From Melba's to Vinateria: Restaurant Resurgence on Frederick Douglass Boulevard
Last week, crowds spilled out of restaurants on the stretch of Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 112th and 118th Streets as neighbors celebrated the return of warm weather with the second annual Food & Drink Boulevard event, where they savored cocktails and croquettes, danced to live music emanating from a nearby dining room, and eventually made their way to another spot a couple of storefronts down, embracing the restaurant resurgence that has swept this neighborhood over the past decade (and especially over the last two years).
This section of street, just above Central Park West, is occasionally spotlighted as one of the next hot neighborhoods, another strip of Manhattan once deemed undesirable that's now coveted for cheap-ish rents and so is changing as a real estate-hungry crowd snaps up deals and takes over the blocks. But Yvette Leeper-Bueno, who opened the restaurant Vinateria in this area just three weeks ago, remembers when this section of Harlem played host to a different set.
"My husband Adrian [Bueno] and I have been in the neighborhood for 11 years," she explains. "And we re-did a brownstone that's been in the family since the 1980s. My father used to rent the rooms out on a weekly basis, and he would talk about these characters who'd stay there. At that time, the neighborhood was quite downtrodden. There were syringes in the streets, all kinds of crime, drugs, squatters, tons of problems with this specific building. Everything you can imagine."
That began to change over the course of the last decade, and after the couple finished rehabbing their home in 2005, they noticed a big shift in the people who were becoming their new neighbors. "In the last five years especially, the neighborhood has seen incredible bloom," Leeper-Bueno says. "There are great international families. We live behind German folks and French people. This is one of the neighborhoods that is truly a melting pot."
The change in demographics also spawned a restaurant revival that really began in earnest just three years ago. While neighborhood staple Melba's opened in 2005 and Zoma, an exemplary Ethiopian restaurant, opened in 2006, Leeper-Bueno pegs the beginning of the sea change to 2010. "One of the first restaurants to be of the new wave of restaurants was 5 and Diamond on 112th and Frederick Douglass," she explains. "Then Bier International opened, and then it kind of caught like wild fire."
Other new-ish entrants include Cedric, Lido, a second outpost of Levain Bakery and cocktail bar 67 Orange Street. And at the event last week, 11 restaurants were packed to capacity with the international mix of neighbors that defines the area.
Given her history with the neighborhood, Leeper-Bueno felt particularly well equipped to open a restaurant that would add something to the mix. "We felt well-suited to understand the changing needs in the area," she explains. "We wanted to open a place for everyone in the community, a bridge between the existing residents that had been here a very long time and the new influx of people. We opened up the space that we wanted to go to."
She built out the Vinateria address so she could accommodate groups up front and at the community table, keeping the back of the L-shaped dining room intimate for couples and small parties. And she teamed up with another couple that's been in the neighborhood for awhile: she met Gabriela Davogustto and Gustavo Lopez at Max SoHa ten years ago and brought them on to do take care of food and drink.
"It's a seasonal menu with Spanish and Italian influences," Leeper-Bueno explains. "Gustavo does fresh homemade pastas, and he's into making things with homemade appeal." The food pairs to a Davogustto's New World-heavy wine list that, Leeper-Bueno says, is aimed at introducing patrons to things they haven't tried.
But above all, she says, "It's important that the place has a soul. It brings me a lot of joy to see people that don't know each other coming together at the communal table. Sometimes by the end of the evening, they'll be embracing one another. They forged a new relationship here."
And this was the vision that her parents had when they invested in the neighborhood decades ago. "I'm so glad my parents saw that one day Harlem would see a resurgence," Leeper-Bueno concludes. "We couldn't feel more rooted in this community."
Want to sample some of the best eats and drinks in the 'hood? Start at Vinateria for a killer plate of pasta and a glass of wine then crawl down the avenue, hitting Levain Bakery for a chocolate chip-walnut cookie, Lido for Italian bites, Melba's for American comfort food, Bier International for a craft beer, Zoma for Ethiopian and 67 Orange Street for a cocktail. Finish up where it all began at 5 and Diamond.