Harlem’s 20 Best Nightlife Venues (Then and Now)

09/12/2017 12:02 pm ET
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“Everybody says ‘Good Morning’ in Harlem because it’s true! And that’s lovely.” - Marcia Gay Harden

Harlem. Where do I even begin? Not only are the mornings good, the nights are out of this world—and they have been for over 100 years.

Harlem’s nightlife was so legendary during the Roaring Twenties and the Harlem Renaissance that people still talk about the clubs, speakeasies, and jazz bars from that era. Here’s a historically accurate map of 1932 Harlem, which shows some of the famous nightlife venues that defined a generation.

Nightlife in Historic Harlem

Harlem was and is much greater than the sum of its parts. And the Harlem Renaissance, which started shortly after World War I and lasted well into the 1930s, had an enormous impact on American popular culture, art, music, dance, and entertainment.

  1. The Apollo Theater: 253 W 125th Street - Possibly the most famous nightlife venue in Harlem, the Apollo Theater is where many of our best musicians and entertainers got their start. If names like Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, or Lauryn Hill ring a bell, then you owe it to yourself to swing by for a visit.
  2. Clark Monroe’s Uptown House: 198 West 134th Street: Monroe’s Uptown House was one of the two main bebop clubs in Harlem, along with Minton’s Playhouse. Formerly the Barron’s Club (where Duke Ellington got his start), Monroe’s was known for its bebop jam sessions. Al Tinney led the house band, and performers like Charlie Parker played there regularly. The club moved to 52nd Street in 1943, but has since closed its doors.
  3. The Cotton Club: 644 Lenox Avenue - Seating up to 400, the historic Cotton Club was such a staple of Harlem’s nightlife that it managed to book Duke Ellington’s 11-piece orchestra for a solid four-year run. Unfortunately, it was also a “whites-only” establishment. Today, after changing hands multiple times, the Cotton Club is much more low key, and is most well-known for its Monday night “Cotton Club Parade.”
  4. Lenox Lounge: 288 Lenox Avenue - With its famous “Zebra Room,” Lenox Lounge was a hotbed for jazz legends and lovers. James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were regular patrons. Unfortunately, the Lounge wasn’t able to keep up with the rent (because it was too damn high). In 2012 it closed its doors, probably for good.
  5. Minton’s Playhouse: 206 West 118th Street - A famous jazz club and bar located in the equally famous Cecil Hotel at 210 West 118th Street, Minton’s Playhouse was founded by saxophonist Henry Milton in 1938. It rose to prominence as a birthplace of modern jazz and bebop, and featured artists like Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. The Playhouse closed in the 1970s, but has been revived under new ownership.
  6. Park Palace: 1330 5th Avenue - A dance hall dubbed the “birthplace of New York Latin dance music,” Park Palace featured a different side of Harlem nightlife at a time when rhumba, mambo, and cha-cha-cha were not as well known. The high-ceilinged hall on the second floor could hold 1,500 people. Many Afro-Cuban performers, like Tito Puente, got his start at the Palace. Today, the Palace is a place of worship.
  7. The Savoy Ballroom: 596 Lenox Avenue - Dubbed “the Heartbeat of Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the Savoy was the center of fine music and dance in Harlem. It was also the birthplace of many famous dances, from the Flying Charleston to the Jitterbug Jive. With a seating capacity of 5,000 and a no-discrimination policy, the Savoy was one of the few places where you could see mixed-race couples swing dancing in public. Now, it exists as a classy apartment complex known as the Savoy Park Apartments.
  8. Showman’s Jazz Club: 375 W 125th Street - Right next door to the famed Apollo Theater, Showman’s was a popular hangout for entertainers in its heyday. In 1988 it moved to its present-day location on 125th, and remains a premier (and very affordable) jazz club in Harlem.
  9. Small’s Paradise: 2294 7th Avenue - Not to be confused with Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village (its spiritual successor), Small’s Paradise never turned down for anything. The waiters were known to regularly dance the Charleston or roller-skate orders to customers. Small’s Paradise was open all night long, and even offered a breakfast dance at 6am. Today, the Thurgood Marshall Academy occupies the site.
  10. The Sugar Cane Club: 2212 135th Street - The Sugar Cane Club was the place to go if you had no interest in sleeping and wanted to get roaring drunk. After entering through a narrow underground passage, patrons were greeted by entertainers such as Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Ethyl Waters. Bootleg booze was everywhere, and the club was open until 7am, when a whistle blew signaling a new workday was about to begin.

Nightlife in Modern Harlem

Today, Harlem has changed, but it’s still got a lot of that jazzy, soulful vibe and feel. Let’s take a look at some of the neighborhood's best-rated, newer venues.

  1. At the Wallace: 3612 Broadway - Affiliated with Harlem Public right next door, this friendly neighborhood watering hole features in-house music, jukeboxes, and plenty of games to keep groups of friends occupied. Spacious and rambunctious, At the Wallace is highly reviewed for its excellent staff, pleasant vibe, and great prices.
  2. Bill’s Place: 148 West 133rd Street - Built on the same location as an authentic speakeasy from the 1920s, Bill’s place was founded by two Harlem entertainers. Today, it’s an excellent jam session venue for jazz enthusiasts—but with a twist. Bill’s Place is a “dry” establishment, and no alcohol is sold.
  3. Gin Fizz: 308 Malcolm X Boulevard - The New Yorker states that Gin Fizz plays the kind of music that makes people “laugh and cry at the same time.” Featuring elegant seating and decor as well as classy signature drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizzes (heavy on egg white and nutmeg), make sure you swing by for “Harlem Sessions” on Thursday.
  4. Harlem Nights: 2631 7th Avenue - Opened a little over a year ago, Harlem Nights is already one of the best-rated spots in the neighborhood. Come in for live music on Mondays and Tuesdays (alternating with Wednesdays and Saturdays). Happy hour is from 4–9pm.
  5. Harlem Public: 3612 Broadway - Communal, laid back, and modern, Harlem Public features a long list of craft beers for patrons who want to come in and relax after a long day at work. Harlem Public also features an elective selection of candied cocktails, and everyone agrees that the homey food is absolutely scrumptious.
  6. Harlem Tavern: 2153 Frederick Douglass Boulevard - A summertime favorite, Harlem Tavern is warm and inviting bar, restaurant, and beer garden. Featuring popular bistro-cuisine fare, the savory menu offers everything from Crispy BBQ wings to Cedar Planked Salmon and Tavern Style Mac and Cheese.
  7. Monique’s Lounge 108: 181 E 108th Street - A “Spanish” lounge known for its live dance music, Monique’s perfectly captures what made Harlem famous in the 20s, but marries it with popular modern-day nightlife attractions, like karaoke. Affordable, comfortable, and welcoming, Monique’s has already become a staple of the neighborhood.
  8. Orange Street: 2082 Frederick Douglass Boulevard - Harlem’s “best cocktail destination” has an extensive drink list and a small food menu. Inspired by Almack’s Dance Hall, which was one of the first black-owned bars in the city at the same address in the 1840s, Orange Street features a trailblazing black female mixologist who, yes, can make pretty much any drink you want.
  9. Paris Blues: 2021 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard - Old, charming, and inviting, Paris Blues is the kind of homey neighborhood bar that features a dartboard and a jukebox. It’s great if you aren’t really into waiting for a specific showtime and don’t want to pay cover to soak up some of Harlem’s world-famous vibe.
  10. Shrine Bar: 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard - The owners of Shrine Bar were more than happy to keep the sign over the door left from previous owners: “The Black United Foundation”. Calling itself a “Black United Fun Plaza,” Shrine Bar is just that—a shrine to Afro-inspired music, past and present. Nightly concerts feature indie rock, jazz, and reggae.

Harlem has something for everyone

Literally everyone knows about Harlem, and the role it played in our nation’s cultural renaissance and musical explosion. Unfortunately, due to misconceptions about crime in the city, many New Yorkers have still never been to Harlem. This is a shame.

The neighborhood that played perhaps the most important role in our cultural revival is still as relevant now as it was over a hundred years ago. So put on your dancing shoes, and go do some exploring. These are just a few of the places in Harlem that you could visit tonight. There are many more just waiting to be discovered.

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