Sylvia Woods, who opened up a soul food restaurant called Sylvia's 50 years ago in the heart of Harlem and turned it into a standby for foodies, celebrities tourists, politicians and neighbors alike, passed away today at age 86. Her family said in a statement posted at the restaurant:
It is with great honor and profound sorrow that The Woods Family announces the passing of their Matriarch, Sylvia Woods, known to the world as the Queen of Soul Food, who died peacefully the age of 86 today at 4:50 p.m. at her Westchester home.
Ms. Woods was surrounded by a host of family and loved ones. Sylvia gallantly battled Alzheimer's for the past several years, but never once lost her loving smile. Sylvia publicly announced at her 80th birthday celebration that she was retiring and passing the torch to her children and grandchildren whom have worked side by side with her and her late husband Herbert building a Soul Food empire for the past 50 years.
The Family is thankful for your prayers. In lieu of flowers please the family would appreciate donations made to the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Fund.
As it happens, Mayor Bloomberg was honoring the restaurant's 50th anniversary tonight at a ceremony at Gracie Mansion. He said, "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."
Woods was known for delicious, filling soul food, like fried chicken, smothered chicken, smothered pork chops, ribs, catfish, and more, as well as her commitment to the Harlem community. State Senator Bill Perkins told the Daily News, "When Harlem was being abandoned, Sylvia was still there."
Media flocked the restaurant, located at 328 Lenox Avenue today—some of the Sylvia's staff had to shoo away local news reporters, with one telling two police officers to forcibly remove one TV reporter to stop peering in the window. Harlem business owner and resident Briananthony Beasley stopped us, "I just ate there, what's going on—did she pass?" and then mourned the loss. Beasley said, "She felt like the heart of Harlem. I've only lived here 4 years but I've eaten there probably 50 times." He laughed, "That's how good it was!" When asked what he ate, Beasley laughed again, "Soul food! [laughs] Catfish. I had the catfish, it was good."
The NY Times' obituary notes how Woods, who was born in Hemingway, South Carolina to farmers, started her business:
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 to claim 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.
Herbert Woods passed away in 2001; the Times says her survivors are "children [who] include her sons, Van and Kenneth; her daughters, Bedelia Woods and Crizette Woods; 18 grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren."
Here are statements from Rep. Charles Rangel and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, plus Bloomberg's full statement:
"I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of my dear friend, Ms. Sylvia, the founder of world famous Sylvia's Restaurant. She was a dynamic, warm and kind woman whom the entire Harlem community will miss. Her family and friends are in my thoughts and prayers.
As I reflect on Ms. Sylvia’s long life and accomplishments, I recall my many cherished memories with family and friends at her restaurant. Located in the heart of my congressional district, it was a magical place that brought the community together. I recently celebrated my recent primary victory there.
Ms. Sylvia created a special place on Lenox and 127th street. Sylvia’s may have been famous nationally and internationally, but its soul has always remained in Harlem. Nothing can replace its founder, but her legacy will live on in the memories she helped make.”
Manhattan Borough President Stringer:
"I am greatly saddened today by the passing of Sylvia Woods, a woman who not only founded an iconic restaurant in Harlem, but became one of its leading citizens and ambassadors to the world. Sylvia's, her legendary restaurant and gathering spot, was not simply a mecca for world-class cuisine. It was a friendly and inviting place where residents of Harlem, countless other New Yorkers and visitors from around the globe knew they would always find a warm welcome. Sylvia Woods was known as "The Queen of Soul Food," but in truth she was the Queen of Harlem—a person who exemplified the very best of her vibrant community and a kind, generous woman who will be sorely missed. My heart goes out to her family, her friends and all those who had the good luck to experience her friendship and hospitality first hand."
“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. Sylvia Woods came to New York City with a dream and her dedication made it a reality. She exemplified the entrepreneurial spirit that is at the heart of our city’s success. Even as her brand became a nationwide success, she never forgot to give back to the community that helped make it all possible, creating the Herbert and Sylvia Woods Scholarship Endowment Fund for Harlem High School seniors. My thoughts are with her family and New York City will never forget the Queen of Soul Food
Reporting by Christopher Robbins