Sylvia Woods, the owner of the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant, died yesterday at the age of 86, only a few hours before she was set to recieve an award from Mayor Bloomberg celebrating the 50th anniversary of the restaurant. As a Harlem landmark, Sylvia’s has served not only the neighborhood, but also politicians, celebrities and tourists, some of whom came from as far as Japan to eat her food.
Woods originally worked as a waitress in the diner that occupied the restaurant’s location in the 1950s; in 1962, she bought the place, renamed it, and it soon became a New York institution. Her food was so iconic that when she tried to offer lighter, healthier food in the late 1990s, it was ignored in favor of the classics. She worked at Sylvia’s until the age of 80, when she retired. Over the last fifty years, her reign as the “Queen of Soul Food” has resulted in two cookbooks, a catering company, a banquet hall, and a line of prepared foods, available nationwide. The restaurant was even used as a location in Jungle Fever, Spike Lee’s 1991 film.
After news of her death broke, celebrities, politicians, chefs and fans took to Twitter to remember her, demonstrating her widespread influence and the love she had for everyone who walked through her doors. Marcus Samuelsson credits Woods for inspiring him to open Red Rooster, calling her an “iconic and gracious woman” full of “support and encouragement”. Mayor Bloomberg also remembered her, saying, “We lost a legend today”.
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