NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1" — a weekly look at the New Yorkers who make the city special — with a profile of Sylvia Woods, a restaurateur whose place was once a luncheonette and who is now visited by people from around the world.
Some New York institutions are made of steel and concrete, but Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem is built on good food, family and friends, old and new.
They come from all over the United States and the world to this little slice of soul food heaven at 126th Street and Lenox Avenue.
Sylvia is Sylvia Woods, the heart and soul behind Sylvia's, and co-founder of the restaurant, along with her late husband Herbert, back in 1962. It was a small luncheonette back then, and the clientele wasn't quite so international.
Sylvia brought in her soul food, and her gift of gab too.
"I love chicken, eggs and hominy grits that will stick to the ribs, and then I can work another eight hours,” says Woods. “Other than that, that coffee and a danish don't stay with you. I’ve got to get something that sticks to the ribs, and I got good ribs.”
Trying to analyze why something tastes good is a little like trying to explain why something is funny - it just is. But it couldn't hurt to ask, what makes Sylvia's food so special?
“Sylvia's secret seasoning,” Woods says. “You want to know what that is, right? A little this and a little that, and you mix it all together. But make sure, a whole lot of love has to go in it. If you don't have that, you have nothing at all. During my growing up time, we only used salt and pepper, stuff we grew on the farm. But in the restaurant business, you keep tasting this and you just add on something that will give it a little zeek and a little zack.”
What kind of reporter would I be if I didn't investigate a little zeek and a little zack? So, strictly for journalistic purposes, I headed into the kitchen.
The food tastes great, but is it healthy to eat Sylvia's every day?
“My grandfather, as far as my mom and my grandmother remember, he lived until he was 101. How much longer are you going to live?” she says. “What he ate - soul food - was good for him, good for my mom, and good for me and my grandmother."
While the work continues non-stop in the kitchen, Sylvia is working the room. But it's no work at all. She welcomes her regulars.
“We go way back. We remember when we could barely rub two pennies, nickels and dimes together," Woods says to one longtime customer.
As the pictures on the walls attest, she welcomes the famous too.
"Diana Ross, when she came, her and her daughters ate in the other room,” Woods says. “You figure that she wants something special, different, but no. They want what Sylvia has on that steam table, the chicken and beef."
“[Nelson] Mandela, they wouldn't let him get out and walk in,” she continues. “They had him enclosed, with the people on the rooftop. It was most amazing, and he was so welcome. I was thrilled. [It was] most amazing. Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable."
As in every great New York story, there were obstacles to overcome. Sylvia Woods faced daunting obstacles right from the start, growing up in Hemingway, South Carolina.
“My grandfather was lynched in 1901. I was born in 1926. My dad died the same week I was born, so I had two widows — a widowed mother and a widowed grandmother - and they both made it," she says.
They made it as farmers, business women in the Jim Crow south. Sylvia left for the big city and worked as a hairdresser.
"We lived at 131st Street and Lenox Ave. This is 127th Street and Lenox, and walking from there, going to the subway to go to work in Queens, I kept passing luncheonette,” she says.
She eventually got a job at the luncheonette. Years later, the owner wanted to sell, and he wanted to sell to Sylvia.
“I said, ÎI don't know how to run a restaurant.’ He said, ÎYou're running this one,’” she says. “And I don't have no money. But [he said] ÎYour mother has a farm.’ Yes - that was it. I said, ÎNo way. I'm not going to ask my mother to mortgage her farm. I've seen too many blacks have lost their farm, and I can't take that chance.’ He said, ÎSylvia, call her and ask her - you'll make it.’”
Sylvia called and asked. Her mother arranged to send up some of the $$20,000 needed. Sylvia worked for a year without a salary, and the luncheonette was hers.
“That one phone call, I wish I knew who the operator was then,” she says.
It's certainly affected her family's life. Her four children have all worked in the family business, and many of her grandchildren have done the same.
"I’m a fifth generation female entrepreneur, and that's really exciting. I'm very proud that I don't have far to look to see a role model," says granddaughter Trenness Woods.
The tourists started coming in droves after a 1979 article by New York magazine food critic Gael Greene. Sylvia was dubbed "The Queen of Soul Food."
“My god, the people came in and I got so embarrassed because I didn't have a place for them to sit,” she says. “The place was crowded. That was the beginning of the end - Gael Greene, New York magazine, and the tourists."
Sylvia's bought the adjoining building and expanded in 1981. The restaurant prevailed and prospered, even during hard times in the neighborhood.
”Things had gotten bad in Harlem. There was times that people did not have food and I fed them, I gave them food,” she says. “Even during the riot, people come, [saying], ÎMiss Sylvia, I don't have no food in the house and the grocery stores are gone.’ And I just had the cooks start cooking."
Sylvia's contribution to local residents doesn't stop with their stomachs. The family has established the Herbert and Sylvia Woods Scholarship Endowment Fund for Harlem High School seniors.
"We provide assistance all four years of school,” says Trenness Woods. “In addition to that, we also greatly encourage that people don't just submit a check, that they actually offer some type of mentoring to the students.”
Sylvia Woods came to New York from a small town in South Carolina, a world away, and a lifetime ago. So many years later, she and her restaurant are known and beloved around the city, the country, and the world, but perhaps most importantly, the neighborhood.
“I'm just glad to be a part that made a difference,” Woods says. “As I say, people say [I’m] lucky? No - blessed. Blessed."
- Budd Mishkin