Sylvia Woods, who left the rural bean patches of segregated South Carolina to become one of New York’s top restaurateurs as the vivacious “Queen of Soul Food,” died July 19 at her home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She was 86.
She had Alzheimer’s disease, said her granddaughter Kendra Woods.
Ever since Woods opened Sylvia’s Restaurant in 1962, the Harlem eatery has served Southern bonhomie, chicken-fried smells and baskets of melt-in-your-mouth corn bread to legions of warm-bellied customers.
For decades, Woods’ restaurant has been a gathering place for scores of African American luminaries, including Aretha Franklin, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, James Brown and Denzel Washington. Today, it is a gastronomical destination for patrons of all races and backgrounds, including far-flung tourists from Japan, Germany and South Africa.
Through it all, Woods has held court, dispensing country charm and such dishes as her acclaimed collard greens, candied yams and succulent barbecue ribs.
Her rise in New York’s dining scene was all the more remarkable considering that she never had been inside a restaurant before moving to the city in the 1930s.
“I came from no lights to the bright lights,” Woods told the Chicago Tribune.
She had been a hairdresser and factory worker before becoming a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette on Lenox Avenue and West 127th Street. She later bought the business with her savings and some borrowed money and opened her own restaurant in August 1962.
She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, who had taught her to roast sweet potatoes using cinders from the chimney.
Her restaurant’s first menu included fried chicken, greens, pork chops and a “poor man’s plate” that featured pig’s tails, lima beans and rice.
Woods’ down-home offerings transformed her small restaurant into a fixture of the predominantly black neighborhood and a Harlem institution almost as popular as the nearby Apollo Theater.
Business soared after a 1979 visit from Gael Greene, the influential restaurant critic. She wrote in a New York magazine review that Woods’ ribs were “moist and sassy” and that her grits were “impeccable, smooth and full of the nutty hominy flavor.”
Greene wrote that “the neighborhood, alas, is shabby and forlorn, perhaps a bit forbidding. But Sylvia’s warm hominess is welcoming.”
Sylvia Pressley was born Feb. 2, 1926, in Hemingway, S.C. Her father died when she was an infant, and she was raised by her mother — a farmer and midwife — and her grandmother.
When she was 11, she met Herbert Woods, who was 12, while the pair were working in a bean patch.
“We kept our eyes on each other,” Woods once said. In love ever since, they married in 1944. He worked as a cabdriver and long-haul trucker to support the restaurant, and he even took turns cooking in the kitchen. He died in 2001.
Survivors include four children; 18 grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.
Woods moved to New York in part hoping to escape the rampant prejudice of the South.
“I didn’t like any part of farm life,” Woods once said. “I didn’t understand why people would not let me drink out of the same water fountain, but they would trust me to cook for them and to take care of their dearest thing, their babies.”
At Woods’ restaurant, the most popular items were often the richest dishes. Menu additions that did not succeed were a few low-calorie choices.
“We tried diet food,” Woods told the Associated Press in 1991. “We had to throw it in the garbage. The best diet you can have is to back up from the table.”