Obituary: Sylvia Woods / Soul-food restaurateur in Harlem

Feb. 2, 1926 -- July 19, 2012


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Sylvia Woods, whose eponymous Harlem soul-food restaurant was frequented by local and national politicians, international celebrities, tourists, epicures and ordinary neighborhood residents, died 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.

Her death came a few hours before she was to receive an award from Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a reception at Gracie Mansion commemorating the 50th anniversary of Sylvia's Restaurant. There was a moment of silence before the award presentation; a family friend accepted it on her behalf.

Sylvia's Restaurant opened Aug. 1, 1962 -- with six booths and 15 stools -- at Lenox Avenue near 127th Street, 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.

A culinary anchor and the de facto social center of Harlem, Sylvia's has served the likes of Roberta Flack; Quincy Jones; Diana Ross; Muhammad Ali; Bill Clinton; Jack Kemp; Robert F. Kennedy; and, besides Mr. Bloomberg, Mayors Edward Koch and David Dinkins, who was partial, Ms. Woods said, to the chicken, candied yams, collard greens and black-eyed peas with rice.

Busloads of tourists from as far away as Japan routinely descend on the place. Spike Lee used the restaurant as a location for his 1991 film "Jungle Fever."

Sylvia's inspired two cookbooks by Ms. Woods, "Sylvia's Soul Food: Recipes From Harlem's World Famous Restaurant" (1992; with Christopher Styler) and "Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, to Harlem" (1999; with Melissa Clark).

The daughter of a farming couple, Van and Julia Pressley, Sylvia Pressley was born in Hemingway on Feb. 2, 1926; her father died when she was a baby.

The first thing she cooked as a girl, she recalled, was a pot of rice on the family's wood stove. But the rice burned after Sylvia ran out to play and left it to cook on its own, a fact she withheld from her mother. A switching ensued.

"I got punished," Ms. Woods told The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., in 1999, "but not for burning it -- for telling a lie."

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 City to join her mother, who had gone there for work. She found work herself, in a hat factory in Queens.

In 1944, she married Herbert Woods, who had come North to claim her.

In the 1950s, Sylvia 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.

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.

"I keep pressing on," she told The New York Times in 1994. "I can't give up. I've been struggling too long to stop now."

Her husband, her self-effacing but stalwart partner in the venture, died in 2001.

A major factor in Sylvia's enduring appeal, Ms. Woods learned firsthand, was the time-honored conservatism of its cooking. Toward the end of the 20th century, in deference to an increasingly health-conscious public, Ms. Woods chose to supplement the menu with lighter fare.

"We had lots of salads and stuff," she told The Philadelphia Daily News in 1999. "And it went to waste. When people come here, they got in their mind what they want."

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