Keeping it in the Family
From a Harlem landmark serving Southern soul food to a century-old Northern Italian trattoria on Restaurant Row—these are New York’s most iconic and beloved family-owned restaurants.
Plenty of restaurants make up New York’s diverse culinary landscape, but some of the most memorable ones prefer to keep things a family affair. The various elements that make each spot special have been passed from generation to generation—the cozy vibes, knowing you’re supporting locals, the lovingly-crafted cuisine—in turn, making diners feel like part of the family, too. We have compiled a handy guide on where to find some of New York’s most iconic and beloved family-owned restaurants.
Like a great wine, Raoul’s only gets better with age. For over 40 years, this SoHo fixture has been turning out straightforward French bistro food—the original owners hail from Alsace, France—in an eclectic dining room decked out with original artwork and photos. “The best thing about working with my family is that they already put the business into motion,” says Karim Raoul, who’s been running the restaurant since 2010. “So as the younger generation came in, it was easy to share the same vision.” Though the most photographed faces still roll through its doors, it’s a former President that left a lasting impression. “One moment I’ll never forget is when Bill Clinton walked in for dinner and shook every person’s hand in the entire restaurant—including the entire kitchen staff.”
The neighborhood of Harlem might feel hipper than ever now, but there’s an institution that’s been packing in the crowds while doling out simply satisfying soul food (like fried chicken, bar-b-que ribs, and collard greens) for decades. Sylvia’s Restaurant was founded by Sylvia Woods in a historic pocket in Harlem in 1962, but beyond comfort cooking, built a reputation for being a safe and welcoming place for all people. It was an especially popular gathering place during the Civil Rights movement.
Located on Restaurant Row in the Theater District, this historic mainstay has never swayed from its fine-dining roots. It’s been open for over 100 years, making it New York’s oldest restaurant to boot—and still specializes in elegant Piemonte cuisine in an equally refined townhouse setting. The best-selling linguine with Genovese pasta has been on the menu since 1914. Laura Maioglio took over management in 1962 after her father, and original owner, Sebastiano Maioglio passed. She recalls how she loved working alongside her mother afterward. “The remaining twenty-plus years of her life were the best in her life,” says Maioglio. “She was always the first to be in the restaurant and the last to leave.”
In the 1980s, Almaz Ghebrezgabher and her husband Amanuel Tekeste fled Eritrea to America for refuge and opportunity. While she was driving taxis to support her family, she auspiciously drove by a vacant restaurant space in the Upper West Side. Today, Massawa continues to be one of the city’s top African restaurants—the beef tebsi and vegetable sambusas are especially popular—and is about to reopen after a spiffy renovation. In addition to a full bar and additional tables, breakfast will be offered. Yohanes Tekeste, Ghebrezgabher and Tekeste’s son, is helping manage the restaurant, and wouldn’t change a thing. “When you know you can count on somebody, no matter the circumstance, it brings a comfort most business owners can not relate to,” he says. “Though, expanding the space has also increased our responsibilities, knowing we have each other’s backs makes the ride a lot more fun.”
This East Harlem Italian eatery is one of the few places that maintains a near-mythical reputation with out-of-towners and locals. Why? Well, it’s nearly impossible to score a seat. Forget about reserving months (or even years) in advance, because the only way you can dine here is by being invited by one of the select few who “own” one of the ten tables. In the rare case that a no-show occurs and you happen to be lingering around the bar, you might get to experience what the fuss is about. Hearty and carb-heavy Italian cuisine smothered in zingy red sauce, a boisterous vibe—someone might even break out into song—and naturally, the feeling that you’re part of one very exclusive family.
In 1910, Savino Di Palo opened a tiny dairy, where he made ricotta and mozzarella. Fast forward to today, and you can still rely on the Di Palo’s for arguably the best mozzarella in New York. Located on the corner of Grand and Mott Street in Little Italy, this specialty Italian store run by Savino’s great-grandchildren, Lou, Marie, and Sal Di Palo, offers artisanal cheeses, cured meats, pasta, sauce and pantry items. But beyond that, it is a place of heritage with family recipes and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation with the Di Palo family still the driving force behind the operation.
WORDS Katie Chang