Sylvia Woods, whose namesake Harlem soul-food restaurant was frequented by local and national politicians, international celebrities, tourists, epicures and ordinary neighborhood residents, died on Thursday at her home in Westchester County, N.Y. She was 86.
Her family announced the death, citing no cause. Its statement said Ms. Woods had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for the last few years.
In the 1950s, Ms. Woods began work as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette located at Lenox Avenue near 127th Street 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 in South Carolina, Ms. Woods bought the luncheonette and renamed it Sylvia’s, offering soul-food staples like ribs, hot cakes, corn bread and fried chicken. The immense popularity of its dishes earned Ms. Woods the sobriquet the Queen of Soul Food.
Just around the corner of Apollo Theater, Sylvia’s has served the likes of James Brown, Sam Cooke, Roberta Flack; Quincy Jones; Diana Ross; Muhammad and many entertainers.
Over time, Sylvia’s expanded to seat more than 250; it is the cornerstone of a commercial empire that today includes a catering service and banquet hall and a nationally distributed line of prepared foods.
Ms. Woods, known for her effusive warmth in greeting customers, ran the business until her retirement at 80.
One of those politicians, Rep. Charles Rangel, said he celebrated his recent victory in the Democratic primary for Congress at the restaurant, which is in his district and which he described as “a magical place that brought the community together.”
“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,” he said. “Nothing can replace its founder, but her legacy will live on in the memories she helped make.”
Rev. Al Sharpton said Sylvia’s was “more than a restaurant, it has been a meeting place for Black America.” He said he had dined there with many famous faces including President Barack Obama and Caroline Kennedy.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg 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 had been scheduled to get an award in honor of her restaurant Thursday evening, presented by Bloomberg as part of the annual Harlem Week reception at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence.
A public viewing will be held on Tuesday, July 24 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a wake at 4 p.m. at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
The funeral service will be held on Wednesday, July 25 at 11 a.m. at Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon. The Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy