operation and location. After sampling a popular daily special: The Chicken and Waffles dish, returning to Amy Ruth's will become your wish!

Sylvia's Restaurant
127th Street & Lenox Avenue

Often identified as 'The House of Soul Food,' you will want to stop by Sylvia's and stay for a while. Sylvia's Restaurant has been 'souling it up' for over 50 years. Crowned,'The Queen of Soul Food,' Sylvia Woods brought a brand-new bag of SOUL from Hemingway, South Carolina and kept it coming for years. Ironically, Sylvia took the title of Queen of Soul Food, while the late- great James Brown, (also born in South Carolina) was named The Godfather of Soul Food. Is that what it means to be from South Carolina? Or simply stated, 'We know they had SOUL!'

Sylvia Woods died on July 19, 2012 and the family remains the manager of this fabulous home of SOUL FOOD.

137th/Lenox Avenue

If you've been wondering over Spoonbread, you will now know all there is to know. Spoonbread is actually a corn-meal based dish that resembles corn-meal soufle. Think Yorkshire pudding. Delicious indeed. Norma Darden has been 'making it delicious and soulful' for years at our next stop, Spoonbread. You will certainly want to keep some of that bread on your spoon!

Make My Cake Bakery
139th Street & Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (7th Avenue)

And...LAST BUT NOT LEAST....Every good SOUL FOOD meal should end with some ICING ON THE CAKE! At Make My Cake, they don't just put icing on the cake; they make the cakes from 'scratch'! You will want some of that cake.

That's how we do Harlem SOUL FOOD. Be sure to stop on by again. And...make it real soon!

About The Author

Stephen Pickhardt

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers. Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo,, and more.
Updated: October 3rd, 2021
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