Soul is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “spiritual principle embodied in human beings or the universe.” ‘Soul’ is abundant in New York City with a population of 8 million all with unique tastes, experiences, and cultures; it makes New York City an exciting place to grab a meal in restaurants where owners are telling hearty stories over one dish at a time. As fall transitions to winter and the days become shorter, the weather gets colder and it is not uncommon for one to feel lonely as more time is spent indoors.
The perfect cure for a cold winter day in New York City is Soul Food! Here are 3 of NYC’s Greatest Soul Food Spots worth your while to visit on a trip to the ‘Big Apple’!
Bed Stuy Fish Fry
Bed Stuy Fish Fry is one of New York City’s soul food staples being dubbed the Soul Food of Brooklyn. With multiple locations, it is a fast, easy, and convenient spot to grab a bite that warms the soul with extensive options that cater to a multitude of tastes.
Walking in, you see cases filled to the brim with a variety of meats, sides, and decadent desserts. For lunch or dinner, you can choose between a platter or a lunch special box, with protein and two sides perfect for mixing and matching exactly what suits your soul.
At Bed Stuy Fish Fry “everything sells”, says server Khalilah. The most popular items include whiting fish, mac and cheese, and yams. I selected my personal favorites of BBQ chicken with sweet yams and mac and cheese with a small lemonade. The chicken tenderly fell off the bone and was flavorfully sweet complimenting the mac and cheese and yams. The mac and cheese is very sharp and zesty. The yams are earthy and the cornbread is toasty with a nice bite. This box reminded me of home.
Carlos, the head chef, has been working there for two and a half years. He speaks purely from the heart as he expresses his love for the city, knowing that Soul Food’s mission and making people feel good is a multifaceted job. His ultimate goal is to make everyone feel at home. He says, “Food for me is the essential thing… [because] we satisfy the hunger and needs of other people.” He adds, “My best moment I’ve ever had is when a family asked for a very large order and we knew it was a surprise for grandpa. All the grandchildren came [and] I’m happy to do it my mission.” Bed Stuy Fish Fry is a restaurant that warms your heart.
Luckily, in the winter there are multiple hearts and kitchens open that are ready to connect as a community.
While Bed Stuy Fish Fry has a grab-and-go vibe, Sylvia’s is well known for its eat-in option. It’s located in the heart of Harlem, the black capital of New York City.
Sylvia’s is on the map as a world staple for all kinds of delicious creations from the late Sylvia Woods, the restaurant’s founder. She’s been feeding her community ever since its founding in the 60s and attracts guests from all over the city and the world. Upon entering you are escorted into an intimate dining room playing R&B such as Maxwell, Mary J. Blige and The Temptations. The room is surrounded by photos of the beloved Sylvia Woods, famous guests who have dined there such as Bruno Mars and Barack Obama, and most importantly, outlines the journeys of her family and friends that tell a story about her passion for food.
While Sylvia passed away in 2012, her legacy lives on through her children who work at the restaurant and also through her recipes that continue to satisfy customers from all walks of life. Sylvia’s is known for a wide range of dishes, but I decided my soul needed chicken and waffles, (which is what many of my neighbors were also having for brunch). You get a very filling portion with half a Belgian-style waffle two pieces of chicken topped with a generous scoop of butter and a filled canister topped with as much syrup as your heart desires. The waffles are light and fluffy with crispy edges that complement the very tender chicken. I ordered their sweet tea to drink which was lightly sweet with the perfect punch of zest afterwards.
Looking at the seats next to me it seemed that Sylvia had positively impacted my fellow diners who had smiles on their faces. I saw a family of three generations: a father, his daughter, Serena, and his granddaughter who was eager to eat with her family. I spoke with the family and discovered that they were visiting from Upstate and decided to have lunch before returning home. “We like the ambiance and the food. I like the fact that it’s black-owned and the happiness the area attracts,” the grandfather said. “Soul to me means family time, and getting together and is the essence of our blackness. Makes me think of the holidays,” Serena said.
Speaking to another visitor named Alan I had gotten similar responses. He said, “I love the food, laid-back atmosphere, and the homey vibes. They do a lot for the community. It’s always nice to support a restaurant that’s heavily involved in where they are.”
Ma N’ Pop
The vibe of Sylvia’s is very similar to Ma N’ Pop, another soul food place in the heart of Bed Stuy that was founded by the family. The restaurant is a quaint room adorned with vinyl, instruments, and photos on the walls and carries good energy. I had their signature catfish with collard greens, mac and cheese, and cornbread with half and half tea on the side. The catfish was perfectly crisp with just the right amount of succulence and was perfect with a dash of hot sauce and tartar sauce. The mac and cheese was very tender with a sharp cheesiness and the collard greens were seasoned with a nice bite to them. Finally, the half and half is a perfect blend of tangy and sweet to wash everything down.
The hostess, Tajee, has been working there for 4 years and enjoys helping out because it speaks to the family legacy. To her, soul food means “history because [there’s] a background story to every dish on the menu.” Ms. Rose, a local customer who has been coming to the restaurant for ten years, said, “They’re always very open and they welcome you. They talk to you all the time. It’s like coming home.”
As winter approaches, and people stay indoors, it’s uplifting to remember that there are millions of stories to be found in restaurants all around New York City. The beautiful thing about ‘Soul Food’ is that while it holds firm roots in the South, it’s a proud product of all perspectives, and is influenced by and inspires people from all over the world. Food will always connect people so the next time you visit New York City, venture out to one of these restaurants. There is something for and a seat for everybody at the communal table.