Sylvia's in Harlem


There are two things I never order: fried chicken and waffles. I'm sure there are others, but these are high up on my no-no list. Last week I ordered both, at the same time. It was a blustery, wet day in the upper regions of Manhattan. 125th Street to be exact. I had been wandering the streets seeking out literary highlights with several other poetry fans and my energy was on the decline. Sylvia's blinking lights could be seen for blocks and they flashed their starlights at me, like a beacon, telling me to come out of the rain.

Sylvia's, a soul food restaurant that opened in 1962, is a series of large, connected rooms. Inviting despite the low ceilings, the tables looked to be filled with a happy mix of tourists and locals. As we sat down the waitress handed us heavy, multi-page menus filled with daily specials (chicken livers), side orders (collared greens and buttered corn) and, of course, fried chicken (smothered or fried). It would be easy to be overwhelmed by a menu this dense, which is why I suggest you order things you've never ordered before. The waitress swung by for our order. Andrea ordered the chicken livers claiming it had been thirty years since she last had them. "Would you like anything to drink with that?" the waitress asked. "Is your lemonade homemade?" Andrea asked. "We make it here. (Pause) But we make it from CountryTime," the waitress slowly drawled out. I laughed and enjoyed the brief hit to my taste buds that a word like CountryTime brings. Ah, childhood.

As we drank our water, a basket of hot cornbread was placed on our small, glass table. Hot and crispy on the edges, the bread was light and sweet. It was bread you could easily wolf down in seconds. I did my best to take more than a few seconds until our meals arrived. Which didn't take long.

My fried chicken was moist on the inside while the outside crust was savory and crunchy. I dipped the chicken in a side of their barbecue sauce, which was too runny and sweet for my taste so I made do with the bottle of hot sauce on the table. My side of okra and tomato gumbo was also too sweet, which may be Sylvia's biggest flaw, too much sugar in her recipes. Andrea's side of yams, she said, tasted like pie. The waffles were good, especially when you stacked your fork up with a piece of waffle, drenched in syrup, along with a bite of chicken in hot sauce. I would have preferred my waffles to be crispier but by the end of the meal they were flagging, along with my appetite. Sylvia's seems to be a well-oiled machine at lunch. Which can be a good or bad thing, an eager busboy asked if he could clear our basket of cornbread, much to my chagrin, and almost started taking away my lunch. "I'm not finished yet," I quickly told him. Phew. I'm sure I'll return sometime in the next year. Perhaps when Bill Clinton invites me up to Harlem. I hear he's a big fan.