Where the Milkshakes Are Served With a Celebration of Black Culture
On a corner in Central Harlem, just blocks from the Apollo Theater and Marcus Garvey Park, stands Harlem Shake, a diner designed to look as though it’s been there for decades. The walls are covered with Jet magazine covers and photographs, some signed, of Black American musicians and celebrities: Regina Hall, Diddy, Maya Angelou, Questlove. Its retro diner-style menus and swivel bar stools evoke nostalgia for an era of charm — and upheaval — in American culture.
Rasheeda Purdie, a neighborhood resident of 14 years, finds comfort in how distinctly Harlem the restaurant is. “The interior of it, the aesthetic of it, the music — you can hear it before you even arrive,” she said. “That’s the Harlem that I know and fell in love with years ago.”
Harlem Shake reaches a milestone this month: The Black- and women-owned restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary, having served the Black and Latino communities in the neighborhood with updated takes on burgers, fries and milkshakes. A second location opened in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2021, serving guava frosés and chicken strips dressed in Spank’n hot sauce, and a third Harlem Shake is set to open in Long Island City this summer.
“Sharing food is almost like a love language,” said Dardra Coaxum, an interior designer and Harlem native who opened the restaurant with Jelena Pasic. “Feeding someone is no small gesture, and I love the fact that we’re doing this in our community.”
Harlem has a rich diner history that belongs to Black Americans. Former neighborhood mainstays from the 1960s, like Louise’s Family Restaurant and M&G Diner, were recognized for their soul food. Pan Pan, which stood at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, was a beloved Black-owned restaurant that served locals for 30 years, until it was destroyed in a fire in 2004. (It was immortalized in the Alicia Keys video for the song “You Don’t Know My Name.”)
The Central Harlem location of Harlem Shake, just blocks from the Apollo Theater and Marcus Garvey Park.Credit…Jason LeCras for The New York Times
Ms. Coaxum regularly visited Pan Pan with her grandmother, who lived in Harlem’s Riverton community. She went before and after school, describing it as a safe haven in her childhood — a feeling she wanted to recreate with Harlem Shake. After leaving New York for college, she returned to the neighborhood and channeled those memories, using them as inspiration for the restaurant’s design. “I always wanted to be back here in Harlem,” she said.
Before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, lunch counters and diners were racially segregated, and were often the site of racial tension and violence against Black Americans, particularly in the South. The retro counter stools at Harlem Shake look like those lunch counters, where Black American activists started the sit-in movement in Greensboro, N.C., to protest racial segregation and injustice. Those protests spread, reaching across the South, including Mississippi — where Ms. Coaxum’s grandmother hails from.
“She came to New York because she didn’t really have many options or freedom in Mississippi,” Ms. Coaxum said. “Harlem was a place of activism, and of organized protests. Anything that we can contribute to help keep Black history alive is important.”
Ms. Pasic and Ms. Coaxum are an unlikely pair. Ms. Pasic is from Croatia, and moved to New York in 2000. She ran a coffee shop and restaurant in Washington Heights; after a divorce, she wanted a job that would allow her more time with her children. When she met Ms. Coaxum, they bonded over their love of Harlem.
Their efforts to serve and uplift the neighborhood go beyond the food and the space itself. Ms. Jasic estimates that of the 35 people who work at the Harlem location, nearly 80 percent are from a local ZIP code. The owners regularly partner with local organizations and schools, and host an annual Miss (or Mister) Harlem Shake competition, open to trans and cisgender contestants; the winner is given $750 to donate to a Harlem nonprofit of choice. The 10th anniversary celebration will be a neighborhood event, too, with performances from local jazz bands, including the Marching Cobras.
“I’m so proud to have a place where everybody — people of all genders, races and orientations — can come together and eat, rest, remove any worries and just enjoy themselves,” Ms. Pasic said.
Citing a perfectionist mind-set and the pressures of running a minority- and woman-led business, Ms. Coaxum said her desire to get everything right can sometimes feel debilitating. But the restaurant’s 10-year journey has taught her an important lesson.
“If you make a mistake, you fix it as you go,” she says. “With a business like this, you have no choice but to just start and keep going.”
Harlem Shake, 100 West 124th Street, Manhattan, 212-222-8300; 119 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 877-717-4253.
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