July 19th, 2012, 11:14 PM
Sylvia Woods, Soul-Food Restaurateur, Is Dead at 86
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: July 19, 2012
Sylvia Woods, whose namesake Harlem soul-food restaurant was frequented by local and national politicians, international celebrities,
tourists, epicures and ordinary neighborhood residents, died on Thursday at her home in Westchester County, N.Y. She was 86.
Louis Lanzano/Associated Press
Sylvia Woods in a dining room at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem in New York City in 1999.
Her family announced the death, citing no cause. Its statement said Ms. Woods had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for the last few years.
Her death came a few hours before she was to receive an award from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at a reception at Gracie Mansion commemorating
the 50th anniversary of Sylvia’s Restaurant. There was a moment of silence before the award presentation; a family friend accepted it on her behalf.
Sylvia’s Restaurant opened on Aug. 1, 1962 — with six booths and 15 stools — at Lenox Avenue near 127th Street, offering soul-food staples like ribs,
hot cakes, corn bread and fried chicken. The immense popularity of its dishes earned Ms. Woods the sobriquet the Queen of Soul Food.
A culinary anchor and the de facto social center of Harlem, Sylvia’s has served the likes of Roberta Flack; Quincy Jones; Diana Ross; Muhammad Ali;
Bill Clinton; Jack Kemp; Robert F. Kennedy; and, besides Mr. Bloomberg, Mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins, who was partial, Ms. Woods said,
to the chicken, candied yams, collard greens and black-eyed peas with rice.
Busloads of tourists from as far away as Japan routinely descend on the place.
Spike Lee used the restaurant as a location for his 1991 film “Jungle Fever.”
Sylvia’s inspired two cookbooks by Ms. Woods, “Sylvia’s Soul Food: Recipes From Harlem’s World Famous Restaurant”
(1992; with Christopher Styler) and “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, to Harlem”
(1999; with Melissa Clark).
The daughter of a farming couple, Van and Julia Pressley, Sylvia Pressley was born in Hemingway on Feb. 2, 1926; her father died when she was a baby.
The first thing she cooked as a girl, she recalled, was a pot of rice on the family’s wood stove.
But the rice burned after Sylvia ran out to play and left it to cook on its own, a fact she withheld from her mother. A switching ensued.
“I got punished,” Ms. Woods told The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., in 1999, “but not for burning it — for telling a lie.”
Sylvia met her future husband, Herbert Deward Woods, when she was 11 and he was 12 and both were working in the fields, picking beans under the blazing sun.
As a teenager, Sylvia moved to New York to join her mother, who had gone there for work. She found work herself, in a hat factory in Queens.
In 1944, she married Mr. Woods, who had come North for her.
In the 1950s, Ms. Woods began work as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette in Harlem; because she had grown up poor in the Jim Crow era,
the day she first set foot in the place was the first time she had been inside a restaurant anywhere.
In 1962, with help from her mother, who mortgaged the family farm, Ms. Woods bought the luncheonette and renamed it Sylvia’s.
Three decades ago, Gael Greene, the food critic of New York magazine, wrote a laudatory article on Sylvia’s, sealing the restaurant’s success.
Over time, Sylvia’s expanded to seat more than 250; it is the cornerstone of a commercial empire that today includes a catering service and banquet hall and
a nationally distributed line of prepared foods.
Ms. Woods, known for her effusive warmth in greeting customers, ran the business until her retirement at 80.
“I keep pressing on,” she told The New York Times in 1994. “I can’t give up. I’ve been struggling too long to stop now.”
Mr. Woods, her self-effacing but stalwart partner in the venture, died in 2001. Survivors include her sons, Van and Kenneth;
her daughters, Bedelia Woods and Crizette Woods; 18 grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.
A major factor in Sylvia’s enduring appeal, Ms. Woods learned firsthand, was the time-honored conservatism of its cooking.
Toward the end of the 20th century, in deference to an increasingly health-conscious public,
Ms. Woods chose to supplement the menu with lighter fare.
“We had lots of salads and stuff,” she told The Philadelphia Daily News in 1999. “And it went to waste.
When people come here, they got in their mind what they want.”
Douglas Martin contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 20, 2012, on page B10 of the New York edition with the headline: Sylvia Woods, Soul-Food Restaurateur, Is Dead at 86.
July 20th, 2012, 08:18 AM
NYC Aficionado from Oz
That's really sad news. Rest in peace, Sylvia.
Long live Sylvia's Restaurant, a New York City institution.
July 21st, 2012, 12:31 AM
NYC Aficionado from Oz
A Changing Harlem Celebrates the Queen of Soul Food
By KIA GREGORY
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Sylvia and Herbert Woods in 1997 in front of the restaurant, which had, by then, become popular with tourists.
More Photos »
The marquee was dark outside her restaurant the night Sylvia Woods, known to so many as the Queen of Soul Food, died at 86.
But the legacy of her food flowed as usual. On Thursday night, Sylvia’s restaurant, on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, was packed with diners digging into the staples of Southern cooking that have made the place world-famous: fried chicken, ribs, collard greens, corn bread, sweet potatoes and baked macaroni and cheese.
“It’s just good home cooking, and there’s a lot of love in the food,” said Jerry Wright, 36, who has been a customer since he was a teenager.
Sylvia’s opened in 1962 as not much more than a counter with more stools than tables in a Harlem troubled by drugs, crime and blight. From that modest start, the restaurant has evolved into a big business — a sprawling space that can hold hundreds of diners, a banquet hall, a catering service, a nearby lounge, a real estate company and a nationally distributed line of prepared food.
The neighborhood, too, has been transformed, with pockets filled with diverse and more well-to-do residents. Tour buses roll through the streets every day.
And while Sylvia’s is still celebrated as a Harlem institution and a meeting place for its black establishment, some longtime residents say a bit of its appeal has been lost as it has become a tourist attraction and a magnet for more upscale diners.
“It was a neighborhood joint,” said Max Vesterhalt, a regular at Sylvia’s. “Then it started to become famous around the world.”
A few blocks from Sylvia’s, on the side of the shuttered Rice High School, a group of women laughed and talked as they sat in a row of chairs on the sidewalk on a warm summer night.
Joan Avila, a retired nurse who has lived in Harlem for 40 years and rents a room nearby, said she had been to Sylvia’s a few times in the past. “Tourists cater to it,” she said. “If you don’t know how to cook, you don’t know the difference.”
The women said much of the new Harlem was out of reach for them. “We can’t afford that,” Ms. Avila said, noting the shiny restaurants just a short walk away. A few of her friends nodded in agreement. “People from downtown can,” she added.
Still, the woman who was the guiding force behind Sylvia’s was remembered fondly for creating a place that, in addition to food, also offered hospitality and warmth.
“She was wonderful,” Ms. Vesterhalt said. “I would come in and give her a hug.”
Ms. Vesterhalt stops in often for the breakfast special, her favorite: salmon cakes and grits. And for chitterlings, whenever she’s in the mood. But more so, to see familiar faces. “You just stayed, and talked to everybody,” she said. “That’s part of it. You meet people you haven’t seen in ages.”
Being at Sylvia’s was like being at your mother’s table, several regulars said. Ms. Woods doted on everyone, they said, always asking, “What can I get you to eat?”
“When I was to have any political affairs or guests, she never asked me anything,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel, who held an election night party last month at Sylvia’s to celebrate a victory in his Congressional primary. “She just treated me like when I would come home from school and Mom was there. And that’s what the people felt, they were bringing friends home.”
On her 80th birthday, Ms. Woods retired and passed the torch to her children and grandchildren.
She was admired as a Harlem success story, whose mother took out on a mortgage on the family farm in South Carolina to help her daughter start the restaurant.
Ms. Woods helped steer her restaurant through some of Harlem’s most difficult years and make it an integral part of its revival.
“God’s been good to her,” said Kimberly Clark of Harlem, who went to Sylvia’s on Thursday after hearing the news of Ms. Woods’ death. “She built this legacy with nothing.”
And nodding toward the tables of white patrons dining outside, Ms. Clark said, “She brought diversity to the community.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said: “She built something that made us all proud. But she did it without being boastful and prideful herself.”
Mr. Sharpton, who said he had known Ms. Woods most of his life and would deliver a eulogy at her funeral next week, said that for any politician traveling to Harlem, Sylvia’s was an obligatory stop.
“There has never been a major figure in our community that did not have to come by way of Sylvia’s,” Mr. Sharpton said, adding that whenever black leaders needed a place to meet to address a crisis or a sudden emergency, there was never any question where that meeting would be.
“Sylvia never took sides,” Mr. Sharpton said. “It was understood, when you walked past the doors of Sylvia’s, that your differences were left outside, and we’d have a family meeting inside. She wouldn’t let us fuss and fight. She would say ‘y’all go sit down, and have something to eat, and let’s talk about it.’ ”