Harlem’s ‘Queen of Soul Food’ Sylvia Woods dies at 86
Her restaurant is ‘meeting-place for black America,” says Al Sharpton
By Edgar Sandoval, Michael J. Feeney And Helen Kennedy / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
New York’s legendary “Queen of Soul Food” Sylvia Woods, whose iconic restaurant drew dignitaries and ordinary folk from all over the world to Harlem to taste her fried chicken, died Thursday at 86.
News that she died broke just as Mayor Bloomberg was paying tribute to the 50th anniversary of “Sylvia’s” at a gala reception at Gracie Mansion.
“We lost a legend today,” the mayor said. “Generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution.”
The Woods family said she was surrounded by loved ones when she lost her battle with Alzheimer’s.
Tributes quickly began pouring in.
“Sylvia’s has been more than a restaurant, it has been a meeting place for black America,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who recalled dining there with everyone from President Obama to Caroline Kennedy.
Rep. Charles Rangel said he was “deeply saddened” by the loss of a friend.
“She was a dynamic, warm and kind woman whom the entire Harlem community will miss,” he said.
Rangel called the eatery, where he recently celebrated his squeaker primary win, “a magical place that brought the community together.”
“Sylvia’s may have been famous nationally and internationally, but its soul has always remained in Harlem,” he said.
Former Mayor David Dinkins called her an icon.
“She’ll be missed,” he said. “Not just because of the wonderful business she ran and the great food, but because of her contributions to the community.”
Longtime customers began gathering at the restaurant to pay tribute.
“She always made people feel like she was part of the family,” said Jill Ferguson, who said she’d been coming for chicken and waffles since 1975.”
Harold Mozele, a retired postal worker, remembers seeing Woods behind the counter about four years ago, after she had retired.
“I asked her, ‘You still serve food?’ and she said, ‘Why not?’ It never got to her head. The fried chicken is no joke. The lemonade is smoking,” he said.
“She was everyone’s Mom, everybody’s grandmother. You just don’t expect her to pass away. She was so strong,” said Jeff Mann, 54, who knew her since he was a teenager.
“She was trying to hold off for her 50th anniversary,” he said. “When she started it was just a little counter. This is her legacy.”
Woods, an ambitious and charismatic beautician from South Carolina, opened “Sylvia’s” in 1962, buying the 35-seat luncheonette where she worked as a waitress.
She and her late husband and childhood sweetheart, Herbert, borrowed the money from Sylvia’s mother, who mortgaged the farm in South Carolina where Sylvia was born and raised to stake her daughter’s dream.
“I know I had to make it or else my mama was gonna lose her farm. So I gave it all that I had to give,” Woods once told Nation’s Restaurant News.
Located at 126th St. and Lenox Ave., it was right around the corner from the storied Apollo Theater.
Her fried chicken, collard greens and peach pie were a quick hit and the landmark restaurant has expanded over the years, now seating 450. The family also runs a catering business.
Sen. Bill Perkins said Woods’ business success was important in its own right.
“When Harlem was being abandoned, Sylvia was still there,” he said.
Woods published two best-selling cookbooks: “Sylvia’s Soul Food Cookbook” in 1992 and “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook” in 1999.
She retired six years ago, passing the torch to her four children and numerous grandchildren.
In 2001, the Woods family created the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Endowment Foundation, which provides scholarships to Harlem kids.
“Even as her brand became a nationwide success, she never forgot to give back to the community that helped make it all possible,” Bloomberg said.