This column was published in The State Newspaper on March 3, 1998.
On a trip to New York several years ago, I had pledged to eat all the dirty, grimy food the city offered - including the street hot dogs and greasy pizza.
I did a pretty good job. I even made my way to Harlem, grabbing crab cakes from along 125th Street and fish from a joint beneath a building on a side street. We had to eat the fish on the spot basically, despite the fact there was no seating. While it's good when hot, that fish would be nothing but a lump of grease if you take it to go.
We were taking a pretty good bite out of the Big Apple when one day the friend I was visiting - Xavier McDaniel - suggested we eat at this soul food restaurant. I said OK, but I was thinking what kind of soul food am I going to get in Harlem that rivals what I get in South Carolina?
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When we got to Sylvia's Restaurant on Lenox Avenue, the first thing I noticed was the crowd. Then I noticed the live musicians. Then, a friendly waitress (at a New York restaurant?) brings us menus. By now, I'm thinking this might be all right. Then, X finally tells me Sylvia is from South Carolina. The first bite of pork chops, macaroni and greens was like a mouthful of home. It was like biting into a slice of South Carolina. We were even able to wrap up an order of ribs - to go.
Sylvia Woods and her husband Herbert have been in New York for more than four decades, but they're South Carolina through and through. Sunday evening, I got to talk with the Woodses, some of their family and friends. What I found is that their good, down-home cooking is surpassed by their good, down-home personalities and conversation. Their philosophy is simple, but inspirational.
Yes, the delicious Southern cuisine draws folks - the famous as well as everyday Joes like myself - to Sylvia's. But it's the consistent dose of Southern hospitality that keeps them coming back.
Mrs. Woods is a darling of a woman who has held on to her Southern upbringing with a passion. The Woodses were honored Monday when Gov. David Beasley bestowed upon them the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor the governor can give.
The Woodses credit their success to hard work, a love of God and a dedication to people. And they've had plenty of success. The Sylvia Woods story has been written many times. Born on a farm in Hemingway 72 years ago, she and her husband left for New York in 1945. Sylvia lied about her experience to get a waitress job at Johnson's Luncheonette. Over the next eight years, she learned the business, and the owner, Andrew Johnson, offered to sell her the restaurant.
Her mother had mortgaged the farm in Hemingway and lent her the money. In 1962, Sylvia's opened with eight counter stools and four small tables. Customers strode in to enjoy the Southern-style home cooking.
It's said that the world discovered Sylvia's in March 1979 when restaurant critic Gael Greene - blown away by delicacies he enjoyed at the ever-popular Gospel brunch the restaurant offers - wrote a glowing review in New York magazine. People swarmed over the tiny restaurant. It would grow into a million-dollar business, and Sylvia Woods would become known as "the Queen of Soul Food."
The Woodses now own virtually the entire block. A little over a year ago, they opened a second Sylvia's in Atlanta in City Plaza Center, a $20 million complex across from City Hall.
All kinds of folks have tasted Sylvia's candied yams, chicken and ribs - Japanese tourists, neighborhood residents, famous athletes, politicians and Hollywood stars.
And every customer gets the same treatment. That's a signature of the restaurant.
Once, a newsman asked Mrs. Woods who was the most famous person ever to grace her restaurant. "Whoever walks in the door, they're my celebrities," she responded.
Herbert Woods , a mild-mannered man with a warm smile, said everyone is welcome and treated the same at Sylvia's. "No one is a stranger."
What, in New York? Surely you jest.
Maybe you won't find it in the rest of New York, but you'll find it at Sylvia's. After an evening with Sylvia herself, I can tell you that the heart and soul of that restaurant aren't the greens and ribs. They're love, family, friends and hard work - installed in South Carolina, refined in Harlem.
So, it's no surprise that in at least one square block of New York, no one is a stranger.