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Harlem Soul Food

Updated: April 26, 2024

Soul food dates back to 1492. In the days of slavery, slave masters would give the enslaved cuts of meat for which the masters 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 where you will try modern-day soul food classics, like the dishes served in the restaurants below.

Another way to sample soul food is on our Harlem Neighborhood Walking Tour, which usually includes a stop at Sylvia's Restaurant.

Interested in Gospel music? We also offer a special tour with Lady Altovise, our Harlem Renaissance and Gospel Music Experience

Lastly, be sure to check out our post of Things to Do in Harlem which includes a self-guided tour.

What is Soul Food?

Soul food is a comfort food cuisine that originated with African Americans in the southern states of the U.S.

The most well-known dishes of soul food are fried chicken, pork/beef ribs, collard greens, potato salad, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and smoked ham hocks, to name a few.

While some dishes are also part of Southern cooking generally, soul food is associated with foods traditionally eaten by the descendants of slavery.

Soul food influences were developed in major northern cities like New York City and Chicago.

So how did soul food make its way north?

Nearly six million African-Americans moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states roughly from the 1910s until the 1970s, in what is known as the “Great Migration” 

Typically those from Mississippi and Alabama emigrated to Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, hoping to create better socioeconomic advancements for themselves.

Those from the Carolinas, the Virginian states, and Georgia moved to New York City and other places for the same purposes of bettering their socio-economic situation.

But many of these six million African-Americans faced rude awakenings in the North.

They faced hardship in securing jobs and seeking higher education and resorted to cooking and cleaning in wealthy White American homes, where they were often called the “help”.

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

They were often forced to seek governmental assistance in the form of public housing and food.

For example, cheese was a mainstay of public assistance - known as 'government cheese'.

When public assistance programs handed out foods like ‘government cheese’, the recipients made macaroni and cheese, otherwise known affectionately 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.

Soul food is truly a story of survival and has proven to be fortunate and victorious.

Fried Chicken and Waffles: a Harlem Renaissance Food

Many people are surprised to learn that Fried Chicken and Waffles, a dish found only in soul food cuisine, did not travel from the south to Harlem.

It was invented in Harlem!

This was during the peak of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ when jazz clubs were hopping into the wee hours of the night 

But when the music stopped, hungry musicians needed to be fed and many went to Well’s Supper Club.

Too early for a breakfast menu, but too late for dinner, Wells served up fried chicken left over from the dinner menu on top of waffles!

Where to Find the Best Soul Food in Harlem

These are a handful of top restaurants. There are plenty of other places to get delicious soul food, but these get top ratings consistently.

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 'soulin' 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? Simply stated, 'We know they had SOUL!'

Sylvia Woods died on July 19, 2012, and the family remains the manager of this iconic soul food restaurant.

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.

After sampling a popular daily special: the Chicken and Waffles dish, returning to Amy Ruth's will become your wish!

Melba's American Comfort Food  

300 West 114th St.

This attractive establishment is one of the smaller restaurants in Harlem, so seating is limited. It's worth trying to get in though.

Check out the Southern Fried Chicken & Eggnog Waffles featured on the Food Network.

Bonus: Tuesday is live music night!


2620 Frederick Douglass Blvd.

Authentic Harlem food, although a bit more expensive than other places. But they have live music, so the extra money is worth it.

Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too

366 W 110th St.

Spoonbread is a corn-meal-based dish that resembles corn-meal souffle. Think Yorkshire pudding.

Delicious indeed. Norma Darden has been 'making it delicious and soulful' since 1997.

You will certainly want to keep some of that bread on your spoon!

Make My Cake Bakery

Two locations: 409 W 125th St and 2380 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd

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 the icing on the cake; they make the cakes from scratch!

You will want some of that cake. The Red Velvet is a standout!

Tips From Locals and Travelers

Most of our local tour guides have been to the restaurants above and loved them, which is why we mention them in this post.

But don't take just our word for it. We put the question to the members of our NYC Travel Tips Facebook group.

Our group has over 240,000 members and consists of locals, regular visitors to NYC, and those just getting to know the city.

Here’s what a sample tally looked like.

Overwhelmingly, group members recommended Sylvia’s. That may be because Sylvia’s is known by more people outside of New York City.

Runner-up Amy Ruth’s tends to be familiar to locals.

What are some dishes to try? This group member suggested the Fried Chicken and the Catfish. Be warned -- the house cocktail packs a punch!

Sounds like the must-try are the mashed potatoes and string beans at Amy Ruth's. We suggest the Chicken and Waffles!

Here, a former local of Harlem puts Melba's and Amy Ruth's over Sylvia's, while noting the significance of Sylvia's.

Still, all three will do you right!

For more tips about soul food or anything else about NYC, take a look at our NYC Travel Tips Facebook group.

You don't have to join to read the posts, comments and recommendations. You can even ask a question yourself!

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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: April 26th, 2024
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