Remembering Queen of Soul Food Sylvia Woods

5 years ago

"Queen of Soul Food" Sylvia Woods, owner and founder of Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, New York, died Thursday at age 86 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's.

In 1962, Woods bought Johnson's Luncheonette on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, where she had been working as a waitress -- according to the New York Times, it was the first restaurant she had ever been inside. Her mother mortgaged the family farm in South Carolina to help Woods turn Johnson's into Sylvia's Restaurant, serving soul food including cornbread, collard greens, ribs, and fried chicken.

Woods expanded her business successfully, writing two cookbooks (Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, to Harlem and Sylvia’s Soul Food) and launching a national line of food products and a catering company. Her small luncheonette, according to the New York Times, now seats 250, and is a community gathering place and international destination, attracting politicians, celebrities, and tourists as well as locals.

Jan. 1, 2011 - New York, New York, U.S. - K29552RM SD0311.SYLVIA WOODS OWNER AND FOUNDER OF ''SYLVIA'S RESTAURANT'' IN HARLEM, NEW YORK New York. / 2003(Credit Image: © Rick Mackler/Globe Photos/

Much of the secret to her entrepreneurial success was Woods herself. She was, as the Times puts it, "remembered fondly for creating a place that, in addition to food, also offered hospitality and warmth." Woods involved herself in the community for 50 years. In 2001, she founded the via the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Endowment Foundation for college-bound children. She was known for her annual community free breakfast, and more recently launched a Facebook page.

On the day of her passing, Woods was to have received an honor from New York Mayer Michael Bloomberg marking the restaurant's 50th anniversary. A family member accepted it instead. Bloomberg said in a statement:

"We lost a legend today. For more than 50 years, New Yorkers have enjoyed Sylvia's and visitors have flocked to Harlem to get a table. In her words, the food was made with 'a whole lot of love' and generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution."

Remembering Sylvia Woods

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who owns Harlem's Red Rooster restaurant, wrote a tribute:

I loved sitting at the bar in Sylvia’s, watching the mix of people day in and day out. Of course there were the names like President Obama, Al Sharpton and Caroline Kennedy, and there were the tourists who made the trip up for a perfect plate of fried chicken. And then there were the Harlemites who made Sylvia’s their second home. Sylvia taught me the importance of hiring from within the community and how important it was to understand our neighbors. One of my favorite days of the year was when the restaurant held their annual free breakfast—Sylvia opened her doors to everyone and let them know they were as important to her as the celebrities and politicians who broke cornbread at her table.

Filmmaker Byron Hurt, who is releasing a film called Soul Food Junkies on PBS in January 2012, remembered Sylvia Woods on CNN:

Though Sylvia Woods was not a blood relative, she felt like one to me, and to anyone who frequented her world famous Harlem restaurant. It was a place where you were home. You could let your guard down, relax and dig in.

Tanya Steel, editor in chief of Epicurious, met Woods and describes her impact:

Sylvia Woods also comfortably wore a grandmother halo. When she opened Sylvia’s in Harlem in 1962, the Harlem Renaissance had come and gone, and it was a depressed neighborhood with few restaurants. Sylvia became a waitress at a local luncheonette, and within a few years, had bought the place and transformed it into a beacon for the area. Her heart and soul were in every bowl of collard greens and smothered pork chops, and she brought joy, hospitality, and delicious food to the once blighted neighborhood.

Do you have a memory of Sylvia's? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

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