Chéri is on a handsome stretch of Malcolm X Boulevard, between West 121st and West 122nd Street. The owner operated a restaurant in Paris for 20 years before moving to New York.Credit...Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
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By Joel Dreyfuss
Harlem has long had a romance with France. Well before the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, African-American artists and musicians traveled to France to broaden their artistic vision or to escape the daily oppression of American racism.
Not widely known, however, is that the traffic went both ways, with French tourists visiting Harlem because of their fascination with jazz, gospel and black culture, even through the rough years of the 1970s and 1980s, when fear of crime kept away many Americans. During that era, my French came in handy more than once, giving directions to bewildered visitors.
French-speaking Africans have settled and opened businesses on and around West 116th Street since the 1980s, with Petit Senegal lending the bustling thoroughfare a distinctly international air with passers-by in flowing boubous, shops selling phone cards for cheap calls to Africa, and Franco-African restaurants and vegetable stands offering tropical products like hot peppers, plantain and palm oil. But since the 1990s, a small French expat community, attracted by the romanticism of Harlem, its strong sense of community and colorful history, as well as by comparatively lower real estate prices, has sprung up, and, inevitably, so have French restaurants.
Several restaurants are clustered around West 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard (still called Lenox Avenue by hard-core Harlemites), and still the beating heart of Harlem, with one outlier on a corner of St. Nicholas Avenue that once hosted an unmemorable Chinese restaurant. As a Haitian-born immigrant who lived in Paris, Africa and for decades on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before returning to Paris five years ago, I find the knowledge that I can eat a decent French meal on my trips back to New York — without traveling downtown — as comforting as a blanquette de veau on a crisp Paris evening.
The presence of at least four traditional French restaurants in Harlem suggests in many ways how much Harlem has evolved, this neighborhood that has absorbed successive waves of immigrants, including the 17th-century Dutch farmers who named it after Haarlem back home. Then there were the Irish and Italians of the mid-19th century, and at the start of the 20th century, Jewish entrepreneurs and entertainers and African-Americans fleeing the segregated South. Now affluent millennials, including many whites, priced out of other parts of the city, have arrived.
Harlem’s embrace of the French restaurateurs has been warm. “Harlem is a village,” said Thierry Guizonne, the owner of Chez Lucienne. Increasingly, the village has a French accent.
For most of the 1950s and 1960s, the most visible Gallic presence in Harlem was Frenchy, the flamboyant Haitian-born Camillo Casimir, whose Casdulan Hairdressers on 125th Street was Harlem’s largest beauty parlor. Frenchy traveled often to Paris to keep up with the latest styles and coifed the hair of Harlem V.I.P.’s, including Diahann Carroll and Mrs. Louis Armstrong.
Today, in the rapidly gentrifying landscape that is Harlem, the French presence is best seen in four restaurants, in addition to African-owned places with classic French dishes on their menus alongside African specialties, including Patisserie des Ambassades on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and West 119th Street; Ponty Bistro Harlem on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at West 139th Street; and takeout sandwich shops like B & K French Cuisine on Adam Clayton Powell at West 128th.
Harlem, long known as the capital of black America, has a history as a culinary destination, primarily for soul food at longtime establishments such as Sylvia’s on Malcolm X Boulevard near West 126th Street and Amy Ruth’s on West 116th Street. On many evenings, busloads of European and Asian tourists can be seen jostling with the locals for an authentic experience of Southern cuisine. Long gone are Wells Supper Club, which allowed late-night revelers to have dinner and breakfast at the same time with its famous fried chicken and waffles, and Copeland’s, which offered chitterlings and champagne in Hamilton Heights and briefly on the Upper West Side before foundering in 2007.
While the bulk of the media attention to Harlem’s growing restaurant scene has lately gone to the celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and his Red Rooster Harlem, launched in 2010 on Malcolm X Boulevard, with an eclectic mix of Scandinavian and soul food (both Swedish meatballs and fried chicken are on the menu), it’s no longer difficult to find a decent coq au vin, a confit de canard or a boeuf bourguignon north of West 110th Street.
Each of the four restaurants profiled here offers its own particular ambience.
There are no berets or other French clichés in sight at Barawine Harlem, on a corner of Malcolm X Boulevard at West 120th Street. Owned by Fabrice Warin, the restaurant and wine bar, with its subtle gray and brown color scheme, rows of wine bottles and subdued lighting, would fit right in with the new wave of cool branché (plugged-in) bistros in the 10th Arrondissement around the Canal St. Martin. A long two-sided rectangular bar that doubles as a communal table takes up much of the space in the airy front of the house. Customers sit side by side or across from one another. Those who prefer conventional tables and larger groups can find them in the back room, or, in good weather, on the sidewalk.
Mr. Warin (pronounced Vah-RHIN), born in Bordeaux, first moved to Australia, where he learned English, before finding his way to New York. He got a job as a waiter, studied to become a sommelier and worked for Alain Ducasse and François Payard before launching his own place.
Mr. Warin, 44, has lived in Harlem since 2000 and had long dreamed of opening a French restaurant there. “I have a passion for food and wine and Harlem,” he said. But some investors remained wary of financing restaurants in the neighborhood until Mr. Samuelsson’s Red Rooster opened a decade ago, he said. Gaetan Rousseau, a film producer and former neighbor in Harlem who had frequently heard his pitch, finally agreed to invest. Barawine is a Franglais word play on the French bar à vin.
Open since August 2013 for dinner daily and brunch on weekends, Barawine attracts a stylish and diverse crowd of young and old, black and white, neighborhood characters, tourists looking for a good meal and suburbanites who want to experience the “new Harlem.” “We have a lot of French people on the weekend,” Mr. Warin said, attributing the surge of European tourists in the last five years to an article in the French newspaper Le Figaro about black churches offering gospel music.
The ambience at Barawine is cool and upscale, with a D.J. spinning rap, hip-hop and soul at Sunday brunch, and live jazz on Sunday nights and Tuesdays. A multiracial Francophone staff offers friendly and efficient service. Barawine features a standard French menu, including mussels, a charcuterie plate and hand-cut beef tartare. The food is tasty, well presented and reminds me of the bistronomique restaurants in the gentrifying neighborhoods of the 10th and 11th Arrondissements in Paris. The list is international, with 25 wines available by the glass at $9 to $15, and 200 wines available by the bottle. At dinner, first courses range from $10 to $16; main dishes, $17 to $36.
Just a few blocks north, on Malcolm X Boulevard between West 125th and 126th Streets, is the grand-mère of them all, Chez Lucienne, which opened at the end of 2008, two years before the Red Rooster arrived next door. Operated then by the French restaurateur Alain Chevreux and named for his mother, Chez Lucienne changed hands in 2015. The owner is now Thierry Guizonne, 40, a native of the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, who had run a sushi restaurant in the Paris suburb of Rueil-Malmaison before moving to New York in 2014.
Mr. Guizonne (pronounced Gee-ZONE) said many customers — unaware of France’s increasingly diverse population — are surprised to see a black Frenchman as the owner. Explaining his origins can be difficult since, he said, most customers have never heard of Guadeloupe. “I tell them it’s near St. Martin,” he said, referring to the popular Caribbean vacation destination.
Mr. Guizonne said he benefits from the drawing power of the media-consuming Red Rooster just next door. “I like to say people party at Red Rooster, but they come to my place to eat.”
His menu features many French classics, including, on a recent visit, an onion soup, a steak-frites and a cassoulet on a par with what I order in a standard neighborhood restaurant in my Paris neighborhood. At dinner, first courses are $8 to $16; main courses, $20 to $28. The atmosphere is vaguely colonial and a little faded, with exposed bricks, overhead fans, palms and a row of antique mirrors along one wall. Mr. Guizonne has plans for an upgrade of the décor, and has opened an upstairs lounge with jazz and R&B music for dancing on weekends. He’s also considering a new name. In good weather, his outdoor seating area is lively and ideal for checking out the boldface names going in and out of the Red Rooster.
Chéri casts a different spell. In the middle of the block between West 121st and 122nd Streets on Malcolm X Boulevard, it is tucked into a row of finely detailed brownstones, most with street-level commercial space, in a section of the boulevard that best displays the grandeur of old Harlem. Because churches and rowhouses dominate this part of Malcolm X instead of the monotonous high-rises farther north, the spaciousness of the thoroughfare can be fully appreciated here for its generous width and broad sidewalks.
Chéri is a couple of steps down from the sidewalk on the ground floor of a brownstone, and the atmosphere is both casual and refined.
“I wanted people to feel they are in my living room,” said Alain Eoche, 57, an energetic man who lives on two floors above the restaurant. He is a believer in the Chinese practice of feng shui and has organized and decorated the space himself. There’s a grand piano, a bar along the left side of the room, a bookcase and a fireplace.
The jewel of the location is the garden in the back, a covered space that can be opened to the sky in good weather. Chéri frequently features live music — a pianist most evenings, with a singer on occasion. The walls serve as a gallery for a rotating roster of French and Caribbean artists whom Mr. Eoche admires.
Born in Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France, Mr. Eoche (pronounced AY-osh)owned a restaurant in the chic Marais district of Paris for 20 years before moving to New York in 2013. He opened Chéri in March 2014. The menu includes a merguez lamb burger, and something hard to find in France, a veggie burger. First courses are $9 to $21; main dishes, $19 to $27. Mr. Eoche does much of the cooking himself, including the daily special, and the food benefits from his personal attention — it is authentic and flavorful.
Like the other three restaurateurs, he fell in love with Harlem’s neighborliness. “You’re in New York, but not really,” he said. “The village ambience makes immigrants feel more at ease.”
Maison Harlem is several blocks west of the French cluster of restaurants around Malcolm X Boulevard and West 125th Street. On a corner of West 127th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, it draws a more economically diverse crowd than the other three spots, from working-class African-Americans and Latinos to smartly dressed strivers and gentrifiers, all in a warm atmosphere that recalls a neighborhood bistro in a gritty section of Paris, like Belleville in the 20th Arrondissement.
The background is exposed brick, and the décor smacks more of accumulation than foresight — a gumball machine, an antique clock and assorted paintings. The bar, on the ground level of what used to be a Chinese restaurant, is lighted by tall windows during the day and is warm and cozy in the evening. It is the center of social interaction at Maison Harlem, with drinkers elbow to elbow on busy weekend nights and the overflow and those waiting for tables lined up along the narrow counter on the opposite wall.
The large dining room is several steps up at the back of the bar, giving diners the sensation of stepping onto a stage. You have a choice of picking a table or a leather booth to monitor the bar scene or seats farther back for more privacy.
Maison Harlem is nestled at the foot of the hill that leads to the City College campus and its hodgepodge of granite and white terra-cotta neo-Gothic buildings and stark modern structures. It draws a busy lunch crowd during the week, college faculty, students and employees of businesses around West 125th Street.
The owner, Samuel Thiam, 45, is a native of Paris who grew up in the southern French city of Montpellier. An aunt and uncle ran a restaurant in the Paris suburbs. Mr. Thiam (pronounced TEA-am) came to New York as a dancer and actor, but a motorcycle accident ended that career. He got work as a floor director for television news shows. The hours were long, he recalled, and the job didn’t fulfill him.
The restaurant, now four years old, was a response to a personal need. “I had a condo in Harlem and no bistros to hang out for a glass of wine,” Mr. Thiam said. He found a business partner to finance the deal when a corner store became available. Reflecting a French — and New York — reality, location was important. “You have to have a corner,” he said. He has also opened a wine store directly across the street.
The menu and the ambience echo his biracial origins — his mother was from Normandy and his father from the Ivory Coast. “I wanted to have French food with an African panache,” Mr. Thiam said. The background music leans toward Afrobeat and the Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti, but you might hear French chansons at lunch and brunch. There are North African dishes, including a merguez sausage sandwich at lunch. First courses at dinner are $9 to $20; main courses, $14 to $32. He recently introduced a bar menu that offers sliders and oysters at a buck a piece.
Mr. Thiam has been struck by how both old and new Harlemites are remarkably knowledgeable about French cuisine. “I’ve had so many people chatting with me about escargots, foie gras and pâtés, it always surprises me,” he said.
A correction was made on
April 23, 2017
An article last Sunday about French influences in Harlem misidentified the birthplace of Fab-rice Warin, owner of Barawine Harlem. He was born in Bordeaux, not in Alsace.
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Joel Dreyfuss, a journalist based in Paris, is writing a book about his family’s 300-year relationship with Haiti.
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