“I am an African. I am an African foodie. I am an African foodie in New York,” my remixed version of Sting’s classic song “Englishman in New York”.
It is the best of both worlds. Or is it three worlds? African. Foodie. New York City. Life cannot get any sweeter than this! And September magnifies the beauty of these worlds even more. Three global events take place in New York City in this month alone – New York Fashion Week, The Clinton Global Initiative and the United Nations General Assembly. And the world it seems, descends upon this cosmopolitan mega-city in unprecedented numbers. There are restaurants galore in New York City – to suit every palate, craving and gustatory fetish.
For most visitors and even New Yorkers themselves, the sheer number of restaurants in New York City can be daunting and overwhelming. So I teamed up with Akin Akinsanya, a fellow African foodie and founder and CEO of New York African Restaurant Week and his team to pick the top 10 African restaurants the Big Apple AAPL +2.94% has to offer its residents and visitors – the adventurous and /or those seeking to satisfy their craving for African food.
According to Akinsanya, there are over 50 African restaurants in the Greater New York metropolitan area alone! “While we have yet to make it to mainstream, there is a growing awareness of and love for African cuisine,” explained Akinsanya. “New York African Restaurant Week is an annual week-long celebration of African cuisine and culture by New Yorkers and people from all over the world. We invite people to taste and experience the rich, diverse and flavorful cuisine that Africa has to offer, right here in New York City. No passport needed – promise!”
The criteria we used for picking the best African restaurants in New York City was taste, service, ambiance and consistency.
Here are the top 10 African restaurants in New York City (in no particular order):
Ponty Bistro, Senegal / West Africa
Nestled away on Third Avenue, between 18th and 19th Streets near Gramercy Park, a trendy part of Manhattan is Ponty Bistro, an uber chic and upscale West African eatery. Owned by cousins, Executive Chefs Alhadji A. Cisse and Chekh Cisse, the duo fuse West African and Senegalese culinary traditions with modern Mediterranean and French techniques to serve up a menu of delectable gourmet meals that thrill the palate morning, noon, and night. The Senegalese chefs honed their culinary skills at restaurants owned by renowned chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Vong and Mercer Kitchen) and Daniel Boulud (Daniel Restaurant) before striking out on their own. Constantly perfecting their craft, Chef A. Cisse was the first African contestant and finalist on the Food Network’s hit-show Chopped. Not surprising, Ponty Bistro is said to make one of New York City’s best expressions of macaroni & cheese. And in August of this year, the chefs broke ground with a second restaurant, Ponty Bistro Harlem, in Harlem, New York, which is bigger and more modern.
Madiba, South Africa
If you want to experience the unique culinary flavors of South Africa then Madiba Restaurant is the place to be. Located in the heart of Fort-Greene, Brooklyn on Dekalb Ave, Madiba pays homage to the late iconic human rights leader, Nelson “Madiba” Mandela while modernizing the traditions of “shebeen”, the illicit bars of townships in South Africa. The ambiance (the interior reminds you of South Africa in many ways), service and cuisine (try their Peri Peri Prawn, farm-raised Ostrich Carpaccio, or their Pap and Oxtail) make Madiba one of the top African restaurants in New York City. A huge colorful picture of Mandela that hangs in the restaurant brings the spirit of the eatery to a focus. Madiba was one of the participating restaurants at the New York African Restaurant Week and owners, Mark and Jenny Henegan won the award for one of the best African Restaurants. And as a fun bonus, you may catch Mark on the piano on any given night.
Massawa, Ethiopia & Eritrea
Arguably the oldest African restaurant in New York City, this family owned restaurant has been in operation for over 26 years. Located in Morningside Heights, on the Upper West side of Manhattan, Massawa Restaurant serves fine Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine; their “injera” (traditional Ethiopian sourdough-risen flatbread) is said to be one of the best in New York City. Named after Massawa, (also known as Mitsiwa, Batsi, and Badi), a city on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, the family-run restaurant offers exotic dishes from spicy (Tsebhi Beghe, spicy lamb) to mild (Alitcha Beghe, mild lamb) as well as delectable vegetable favorites (Shiro, Duba).With a diverse clientele, the restaurant’s ambiance brings out the spirit of Ethiopia and the decor is an imaginative reflection of Eritrea.
Lenox Saphire, Senegal
The upscale swanky bar/restaurant in Harlem featuring a 2,000 square-foot main room which serves up an “amazing Afro-Harlem experience” has a large patisserie, with classic French pastries; choux pastry, éclairs, petit fours, crème brulee, baguettes, croissants, French macaroons, fruit tarts, mini cakes etc. The owner Fall Fara who is from Senegal, has been in the hospitality business for decades. Fara developed a menu that is absolutely delightful with lots of popular dishes from West Africa. A favorite with diners is the Senegalese national dish, Ceebu Jen (which means rice and fish in Wolof) served with sweet plantain.
“Serving authentic Nigerian cuisine,” is owner and chef, Lukman Mashood’s mission for his elegant Brooklyn-based restaurant and lounge. From the mouth-watering goat pepper soup to the Red Snapper with Eba and Egusi, diners can be assured of flavorful dishes that burst in your mouth and that are unequivocally African. While the service at Buka has improved considerably (service can be slow, so do not go there too hungry), the interior and ambiance is refreshingly modern, relaxed and according to The Village Voice, “accidentally cool”. Mashood started out in the restaurant business as a server at another Nigerian restaurant and his dream was to build a restaurant his community will be proud of. And that he did; the restaurant located on Fulton Avenue in Clinton Hills, an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn, has been in operation for about 4 years. Weekends are festive and lively at Buka which means “a small local eatery” in pidgin English, with live band performances.
Farafina Cafe and Lounge, Ivory Coast
Newly revamped Farafina Café and Lounge is tucked away on 150th Street in uptown, Manhattan. Harlem to be exact and if you are in the vicinity and want great food, music, and company then Farafina Café and Lounge is the best place to be. With popular dishes such as Chicken Kedjenou, Seafood Maffe or Fish Yassa served with couscous or rice, Farafina offers what it calls an “African fusion” menu. And with its recent renovations, comes a new chef from Ivory Coast. However the feel of the space, specifically ambiance and décor does not give you a sense of African culture but they make up for it with the music. The new General Manager, Steve Abrue explained, “we have been focusing on promoting international music with live performances!”
Queen of Sheba, Ethiopia
Located just a few blocks away from Times Square, the heart of the city, on the corner of 10th Avenue and 46th Street in Midtown Manhattan is Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian eatery that is “perfect for sharing Ethiopian traditional meal, stories and culture with family and friends”. The rum cake is unbelievable! Owner and Executive Chef Philipos Mengistu is truly an Ambassador of Ethiopian food and has been profiled in several TV shows in the US. With a décor that takes you back to Ethiopia, the seating in the restaurant is deliberate; to amplify a sense of community. And you cannot be ashamed to eat with your hands; Queen of Sheba would not have it any other way!
Le Souk, Morocco
If you want to feel like you are in Morocco without leaving New York City then Le Souk is the place to be (you can actually smell the Mediterranean air in there). The food is simply amazing and a Moroccan chef oversees a menu that includes dinner favorites; Couscous Royal, Tagines and Merguez that keep diners coming back – your appetite will definitely be satisfied and your palate enhanced. Le Souk is owned and operated by two brothers Sam and Marcus from Egypt who have been in the hospitality business in New York City for decades (they are actually well known in New York City). They bring to the restaurant business decades of experience and they seem to have it just right at Le Souk.
Tolani Eatery & Wine, South Africa
If you want great tasting food from all over the world (New Zealand to Tuscany) with a South African flavor then Tolani (South African slang for “too good”) Eatery and Wine is the place to be. Located on the Upper West side of Manhattan, this eatery boasts an international vino selection and a menu that ranges from Prawn Peri-Peri & Mealie Meal to Seafood Potjiekos. Tolani has a global team; owner, Stanton Du Toit is from South Africa and Executive Chef, Cesare “Chez” De Chellis spent years training in his native country Italy.
Ethiopian eatery, Bati is located in the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Named after Bati, a town in north-central Ethiopia known for its market, the stylish and beautiful restaurant is owned by an Addis Ababa native, now a New Yorker, Hibist Legesse who moved to the USA in her teenage years. It is a small cosy restaurant with exceptional customer service and a great menu made up of authentic Ethiopian dishes.
Cafe Rue Dix, located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn gets an honorable mention. The Senegalese-French eatery is owned and operated by Lamine Diagne who grew up in Dakar, on Rue 10 (hence the restaurant’s name) and his wife, Nilea Alexander.