Monday, June 23, 2014

Harlem Shake: Uptown Retro Burger Joint Revives Recollections of Grandfather's Malts and Candy Store

Posted by Demetra Pappas, NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- Harlem Shake  is named after a funky iconic dance but it’s actually a retro burger and shake joint.  Harlem Shake's neighborhood reminds me of my beloved grandfather, who, after coming to America from an outpost of peasant farmland in Greece (a place he called Krio Vresey, which translated literally to Cold Spring), had an old fashioned candy store (Malts included). So this new “joint” has a lot of old New York City history.

My grandfather and his contemporaries -- whether immigrants in the boroughs or African Americans in Harlem -- would have enjoyed the Shake. Yes my grandfather would be thrilled by the old school shakes made from Blue Marble ice cream and organic milk from New York Fresh Milk. He would also be shocked to hear me proclaim the new age vegan burger the best vegetarian rendition this meat eater has ever had.  He would have been delighted to see longtime Harlem resident Dennis Decker’s design of the building, at the corner of Lenox Avenue and West 124th Street. It has “restored” original features of a (nonexistent) 1800s dry goods store turned 1940s diner. In essence, it is constructed as an “original” Harlem hangout, and is abuzz as a contemporary one within yards of the Apollo Theater.   
Owner Jelena Pasic researched the property ownership lineage and discovered that in the 1940s the space was in fact a restaurant. This inspired her to search for old photos at the main branch of the New York Public Library. The cream and green vinyl booths and formica seating are homage to the original restaurant.  Hidden beneath a drop ceiling Pasic and Decker found some eight layers. Their archaeological excavation also yielded several layers of unglazed octagonal white and black tile.
Both the interiors and exteriors bespeak wit and cultural wisdom. There is a Wall of Fame celebrating famous customers with signed photos ranging from Janet Jackson to Bill Clinton and there is a “Miss Harlem Shake” photo along the back wall.  Another wall has 300 vintage covers of the original JET magazine. There are also faux water leak worn tin ceilings and a two-story corner vertical 1970s style “BURGERS” sign. 


Playfully merging cultural and culinary interests is a winning formula for Harlem Shake. It’s worth a trip uptown to visit this retro joint that evokes historical discovery and reinterpretation. 

 Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, has taught in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College and is author of the book "The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate". She can be reached at and followed on Twitter @DemetraPappas.  Images for this piece were provided by Harlem Shake.

1 comment:

  1. Great spot and foodies! They work well with the community to keep Harlem Culture alive with groups like The Harlem Swing Dance Society - we'll be there Sunday's in July!