Called by many names—Spanish Harlem or El Barrio or often just plain Harlem—this neighborhood stretching for more than 40 blocks north of 96th Street is a place where Puerto Rican and Cuban flags fly high. Still, a walk past newer restaurants reveals menus that increasingly span the globe. An ever-widening array of Mexican spots now fills the neighborhood alongside places offering everything from West African grain bowls to Peruvian-influenced small plates. And while the list of new restaurants keeps growing, these 22 stand out.
This casual restaurant across from Central Park is where you’ll find Senegalese chef and cookbook author Pierre Thiam’s take on West African food. Order the bright and flavorful grain bowls at the back counter before grabbing a table in the spacious dining room decorated with colorful textiles. Make your own by pairing your choice of steak, salmon, or veg stew with grains like fonio or jollof rice - or go with one of the “Super Bowls” like the “Yassa Yassa,” packed with caramelized onion-topped grilled chicken, red rice, spicy plantains, and black-eyed pea stew.
Contento is a small Peruvian-influenced spot that opened during the pandemic with a mission to be a restaurant and bar that is entirely accessible, with accommodating details like a partially lowered bar. The menu, too, feels right for the times. The wine-by-the-glass list is long and interesting (it includes a few bottles from both Mexico and Georgia), as is the small plates section of the menu, with a refreshing ceviche sharing space with a crispy vegetarian pizza topped with mushrooms, raclette, and potatoes.
The friendly French bistro and mini grocery occupies the front corner of the historic La Marqueta, today dotted with stalls selling local foods and art. Pop in for a fresh pastry, baguette sandwich, or quiche at one of the tables inside or under the Metro-North train tracks outside. If you’re in need of something more substantial, there are also heartier daily specials like beef Bourguignon. We especially like stopping by on the weekends, when the scent of melted butter, used to make their excellent croque monsieur, fills the Park Avenue space.
This cocktail bar is the type of place you’ll want to start up a conversation with the bartender (or silently scroll your phone) and stay awhile. The leather couches and candlelight kind of make it feel like you’re hanging out in a friend’s living room, and while they don’t serve food, the cocktails and playlists are good enough that you’ll hardly remember you’re hungry. But once you have that realization, Earl’s next door has you covered.
The deer wall mural at Earl’s might make you feel like you’ve been teleported to a cabin in the woods and if you’re anything like us, the mac and cheese will just make you generally happy. Don’t miss the Earl’s taco, which is a fried scallion pancake shell filled with pork. Wash it all down with one of their craft beers on tap and if you grab a seat at the communal table, you’ll have direct view of their TV which plays all the Sunday games.
You might wander into this stylish cafe right by the 125th Street Metro-North station looking for an espresso or fresh pastry, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But don’t leave without trying their namesake drink: ginjan. Made with organic ginger, this spicy West African juice is available by the bottle or, if you’ve got a scratchy throat, steamed, or as a latte. Ginger not your thing? Other specialty drinks include hibiscus-infused bissap, Moroccan mint tea, and caffeine-free Kenkeliba tea.
Gaudir is a low-key Spanish spot that checks all the romantic dinner boxes. Located in a narrow space just off Second Avenue, it’s home to a back fireplace and intricate tile work, and most importantly, some great food and drinks. Everything on the menu can be shared - not just the tapas like the patatas bravas and garlicky shrimp, but also the show-stopping paella (with seafood or pork ribs and chicken), which requires a minimum of two people to order.
You can see the hand-pressed corn tortillas being made right behind the counter at this fun Mexican spot on 116th St. And those very tortillas come stuffed with everything from beer-marinated steak to battered fish, while spicy salsas moritas and chipotle cremas add a nice kick. The margaritas, which come in tropical flavors like mango and tamarind, might also cause you to stick around a while and go up for seconds on all the tacos.
When you spot the gleaming piles of roast chicken and fried pork in the front window on 116th Street, you’ll know that you’ve arrived at Cuchifritos. Once inside this classic Puerto Rican counter spot, it can take a minute to get the servers’ attention, but once you do, start with the beef-filled fritters known as alcapurrias and the tamale-like pasteles stuffed with pork. Also, don’t forget the chicken and chicharron you first saw outside. Sides of rice and beans and tostones might feel like too much at this point, but don’t overthink it and just get both.
This beloved Thai restaurant meets vintage store is definitely in a category of its own. The small space has a few tables plus an open kitchen where the owner prepares light, straightforward Thai comfort food. Feel free to check out the hand-picked vintage tees, jackets, and denim hanging on the walls and shelves as you decide what to order, but we particularly like the soothing morning market noodle soup and the fried chicken.
Despite the name, Lexington Pizza Parlour has a lot more than just pizza. This neighborhood restaurant has a homey feel, thanks to both the jazz playing in the background and the extremely friendly staff. Order the “Luna Piena,” which is a half margherita pizza with smoked mozzarella and half ricotta calzone rolled into half of the pie. Yes, this is a thing that exists. If you’re still hungry, go for the chicken parm or any of their homemade pastas.
Super Nice Coffee and Bakery
If you see a line outside this pint-sized bakery with a cute pig’s face logo, it’s probably for the huge, handmade doughnuts in flavors like glazed chocolate and Fruity Pebbles. Although you should definitely get at least one, there are many more sweets to try here, including icing-drenched cinnamon rolls and plenty of French pastries, plus savory items like the egg sandwich served on a cheddar-jalapeño biscuit.
This attractive American spot joined Lexington Ave’s growing restaurant row two years ago, immediately becoming one of the best Happy Hour options in East Harlem - oysters are $1.50 and glasses of wine are $8 from 12-6pm on weekdays. But if you come after the cut-off point, grab a seat near the huge picture windows and ask to see the solid list of wines, which also come by the quartino and bottle. They pair nicely with the large menu that includes plenty of burgers, seafood, and customizable salads.
A true classic. The East Harlem location of Patsy’s Pizzeria is the original, and has been in this very same location since 1933 when Pasquale “Patsy” himself opened the doors. You don’t need to get too creative here with toppings. Order the plain pie – it’s the reason you’re coming to Patsy’s.
If you find yourself searching for a good place in East Harlem to meet a group of friends for a few beers, this is the place. The frequently updated blackboard is always crammed with a list of craft beers by the pint, and when everyone gets hungry, there are plenty of shareable plates - like the fried Wisconsin cheese curds and the nachos, piled high with two types of cheese, refried beans, guacamole and just about anything else you can imagine.
There are three steps to success at El Paso: Grab a seat at the bar, get yourself a margarita or anything from the extensive tequila menu, and order the chips (served warm) and guacamole. The short rib tacos are a big standout, but it’s really hard to go wrong with anything here that comes wrapped in a tortilla.
An outdoor mural of a smiling Celia Cruz welcomes you at this Cuban restaurant that, after a pandemic-induced hiatus, is back with live music on the weekends. Start with a tall mojito, served with a stick of raw sugar cane, and follow it up with the classic ropa vieja - tender shredded beef that’s been braised with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Make sure to get some yuca too, steamed with garlicky mojo sauce, since it just might be the perfect side.
Despite its newfound popularity on TikTok, this cheerful spot remains a good, casual option for Mexican street food. A true family-run business - both the parents and their grown children are often featured in the videos busily running the shop - Ollin serves everything from tacos to their thick, Puebla-style cemita milanesa. If it’s your first time, definitely try the original birria tacos, stuffed with the rich goat stew, heated on the griddle until the cheese is gooey, and served with a side of consommé.
Mojo is a chocolate mousse bar that resembles a chic ice cream parlor, only the tubs are filled with amazingly rich and fluffy mousse rather than a bunch of science experiment-style ice cream flavors. Options range from the traditional (chocolate, hazelnut, white chocolate) to the less traditional (passion fruit, matcha) to the seasonal (pumpkin spice with dulce de leche and speculoos crumbs). And because top-quality Belgian chocolate is the star ingredient here, the hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream, is also a good thing to add on when temperatures start to dip.
This tiny spot serves some of the best al pastor tacos in all of New York. And if you don’t live nearby, these alone are worth a trip to East Harlem. They’ve also added some outdoor seating, which helps because this counter-service spot is tiny, and while their hours have slightly shifted since last year, Taco Mix continues to be open from 8am-4am daily.
If you’re looking for somewhere to meet for a casual date, or to just catch up with a friend who moved upstate last year and hasn’t been back since, Barcha is the spot. Order a signature cocktail like the “Za’atar Paloma” or one of their many beers, then go for anything on the menu that comes with the tangy avocado poblano sauce. Two good options: the marvelously crunchy chicken wings coated in sweet-and-spicy harissa honey or the fried chicken jibarito, which replaces soft buns with tostones.
Pabade, a small bakery run by siblings with Venezuelan and Colombian roots, makes all of its own pastries, and also supplies many other cafes. Popular treats here include buttery almond croissants, dense brownies, and Colombian pandebono, but also sweets for those with dietary restrictions like flourless financiers and vegan muffins. If you can’t decide what to get, order the box of assorted pastries for next-day pick up at the store - it’s always a crowd pleaser.