Published: April 26, 2006
Harlem Is Rising, but Where to Eat?
By CAREN CHESLER
Harlem is one of the few places in Manhattan where you can find a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom apartment with a pear tree in front, a magnolia out back and an oak fireplace in between, all renting for about $2,100.
But it comes at a cost: food. Aside from some renowned soul food, Harlem is relatively underserved in terms of restaurants.
The Zagat restaurant guide for 2006 has 119 listings for the East Village, which spans only 14 blocks. For Harlem, which spans 47 blocks, the guide lists only 18, and the roster includes a Papaya King and a Starbucks. New York magazine's online restaurant listings show 205 entries for the East Village, compared with only 27 for Harlem.
Michael Whiteman, a restaurant consultant based in New York, attributes the scarcity of restaurants in Harlem to the relative lack of high-density office buildings and of tourism, compared with other parts of Manhattan. Areas that depend almost entirely on residents generally have fewer restaurants per capita than mixed-use urban districts, Mr. Whiteman said.
But Harlem's market is challenging for other reasons as well. For one thing, restaurants typically make much of their money from alcohol, and in some parts of the neighborhood, it is difficult to obtain a liquor license. That is because state law prohibits restaurants from serving alcohol within 200 feet of a school or place of worship, and in some sections of Harlem, there is a church on nearly every block.
Lenox Avenue between 116th Street and 130th Street, one of the hottest housing markets in Harlem, has 14 churches. There are five churches on the block between 121st Street and 122nd Street alone.
Native, a bistro-style restaurant that opened in 2002, sits on Lenox Avenue at 118th Street, opposite Sojourner Truth School. But it was granted a full liquor license because Native's entrance was more than 200 feet from the main entrance of the school. New York State Liquor Authority rules specify that it is not the shortest distance between buildings, but rather the distance between entrances, that applies when an establishment is near a school or house of worship.
Restaurants that fall within a 200-foot zone can still obtain a license limited to beer and wine, but restaurateurs say that is not nearly as appealing. An Italian restaurant might be able to get away with that, they say, but not a steak house or bistro.
"Let's face it, everyone drinks," said Brian Washington-Palmer, who owns Native. "People like their martinis."
Even if a location falls outside the 200-foot setback, community opposition can derail a liquor application. Anyone applying for a liquor license must formally notify the local community board of the plans. While the boards have only an advisory role, the State Liquor Authority is said to weigh this advice heavily.
In Harlem, the authority denied an application earlier this year for a liquor store at 2922 Frederick Douglass Boulevard that faced strong opposition. "The authority received protests from various police and community officials," said William Crowley, a spokesman for the authority.
Eric Woods, who co-owns Harlem Vintage, a new liquor store on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 120th Street, said he faced no opposition when he applied for a license. But he said he knew of other people who wanted to open restaurants in Harlem and had difficulty finding commercial space that complied with the liquor laws. "In terms of having real estate that is conducive to serving alcohol, it is quickly becoming challenging," Mr. Woods said.
But churches are not the only obstacle. Because Harlem has never had the volume of restaurants that exist below 96th Street, anyone opening a new one often has to start from scratch, an expensive proposition. A new ventilation system alone can cost around $20,000.
Peter Traub, who owns a restaurant in the West Village, considered opening a restaurant in Harlem but said he finally decided against it because he did not want to go through a gantlet like the one he had experienced downtown.
When he bought Primitivo Osteria on 14th Street near Seventh Avenue three years ago, he said, it already had a kitchen, ventilation system and dining room in place. But before Con Edison could turn on the gas, Mr. Traub had to hire an architect to draw up plans as if he were building a new kitchen. He had to file plumbing drawings with the Department of Buildings. And he paid his chef and manager for three months while city officials reviewed his project. Some $50,000 later, Con Edison finally came to turn on his stove.
"We've now been up and running for three years, and we've never made up for that," Mr. Traub said. "It just threw everything off." Opening a restaurant in Harlem, where he was not likely even to have a kitchen already set up, would add even more complexity. "Even if you could do it, think of all the aggravation," he said.
Even those willing to sink money into a new space say the rents uptown are unusually high — as much as $80 a square foot annually, approaching rents in some desirable areas farther downtown that have the advantage of much more foot traffic.
Mr. Washington-Palmer, the owner of Native, said he recently looked at a space on Eighth Avenue and 116th Street that had two floors and beautiful windows, but the rent was too high — $15,000 a month. Another space down the street, with only one floor, had an asking price of $10,000 a month.
"How is anyone going to pay $10,000 to $20,000 a month?" Mr. Washington-Palmer said. "The only people who can go into that space is a bank or a Rite Aid. But that doesn't make a neighborhood."
With rents and start-up costs so high, it is almost essential for any restaurant opening in Harlem to be able to serve alcohol, owners say. Restaurants derive as much as 30 percent of their revenue from liquor sales, one said. As he put it, food pays the rent; alcohol pays the profits.
"The numbers just don't work right now for a restaurant guy to come in and run a profitable business," says Jimmy Rodriguez, a restaurateur who in the past has owned Jimmy's Uptown in Harlem, Jimmy's Bronx Cafe and Jimmy's City Island.
But that will change, Mr. Rodriguez predicted. Once there is a critical mass of prosperous potential customers in the neighborhood, he said, he expects more restaurants to open. "When the demand gets greater, the businesses will make it," Mr. Rodriguez said. "But it takes a couple of businesses to bring in the numbers before the rest follow."