Sylvia Woods, founder of the famed Harlem soul food restaurant that carries her name and is a must-stop for locals, tourists, politicians, and Southerners living in New York, has died. She was 86.
Woods and her husband, Herbert, natives of Hemingway, S.C., who met as children, started Sylvia’s Restaurant, a Harlem fixture, 50 years ago.
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, cornbread, fried chicken, collard greens and other staples of Southern cooking.
The immense popularity of its dishes – and a national product line that bears her name – earned Woods the moniker 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 mayors Michael Bloomberg, Edward Koch and David Dinkins.
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 Woods, “Sylvia’s Soul Food: Recipes From Harlem’s World Famous Restaurant” (1992) and “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, to Harlem” (1999).
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,” Woods told The (Charleston) Post and Courier 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 Woods, who had come North to claim her.
In the 1950s, 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, 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. The restaurant is the cornerstone of a commercial empire that today includes a catering service and banquet hall and a nationally distributed line of prepared foods sold in grocery stores.
A major factor in Sylvia’s enduring appeal, 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, 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.”
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.”
Her husband, her self-effacing but stalwart partner in the venture, died in 2001. Survivors include two sons, two daughters, 18 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Woods died Thursday afternoon at her home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., according to her family. She had been dealing with Alzheimer’s disease for the past few years.
Her family announced the death, citing no cause. Its statement said Woods had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for the past few years.
Her death came a few hours before she was to receive an award from Mayor 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.