Chef Pierre Thiam hopes his new restaurant Teranga will be an immersive cultural experience from start to finish. The pan-African, fast-casual restaurant opens February 9 inside the Africa Center, a long-anticipated new cultural hub sitting on the northeast corner of Central Park, and the collaboration is one that aims to reorient New Yorkers’ familiarity with Africa.
“It’s very African,” Thiam tells Eater of his new restaurant. An ornate fishing boat from Senegal stands in the entrance. Nigerian-American painter Victor Ekpuk provided simple, swirly murals for the walls, which will switch out every few months from different African artists. Almost all the food and drink is sourced from West Africa.
“People should expect to enter a different culture,” Thiam says. “Everything from the atmosphere to the music to the plants, everything will transport them into Africa.”
The partnership with the Africa Center was both “an amazing coincidence” of timing and a result of a similar mission: making contemporary African culture more mainstream, Thiam says.
The Africa Center has 70,000-square-feet of space for programming like performances, talks, readings, book signings, and film screenings. Teranga is on the front lines of that, allowing people to engage with African culture through food first on the ground floor of the center. The restaurant will also be partnering with the center on cultural events and programming.
And in modern day dining, it doesn’t get much more mainstream than a fast-casual bowl spot. At Teranga, fonio — a gluten-free supergrain grown in West Africa for thousands of years — is at the heart of Teranga’s menu and of Thiam’s mission to bring aspects of West African food and culture to American diners. He has been pushing the grain for years, selling it in New York’s West African shops. But with Teranga, he’s taking things a step further: The grain is one of the three base options for the restaurant’s customizable bowls and is sourced from farms in West Africa.
The bowls also come with three protein options: grilled chicken, roasted salmon, and sweet potato, and black-eyed pea stew. There are four sides — including spicy fried plantains, a beets and fonio salad, and a black-eyed peas salad — as well as two sauces. The entire menu is gluten-free and vegan-friendly.
It’s a return to New York for the accomplished Senegal-born chef. He previously ran Le Grand Dakar in Brooklyn, which shuttered in 2011, and since then, has opened a fine-dining restaurant in Senegal and formed Yolélé Foods, his product supplier company that focuses on fonio.
Teranga also has an extensive coffee and tea program, with products exclusively sourced from throughout Africa. The restaurant is currently awaiting its beer and wine license, but Thiam says they are working on sourcing beer from Senegal and looking into the possibility of brewing a fonio beer. Wines will come from South Africa and Morocco, along with Nigerian palm wine, which is made from the sap of palm trees.
Though American southern cuisine has been influenced by African cuisine, food from the continent still has yet to become ubiquitous here, Thiam says. “African cuisine is very present and has been present for many years,” he says. “But it’s still somewhat limited to the community of Africans.”
Still, the food is making headway in New York. There are some 60 specifically West African restaurants around NYC. Thiam also mentions chef JJ Johnson’s upcoming project Field Trip, which will similarly focus on grains and global cuisine, with some influence from Africa. And chef Diana Tandia’s Berber Street Food also serves food from throughout Africa in a casual, counter-service setting.
“It’s just a matter of time before it gets even bigger,” Thiam says. “It’s an exciting time.”
Teranga opens on Saturday, February 9 and will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.