You’re zipping north on the 1 line and heading high in Manhattan, maybe for a breezy stroll around Grant’s tomb or a pious peek at the Gothic wonders of St. John the Divine. You’re probably not thinking the best part of your visit to this neighborhood could actually be what you eat. As the street numbers climb into the triple digits, your expectations tend to drop when it comes to restaurants in the West 100s. Morningside Park? Gorgeous. The Columbia campus? A splendid site for casual lovers of Greek architecture. “But,” you say, “What’re we gonna eat around here?”
The West 100s are undoubtedly lovely, but to many of the area’s visitors, the food scene looks sparse, yielding our current epidemic of wandering, hungry pedestrians, who become increasingly apprehensive and hypoglycemic, and end up saying things like, “I mean, isn’t Red Rooster like, really close?”
So they migrate east for their artful chop sueys and cornbreads, they pay about 30 bucks a piece and everyone has a great time. But, the trouble with all of this is that no one needs to be leaving the West 100s to eat delicious food in the first place! Contrary to popular understanding, there is an incredibly rich and eclectic restaurant scene nearby—one that dwarfs the meager dining arena of the Upper West Side. And, no one is talking about it — but they should be.
So, when you’re far uptown, hungry, and decidedly foregoing the pilgrimage to Marcus Samuelsson’s well-publicized Central Harlem restaurant, give these spots a try and expect to be surprisingly sated.
For sophisticated comfort food from “The Boot,” Max SoHa on 123rd and Amsterdam is a go-to spot. You’ll be hard pressed to find tastier haute-Italian anywhere in the city. The rustic, romantic place dishes out a squid ink linguini that’s so good it’s worth crying over, not to mention the myriad daily specials that cover the dining room’s blackboard. Try dinner with friends here on a Saturday night– you’ll think you’ve died and gone to the East Village.
If low-brow Italian is what you crave, the neighborhood also garners a supremely cheesy, tomato-y answer to your stomach’s cry for goodness. Koronet Pizza on Broadway and 112th is a popular late-night destination for jolly intoxicated Columbia students, and a popular lunchtime destination for pretty much everyone. The pizza, known more than anything for its preposterously large size, is always fresh with a crispy crust. It gets the job done, it’s cheap, and best of all, you get to look modest ordering only one slice knowing full well it’s spatially equivalent to two or three.
If you’re in the mood to venture beyond the Western palette for something spicy, flavorful and remote, there’s an array of ethnic food in the West 100s. Ditch the fork and knife sometime and try Massawa. The food at this versatile Ethiopian restaurant on 123rd St. and Amsterdam comes on a stack of giant, thin rolled, naturally gluten-free sourdough pancakes. A spectrum of dishes such as braised spiced lamb, pureed chick peas with herbs, and braised cabbage, come served in a colorful ring. Tear off pieces of pancake, using each piece to scoop up your next bite, all without the burdens of silverware! It’s fun and delicious.
I like to think of the West 100s as the nosebleed streets of Manhattan. Sometimes when I get up that high, I imagine the air is thinning. One thing I know for sure is that while the neighborhood’s oxygen molecules may be sparse, its food scene is dense. The restaurants I’ve named here and more put the mediocre Tex-Mex pubs, overpriced brasseries, and poorly attended Asian fusion lounges of the Upper West Side to shame.So, it’s time for us to hop on the red line, shoot north, and actually stay west when it’s time to get a bite to eat. Marcus Samuelsson, I raise my glass to you and your famous farm fowl, but yours isn’t the only restaurant uptown that’s got it going on.