When visiting New York City, make sure you wander Uptown past the end of Central Park, to Harlem. Once with a reputation for poverty and violence, Harlem like many NYC suburbs has gentrified. It’s interesting to note that in the 1950s, 98% of the population in Harlem was black but these days, African-Americans represent only 4 in 10. It’s a strong and vibrant community that really knows its roots and appreciates where it’s come from. Here are two great examples.
The Queen Of Soul Food
Sylvia’s is an institution. You can’t visit Harlem and not go to Sylvia’s for their fried chicken and corn bread. That’s just how it is. There are other shinier and groovier competitors nearby but it’s Sylvia’s that introduced New York to a whole different cuisine and it is still Sylvia’s where you go if you want to taste a piece of history. Started in 1962 by Sylvia Woods, this restaurant earned her the title of ‘Queen of Soul Food’ and for 50 years the kitchen has been turning out corn beef hash, cornmeal dusted catfish, shrimp and grits and all manner of Southern style dishes. Sylvia’s Sunday Gospel Brunches are particularly renowned but on this Wednesday evening, it was the chicken that we had come for. The restaurant is large with neutral carpets, avocado walls and brass fittings that give it a plush and genteel feel of an old fashioned ‘coffee lounge’. Corn bread is served to all diners on arrival and despite the sweet taste that I find hard to reconcile in a savoury dish, I inhaled it.
It’s interesting that in the US, white meat is popular enough that it attracts an extra charge. We saw this at a number of venues but it had no impact on us as we’re firmly in the dark meat camp. We chose for our chicken to come as is, rather than ‘smothered’, a term used for meals that are covered (drowned) in a gravy. Quite frankly, I’m not keen on the gravy they make in the US, particularly the white gravy that appears at breakfast. It may have been that a different gravy was used to smother the chicken but rather than risk it, we opted for the plain version. Our Down Home Fried Chicken dinners came with a choice of sides so we went for black eyed peas, collard greens, corn and mac’n’cheese. All traditional accompaniments and quite simple in their seasoning. The chicken was crisp and juicy and if there had been another piece, I wouldn’t have said no. The meal as a whole was more than enough and we were finished in plenty of time to head to the theatre. We’d eaten early to make sure we were on time for Amateur Night and as we were leaving the place was really starting to fill up. A mix of tourists and locals who were there to try something new or enjoy old favourites. Was it the best fried chicken I had ever had? Probably not but it was certainly tasty enough and I got to visit this beloved Harlem institution.
328 Malcolm X Blvd
New York NY
Live At The Apollo
Replete with chicken and collard greens, it was on to the main event. Amateur Night at the Apollo. This isn’t any ordinary amateur night and The Apollo Theater isn’t any ordinary theatre. For years, the theatre showcased the talents of performers who couldn’t get a gig elsewhere. All the big names performed on the stage, singing, dancing and joking their way into the hearts of New Yorkers. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Marvin Gaye, Patti LaBelle… the names go on and on. Ella Fitzgerald made her signing debut there in 1934. Jimi Hendrix won a first place prize in 1964. You knew you’d really made it if you were on the bill at The Apollo. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown even named one of his most famous albums ‘Live At The Apollo’.
A version of Amateur Night has been running at The Apollo since the 1930s and hasn’t looked back. The performers may be amateur in title but they are certainly not amateurish in their skills. It’s serious business with weekly heats leading up to finals with prizes worth $10 000. Every Wednesday the theatre is packed as the audience decide the fate of the performers. They need to charm the audience or they’ll be booed and ‘The Executioner’ will arrive. The Executioner has been part of Amateur Night since its inception. You’ve got to love a talent show where losers are tap danced off stage. We had high expectations.
The show is in two parts and is hosted by a well known comic or identity. Three of four child acts known as The Apollo Kids are the early performers and the rules are made very clear. You must not boo. There are only degrees of encouragement and applause. Inevitably on the night we visited there was a young girl in a blue sparkly dress and tiara singing her rendition of ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen. She stood no chance against a troupe of 20 or so of the bombiggediest girls and boys I had ever seen dance but she had been brave enough to get out there and give it a go.
When the adults come on to perform, it’s a whole different ball game. You’re at Amateur Night and you want to be entertained dammit! Never has the saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ been truer than at The Apollo. Those who look the business may not necessarily deliver on the goods. The audience will whoop, cheer, laugh and applaud to give encouragement. I heard more than one ‘Amen!’ called out. The way to get an act off stage that you really don’t like or you don’t think deserves to compete is to boo as loud as you can. You need to do the accompanying hand movements as well, pointing your hands to the side of the stage. If The Executioner comes on stage, they know they’re a gonner. It’s all done in good fun and makes it hugely entertaining as people try to finish their act before being tap danced off. At the end of the evening the first, second and third place getters are decided upon via the very scientific method of loudest applause. These people move on the semi finals and finals in coming weeks. They are vying for the title of ‘Super Top Dog’.
I can’t begin to describe how fun this night was. With a DJ to warm up the crowd, social media competitions throughout (+ free wifi) and an eager crowd, it made for a hugely entertaining evening at the bargain basement price of $30. One of my biggest regrets of our NYC visit is that we were only able to attend one Amateur Night. If I had have known it was go to be so good, I would have organised our calendar so we could have attended again. Next time…
The Apollo Theater
253 West 125th St
New York NY