There's a terrific oral history about Sylvia Woods and her famous soul food restaurant, Sylvia's, in the NY Times Magazine. Family members, famous customers (like former governor David Paterson, the Ref. Al Sharpton, Chris Rock, Grandmaster Flash and food critic Gael Greene), and others weigh in how the beautician- turned- factory worker- turned- waitress-turned-restaurateur, who passed away in July, turned Harlem into a destination. Here are some highlights:
AL SHARPTON, minister, activist, TV host
The first time I went was with James Brown. He loved to go to Sylvia’s. Even when he wasn’t performing at the Apollo, he’d call me and say, “What’s going on uptown, Rev?” I’d say, “Everything’s good.” And he’d say, “Let’s ride through Harlem.” And when we rode through Harlem, one of the stops had to be Sylvia’s. He always said, “You haven’t been to Harlem if you haven’t been to Sylvia’s.” Everybody knew about Sylvia’s way before New York magazine.
VAN WOODS, Sylvia's son
An article came out in New York magazine called “Harlem on My Mind,” by Gael Greene. This was in 1978 or ’79. Let me tell you, it blew the doors wide open to Harlem.
GAEL GREENE, restaurant critic
I had some friends, extremely white, blondes, who said to me one day, “Let’s go to Harlem for breakfast.” I said, “You must be kidding.” Because in 1979, nobody went to Harlem. We drove to Lenox, 125th Street, and there were derelicts on the streets, falling out of the bars. Sylvia’s was surrounded by bars. It wasn’t too encouraging. We got out of the car and walked into the restaurant, and there was this cute little lady with glasses and an apron who hugged us and said, “What do you want to eat?” We had our breakfast and then came back later for dinner.
DAVID PATERSON, former governor of New York
One day I went in there, and it was all white and Japanese. I said to Sylvia: “Hey, when are we going to have some affirmative action? When are you going to let some black people in here?”
Paterson also marvels how Woods became successful enough to buy all the buildings on her block while Sharpton points out, "In 2007, when then-Senator Barack Obama wanted to have dinner with me and show that he was not taking the black community for granted, he said to me, 'Take me to Sylvia’s.'" And Rock says, "Sylvia’s is the heavyweight champ of fried chicken."