Restaurants of New York - Harlem Food Bar
You could definitely say that Ernest “Ernie” Gonzalez, owner and chef of Harlem Food Bar, located at 2100 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, has played a role in the progressively changing Harlem neighborhood. A year-and-a-half after opening, Ernie tells me that he now has brokers, trying to rent out apartments to potential Harlem newcomers, bring their clients to his restaurant because he has created a selling point: an old-school New York atmosphere where the owner is hands-on and the customers all know each other. The moment you walk into Harlem Food Bar, you feel welcome and a part of this community. Ernie said, “They want to know me as much as I want to know them. It really is that connected.”
In 1981, Ernie left Puerto Rico and spent the next 20 years in downtown New York as an investment banker-turned-bar-restaurant owner of Hal (“one of New York’s longest lasting favorite bars”) and Big Cup in the Meatpacking District. Although, as Ernie explained, it is difficult to open up a business in New York because of all the rules, regulations and financial responsibility, he eventually founded Harlem Food Bar because he sought to go where he was needed and where he could truly serve a purpose to pay it forward.
“I have found that I am stronger than I thought I ever really was. I’m more positive, I think about the community as a whole and I think, ‘What can I do to make it better for all of us?’ It’s a very underserved neighborhood, so there’s a lot of room for growth,” said Ernie.
He recognized that Harlem is a neighborhood full of history, even history that people have yet to uncover, so he originally wanted to call his restaurant New Harlem. Yet he realized he didn’t want to go backward with the name, instead forward. He honestly expressed, “I’m not the same person that I was a year ago. I feel like I’m here for a different reason. My idea was to keep a small restaurant where you could really fine tune and cater to the people.”
Ernie provides an awareness of community at Harlem Food Bar because he works both the front-of-house and back-of-house, which means he knows where his food is coming from, what food is being prepared and who is ordering what dish. Ernie informed me, “I can explain everything here. If you want to be successful in something, you can’t separate yourself from it. It doesn’t happen on its own.” The restaurant’s whole basis is that his food is prepared fresh, nothing is frozen or comes out of a box: “We don’t have an extensive menu because we wanted to make everything as fresh as possible.”
Ernie’s customers benefit from his consistent and trustworthy awareness to food because they know that they can count on Ernie to educate them on how he whips up his concoctions. He said, “It’s not out of a bottle, so I know the recipe and I share it with them, too. I don’t hold anything back. I think good people who know food, they like to share their knowledge.”
Ernie echoed this sense of community by building a non-intimidating atmosphere: “The pretentiousness is out the window. I don’t like people to feel this is not their place.” He wanted all of his customers to afford the experience of eating at Harlem Food Bar, where its back wall beholds a one-of-a-kind collage-mural, comprised of diverse graphics on poster paper that are layered to elicit a fun urban-food theme. Ernie said, “I wanted to provide simple food for everyone. I think that’s what everybody wants. For everyday hanging out, getting to know your neighbors, you just want a really good burger, good conversation and a nice drink.”
He told me that come dinner time on Friday nights, he will have the whole bar–from the left corner to the right corner–packed with men and women engaged in one big conversation, and no, they’re not on their smartphones. “It’s quite fascinating how people are meant to talk. It’s really creating this communication link that everyone’s missing,” said Ernie.
This diverse, unique clientele, who consistently visit Ernie and his staff on a weekly basis, inspire him non-stop to do better, to keep going and taking care of this neighborhood. “This is what has happened here, I let it grow organically. I didn’t really put too much thought into it, but I wanted to make the space and my staff to be educated enough to know, ‘Hey, we’re here for them, we’re not here for ourselves,’” he proudly told me. Ernie admitted that there are days when he rides his bike home and just smiles because it’s not work for him to own Harlem Food Bar, he’s simply hanging out and having a good time with his neighbors at his own place.
When I asked Ernie if he noticed any change in Harlem within the past year-and-a-half, he felt as though Harlem is now more alive than ever. A lot of families are moving to Harlem because it has a way of embracing that sense of community and feeling like home, whether you’re from downtown New York or Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m with it. I think the change is good and everyone wins in this situation. I haven’t been downtown in God knows how long,” he shared.
According to Ernie, Harlem is a real, one of the last, neighborhood in New York. Before we wrapped up our interview, Ernie humbly told me, “I love the dynamics here. All the businesses here, they help each other. We all know each other, I know everyone. I know my customers. They ask me, ‘What should I have? What did you make today? It’s really old-school. It’s like going back in time, and I think that’s kind of neat.”
Photos By: Melissa Kirschenheiter