Harlem Shake Restaurant Shakes Off the Pandemic with Burgers & Good Times

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The Harlem Shake restaurant crawls towards pre-pandemic normalcy as restrictions on indoor dining relax in New York. (Noah Osborne/The Fordham Ram)

Noah Osborne, Staff Writer

You know the heart of Harlem is still beating when you walk into the famous Harlem Shake restaurant and hear the sound of sizzling burgers married with the sound of laughing customers and the snappy snares of Drake’s “10 Bands.” The smell of fresh french fries is enough to entice anyone to throw their wallet down on the vintage wooden countertop and order whatever the person next to them is having. 

It is easy to forget about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lose oneself in the rhythmic cultural oasis standing proudly in West Harlem. However, customers are still required to wear face masks and have their temperatures checked before entering the establishment. Still, this doesn’t mean things weren’t challenging for the Harlem burger joint during the pandemic.

The restaurant is known for its uncanny ability to provide a relaxing experience while serving up Harlem-style New York decadence, but with the state’s ever-changing regulations on indoor dining, customers at Harlem Shake told the Ram they’ve had to adjust to a new dining experience during the pandemic. 

Essence, 25, said the changes were noticeable as soon as she walked through the door. “There [are] so many regulations,” she said. “All of the tables are separate, and having to wear our masks when we’re walking in and when we’re leaving the tables, everything is a little different now.” 

Although the regulations make the dining experience feel noticeably different, they mark a vast improvement, according to Shamecca Harris, 33. He said regulations were stricter during the earlier days of the pandemic. 

“I had my temperature checked, and I had to fill out a lot of personal information, but I didn’t have to do that today,” she explained. 

Harris also said wearing a mask while eating tends to muddle what is usually a casual dining experience. Still, as she picked up her crispy fries, she expressed comfort in being able to dine indoors after being vaccinated. “If I wasn’t vaccinated, I would not come out of my house at all, especially not to go out and have a meal,” said Harris. 

Keith, 31, also credited the vaccine for being able to go out and dine with his friend, Amanda, 31. He said COVID-19 vaccines provided the necessary layer of safety to inspire him to return to the restaurant for the second time since it started easing restrictions on indoor dining two months ago. 

“It’s a great opportunity to get back out,” said Keith. “We’ve all been in our house for such a long time, so to be able to get out on a nice day like today, it feels great… And who wouldn’t want to go somewhere where you can get great food, great music and just be around someone like a family member or friend?” 

However, Amanda hasn’t stopped visiting the restaurant since the option to dine outdoors in New York City was first introduced. “When they said we could sit outside, I wanted to sit outside and enjoy myself,” she said. “But vaccines make people feel comfortable. Having people come here and it’s comfortable, makes me feel safe, and I’m sure it makes everybody feel safe. It’s a level of comfort that makes people feel really, really safe — that they can come together and have a meal.”

Although many of the restaurant’s customers seem to feel it is succeeding in maintaining its signature casual comfort, not all customers are sold on the altered dining experience. Lois, 51, said she prefers outdoor dining to indoor dining, despite the spacious indoor seating area. She believes more people need to be vaccinated before they are so willing to trust indoor dining. Likewise, Katie, 29, said she isn’t ready to dine indoors again, despite coming to the restaurant to celebrate receiving her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Their hesitance to eat indoors was a feeling many other customers seemed to echo, as the majority chose to dine at the enclosed outside area to the sound of the groovy bass guitar, clean keyboard, bumping drums and soulful vocals of the live band playing just outside of the restaurant. The groove was infectious here, as both customers and passerbys sang along and danced to the music. 

Indoor dining or not, it became clear here even with new regulations, the Harlem Shake is alive and well again. 

“It’s been as smooth as it can be, considering the pandemic,” said T.J., 16, who works the register and milkshake booth at the restaurant. “I feel like we have well adjusted and taken necessary precautions to be successful. I feel like we’ve been doing well since we’ve opened back up.” 

Restaurant manager Crystal, 19, is also proud of the success the restaurant has seen in the midst of the pandemic, which has permanently closed at least 17% of restaurants nationwide. However, this newfound pride was a far cry from the stress Crystal and her team felt as the pandemic first began to spread in New York City. 

“At first it was tough. I think we all got hit out of nowhere, so we really didn’t know how to react, and we had to react anyway,” Crystal recalled. “The restaurant though, as a team, we’ve all come together and come to agreement that we’ve got to work together to get through it. First with COVID, it was empty. It wasn’t as busy. Now, we feel like we’re busy every day.”

Crystal expressed optimism for the restaurant’s future. “Everything’s coming together,” she said. “Everything’s getting better. The adjustment was hard, but it’s easier now. It’s definitely a lot easier.”

The pandemic may have turned up the heat on the Harlem Shake. Still,with a lively full house of people dining both indoors and outside on a spring afternoon, it was clear the restaurant not only adapted to pandemic-related challenges but kept on cooking. 

The pandemic shook America, but it couldn’t shake the Harlem Shake.