NEW YORK — Sylvia Woods, the founder of the famed Harlem soul food restaurant that bears her name, was remembered Tuesday by famous patrons, neighborhood locals and friends as a warm and welcoming trailblazer who turned her small eatery into a bustling city gem.
“When people came to see me from all over America and the world and wanted to know what Harlem was like, I sent them to Sylvia’s, and they were made to feel welcome and at home,” former President Bill Clinton said, late in the service that lasted more than two hours.
“She brought the world to Harlem, and she made sure that the world took Harlem back home with them,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during the wake and public service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Woods died last week at age 86 after dealing with Alzheimer’s disease for the past few years.
Bloomberg praised Woods’ dedication to supporting the community through charitable work.
“That’s the Sylvia we’ll remember, and though they called her the Queen of Soul Food, it was her warmth, her grace and her generosity that truly made her royalty,” Bloomberg said.
Former Mayor David Dinkins said Sylvia’s Restaurant “is more than a business; it is a testament to our tradition, a comfort zone, a home away from home.” He said her customers also were her neighbors “who needed a place to celebrate special occasions or simply a place to enjoy friends over a great meal.”
Food critic Gael Greene, a co-founder of the Citymeals-on-Wheels food delivery service, said that when she first went to Sylvia’s in the late 1970s, “it was not an era when downtowners coolly trekked up to Harlem for fun … but off we went for glorious ribs and transcendent candied sweets, and there she was, a sweet-faced little woman in a rumpled apron, behind the counter, grinning.”
Woods and her husband, Herbert, natives of South Carolina who met as children, started Sylvia’s in 1962. The restaurant is a Harlem fixture, with tourists and locals going there for cornbread, ribs, collard greens, fried chicken and other staples of Southern cooking and politicians including President Barack Obama making frequent visits while on the campaign trail.
On Tuesday, mourners filed past an open casket. Woods was laid out in a cream-colored brocade suit. The altar was adorned with white flowers: roses, orchids and calla lilies.
A Harlem block was closed by barricades, with police keeping very tight security as a lineup of black limousines arrived for the service. A horse-drawn carriage took her casket in a procession to the restaurant.
Mourners arrived dressed in their Sunday best, many in black.
“She was our shining start,” said Audrey Quintano, who worked for Woods as her executive catering chef in the 1990s and is now preparing to open her own restaurant.
Quintano said that “Miss Sylvia” was her mentor and that Herbert and Sylvia Woods provided a wonderful example of a happy marriage.
“He would act as if he had just met her and he was 19,” Quintano said. “They were the perfect couple.”
Yvonne Maddox, a frequent customer and neighborhood resident, said, “I’ve known her 17 years. She inspired all of us, especially women. Running a business must not have been easy for a black lady 50 years ago and at the same time raising a beautiful family.”
From its start as a restaurant, Sylvia’s has grown to include multiple cookbooks and a nationwide line of food products. The restaurant marked its 50th anniversary in August. Woods officially stepped down from running the restaurant when she was 80, leaving it in the hands of her children and grandchildren. Herbert Woods died in 2001.
Another service is scheduled for Wednesday at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, where Woods lived, just north of New York City.
— Associated Press
He called Woods “a friend, a mother, a grandmother, a matriarch of a community. She put her soul in the soul food.”