By Deardra Shuler
February 22, 2005
There is no doubt that Harlem is undergoing revitalization and a return to the time of glamour when Harlem was the hot spot of Manhattan and indeed the world. The “Harlem Grill,” a new restaurant/supper club has brought class and panache back into the community.
The supper club stands where once stood the famed landmark restaurant “Wells,” located at 2247 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (bet 132-133rd Street). The “Harlem Grill” however has given the former Wells a facelift and brand new personality, one reminiscent of bygone days but clearly exists in the now in terms of its elite dinning innovation. This skillful revamping of style and taste is a return to the era of chic, romance and fine dining.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Allen West who is determined to keep the spirit of the legendary Wells alive while still maintaining his own èlan and flair to what unquestionably provides an aura of charm, sensuality and uniqueness within a cozy atmosphere.
36-year-old restaurateur and entrepreneur Allen West, was born a border baby in Harlem Hospital, where he remained for 13 months. He was adopted by Sam and Viola Dupree and lived with them for 7 years until his mother reclaimed him and raised him in the South Bronx. Economic circumstances having changed, at age 15, West began his first job at Sammy’s Fish Bar in City Island as a bus boy. The job exposed him to the restaurant business and eventually propelled him into entrepreneurship. The ambitious teenager ran a hotdog stand at 16 and sold ice cream on the beach. After obtaining a business degree and also studying theater at UC Santa Barbara and St. Francis, Mr. West opened his first restaurant, “Kwanza,” in Soho. He operated it for 3 1/2 years. He then went on to aid others in opening restaurants — one among them was Puffy’s restaurant Justins. West, also, managed the Boathouse Café and the Red-Eyed Grill. The Red-Eyed Grill was the 14th highest grossing restaurant in the country. He met his current partner and executive chef, 35-year-old Tyson Jordan, while working at the Red-Eyed Grill. Tyson, an experienced chef, had honed his craft with the likes of Cajun chef Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans and renowned American chef-restaurateur Charlie Palmer.
“The faire served at Harlem Grill, is New American cuisine with an emphasis on seafood,” explained Allen. “Our signature dishes to date are our Clay pot Red Snapper which is unbelievable. We also feature Merlot braised short ribs that fall off the bone. Our rock shrimp appetizer with an apricot curry sauce has become quite popular. Of course, our dishes will change with the seasons. We also have a hand picked global wine list featuring 12 different champagnes and popular wines from various countries. We are including fresh puree fruit at the bar.”
Allen West honors the history of what was once Wells. “I want to keep the spirit of the place. There is a lot of history and tradition reflected in this space,” states the young restaurant mogul. “Wells restaurant opened up in 1938 and closed its doors in 1999. Initially, Joe Wells found the first two years tough but through determination held on. He was a young African American man from the South and one of a few black restaurant owners in Harlem at the time. Many places were white-owned but often the artists who performed for these white restaurants were black. Yet, they were unable to eat at the establishments where they performed,” explained Allen. “Joe Wells came up with the concept of chicken and waffles because it was too late to eat dinner and it was too early for breakfast. Therefore, he combined the two mediums so when artists like Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, and Duke Ellington came to his restaurant, he had the combination chicken and waffle dinners for them. It became a big hit. His restaurant having been one of the few in town open late made Wells a phenomenal hit for decades. It was very upscale and glamorous in the ‘40s and ‘50s. By the 1960s and ‘70s, Wells was featuring big bands on Monday nights. This brought a whole new revitalization. Unfortunately, toward the end it got rather drab with only the chicken and waffles and the Monday night band remaining as its main attraction. However, Joe Wells had a great run. Restaurants traditionally go out of business in the first year or 2. The man did north of 60 years and that is a great feat. It marks 30 more years than Sylvia’s longevity, so it’s a true Harlem landmark” commented the new owner. “However, as things develop, I see there is room for a lot of amenities in Harlem. This is the next hot neighborhood.”
West’s future vision for Harlem Grill is to see it become a great 2 Star boutique supper club. “Harlem Grill is an experience. It is a restaurant, it’s a supper club, it’s an art gallery, it’s a place to meet and greet people who are in the fields of entertainment, high finance, politics, etc. Eventually, I even plan dinner theatre” claims the young visionary. “We are having a gospel Sunday brunch, a blues night on Monday with real old grimy, traditional barnyard blues with a great band featuring Mike Campbell and up and coming Blues singer Acantha Lang. Every Tuesday night we will have industry night where signed artists come to perform prior to their CD release. Violinist Marie Ben Arie will be appearing on February 22nd and Tsiddi Le Loca, the South African artist from the Lion King, will be doing a one-woman show for us in March. Once a month on the first Thursday of each month, we plan to do a ‘70s Explosion with a gentleman named Butch Purcell and Vaughn Harper from WBLS. We had the Intruders perform recently and plan to have Gerald Isaacs in March and Ray Goodman and Brown in April. One never knows who or what to expect at the Harlem Grill,” declared the charming restaurateur.
In keeping with the Wells tradition, West is considering serving chicken and waffle dinners on Fridays and Saturday nights at midnight and then as a Sunday brunch. The Harlem Grill is a multi-media space designed to draw an eclectic clientele and therefore has even attracted an international crowd. “We have had events with Steven Van Zandt from the Sopranos, music powerhouse Alicia Keys, a political fundraiser for David Patterson and events for Lloyd Williams. These events drew people like Andrew Cuomo, Charles Rangel and Mark Green. We are planning a dinner for Magic Johnson in March. We offer valet parking; have a doorman, 2 bartenders, 6 waitresses, 2 managers, and a hostess. Most of the staff is caring, talented people who we hired with an emphasis on great personality.”
2700 square feet, cooper tin ceilings, amber lights, candelabras, antique mirrors and leather pleated walls make up the ambiance of the Harlem Grill. Carlos Jimenez designed and custom built most of the interior and furnishings. Eli Kince provided the art. Seating is comprised of 12 barstools, 70 seats, a 20-seat lounge and a stage, which is also used for VIP seating. Most of the key management is made up of African Americans who live in Harlem. “Our focus is on tremendous service with an eye toward eventually securing a number of Harlem Grill’s nationally and internationally” said the single father of one son.
A humanitarian, West is planning to put together a non-profit organization that will serve as a hospitality placement program for at risk kids who will be trained in the restaurant business and placed in jobs. “As black people we have to start believing in each other, investing in one another and giving back. It doesn’t make any sense if we don’t.
“This is my time in the sun,” remarked West. “I am at peace in my life now and I really believe in what I am doing. I believe in myself and I believe in the success of the Harlem Grill.”
Deardra Shuler is a journalist in the New York City area. She serves as the Entertainment Editor of the Black Star News and free-lances for several minority print and Internet papers. She has a background in concert promotion, theatre, radio and television and is the host of her own talk show, “Topically Yours,” on the BlakeRadio Network.