MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. – The world lost the reigning “Queen of Soul Food” on Thursday. Sylvia Woods, founder of the legendary Harlem soul food restaurant Sylvia’s Restaurant, died at her Mount Vernon home, according to a statement from her family. She was 86.
The statement said Woods had “gallantly battled Alzheimer’s for the past several years” and, despite her battle, never lost her smile.
For locals and tourists alike, Sylvia’s Restaurant was iconic, a culinary landmark and symbol of the very soul of Harlem. At Sylvia’s hungry diners enjoyed Southern classics like fried chicken, house-made cornbread and collard greens, along with Woods’ famed hospitality.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Woods “a legend,” in a statement on Thursday. And Woods’ story is almost as legendary as her cooking.
Born in Hemingway, S.C., Woods met her childhood sweetheart and future husband, Herbert, when she was 11 years old. The two were smitten with each other from the start, and started planning for a future together in New York City.
According to the restaurant’s website, the young couple married in 1944 and moved to Harlem, where she found work as a waitress at Johnson’s luncheonette. Sometime after, thanks to her “entrepreneurial spirit” and her mother’s willingness to mortgage her South Carolina farm, Woods was able to buy Johnson’s luncheonette, which she transformed into the soul food mecca that is Sylvia’s Restaurant, where famous faces like Diana Ross, the Rev. Al Sharpton and even President Obama have dined.
A public viewing will be Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a wake at 4 p.m., at Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 Odell Clark Place, near 138th Street and Seventh Avenue, in Harlem. The funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Grace Baptist Church, 52 S. Sixth Ave., Mount Vernon. Sharpton is to deliver the eulogy.
Instead of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Endowment Foundation, c/o Sylvia's Restaurant, 328 Lenox Ave., New York, NY 10027. The foundation works to offer scholarships to students from Harlem so that they may attend college.