Sylvia Woods, Matriarch of Famed Harlem Restaurant, Dies at 86

She was 86 and had been battling Alzheimer's disease, her family said

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    Sylvia Woods, the matriarch of the famed Harlem restaurant that bore her name and a New York City icon, died Thursday at her Westchester home, family members said in a statement.She was 86 and had been battling Alzheimer's disease, her family said.Woods, born in Hemingway, S.C., worked at a restaurant in Harlem for eight years before buying her own restaurant in 1962. The Lenox Avenue restaurant eventually became an institution, attracting a loyal following that ranging from locals to presidents. (Published Thursday, Jul 19, 2012)

    Sylvia Woods, the matriarch of the famed Harlem restaurant that bore her name and a New York City icon, died Thursday at her Westchester home, family members said in a statement.

    She was 86 and had been battling Alzheimer's disease, her family said.

    "She gallantly battled Alzheimer's for the past several years, but never once lost her loving smile," said her granddaughter Tren'ness Woods-Black. 

    Woods had been scheduled to receive an award Thursday night at a Grace Mansion reception commemorating the 50th anniversary of her restaurant. Instead, there was a moment of silence in her honor. 

    The mayor, along with Williams, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Tim Zagat, presented the award  to a family friend, who accepted it on the family's behalf. The event was part of the annual Harlem Week reception at Gracie Mansion.

    Woods, born in Hemingway, S.C., worked at a restaurant in Harlem for eight years before buying it in 1962.

    "When the person she worked for decided to sell it, she asked if she could buy it," Lloyd Williams of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce said at the Gracie Mansion reception. "Sylvia's mother mortgaged the farm in order for them to get the restaurant, and the rest is history." 

    The Lenox Avenue restaurant eventually became an institution, attracting a loyal following that ranged from locals to presidents, and drew a steady stream of celebrities and tourists alike.

    "Sylvia Woods came to New York City with a dream and her dedication made it a reality," Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement Thursday. "She exemplified the entrepreneurial spirit that is at the heart of our city's success." 

    Rev. Al Sharpton recalled of his many meals at Sylvia's, "While we were sitting there talking politics, she was doting on us, putting napkins in our lap. That was Sylvia. She was everybody's friend, everybody's mother." 

    Another restaurant customer said she fondly remembered going to Sylvia's as a little girl with her mother and her aunt. 

    "The best part was Sylvia would come around and would say 'Hi, are you enjoying your meal?'" said Hope Davis of White Plains. 

    In addition to the restaurant, Woods and her family ran a catering business and own a line of soul food products. She published two bestselling cookbooks, "Sylvia's Soul Food Cookbook" and "Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook."

    "Ms. Woods was surrounded by a host of family and loved ones," the statement from her family read. "The family is thankful for your prayers."

    In lieu of flowers, the family said it would appreciate donations to the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Foundation.

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