By: Tony Best
Unfold the ten-foot long honor roll and an inevitable question springs to mind: what do they all have in common?
What did President Barack Obama, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, the current mayor Michael Bloomberg, Roberta Flack, Robert Kennedy, Quincy Jones and the Rev. Al Sharpton, Muhammad Ali, Puffy Coombs, Caroline Kennedy, Congressman Charles Rangel, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a former president Bill Clinton, renowned movie producer Spike Lee, former New York State Comptroller Carl McCall as well as daily busloads of tourists from around the country and the world and a steady stream of average New Yorkers bring to the table, if you will?
Answer: a ravenous appetite for the delicious dishes on the menu and maximum satisfaction when they left Sylvia’s, convinced that they had tasted some of the best soul food in the country, eaten at a world-famous restaurant, and if they were fortunate, greeted by its iconic co-founder, original chef and courteous owner. For Sylvia’s, located at 127th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem and started in 1962 by Sylvia Woods and her self-effacing husband, the late Herbert Deward Woods, both of them from South Carolina, had a magnetic hold on patrons, who considered it a memorable treat to dine at what has become a pillar of the Harlem community.
Little wonder, then, that when Lloyd Williams, the venerable President of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce announced at Gracie Mansion last Thursday that Ms. Wood had died a few hours before, there was a loud and collective gasp of disbelief and shock followed by a moment of silence observed by more than 2,000 guests assembled under large tent. It was a spontaneous recognition that the woman who had launched what is a noble Harlem institution had died and her trademark presence at the door greeting guests was a thing of the past.
“Sylvia met us at the door,” the Rev. Sharpton recalled the day in 2007 when then Senator Obama came to the City to campaign for the presidency in the backyard of Sen. Hillary Clinton and invited the civil rights leader to dinner. “And as we sat in the window, eating soul food and discussing politics and policy, she was putting napkins in our laps like a mother does for her houseguests.”
That was the essence of Sylvia’s and the woman who breathed life into a small 35-seat luncheonette, a stone’s throw from the famous Apollo Theater a half century ago and transformed it a large establishment with a catering service, a banquet hall and a distribution center for a line of prepared foods.
As Williams noted after announcing her passing, “Sylvia’s isn’t simply a restaurant it’s an outstanding model of a business that rose from humble business beginnings to become a national and international symbol of efficiency and excellent service. It’s an integral part of a thriving community and is known for its contributions to society. It was nurtured by the loving attention of the founders and their heirs.”
Congressman Rangel couldn’t agree more but put it differently.
“She was a dynamic, warm and kind woman whom the entire Harlem community will miss,” he said of Ms. Woods. “Sylvia’s may have been famous nationally and internationally but its soul has always remained in Harlem.
Former Mayor Dinkins summed up her life and death in his usual simple but profound style.
“She’ll be missed, not just because of the wonderful business she ran and the great food but because of her contributions to the community,” he said.
Born in Hemmingway, South Carolina in 1926, Ms. Woods, formerly Sylvia Pressley was raised by her mother after the death of her father when she was child. She came to New York as a teenager in search of a life that was much better than toiling in the hot sun picking beans in a field. She began her sojourn in a Queens hat factory. Actually, she had also come to the City to join her mother but it wasn’t long before her future husband, Herbert Woods, also arrived to join her and they were married in 1944. Several years later she took a job as a waitress at a Harlem luncheonette and the rest as they say is history. With the help of her mother who mortgaged a small South Carolina farm, Ms. Woods bought the luncheonette and through hard work, long hours and appetizing meals, Sylvia’s grew into the outstanding eatery that it is today.
The Harlem institution that it is has inspired cook books by Ms. Woods and attracted rave reviews from some of the nation’s best known national, international and local critics of the culinary arts and was used as the location for a popular movie. The Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarships and Endowment Foundation and the scholarships it provides to young Harlem residents are clear evidence of the family’s legacy of giving back.
It was ironic that she died on the day she was to receive an award in honor of the restaurants 50th anniversary. It was presented at Gracie Mansion at Gracie Mansion to a representative of the restaurant in the presence of thousands of New Yorkers.
“We lost a legend today,” said Bloomberg on hearing of her death. “Generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution.”
It’s a reputation that was earned the old-fashioned way: through hard work. The legacy of the “Queen of Soul Food” will live on in the family’s inherited belief that kindness is ultimate gift.
May she rest in peace.