Sylvia Woods: An Oral History

VAN WOODS, Sylvia’s son

Mom was a beautician by trade. She moved to New York in the ’40s (from Hemingway, S.C.) and got a job in a factory in Brooklyn. But the family was living on 131st Street in Harlem. She got tired of the train ride to Brooklyn. So one day she stopped by this restaurant she passed on her way to the subway — Johnson’s, I think it was called — and asked for a job. This was 1954.

Sylvias

KENNETH WOODS, Sylvia’s son

She had never actually set foot in a restaurant before. The owner asked her, “Do you have any experience?” And she said, “Sure.” And he asked her, “Get me a cup of coffee.”

TERRY FRISHMAN, marketing consultant and family friend

She burned herself while trying to figure out the spigot. And then she acted like she didn’t. Johnson could see how much she was going to be a hard worker and hired her.

VAN WOODS

She worked there for six or seven years. Then the owner wanted to sell and he offered the place to Mom for $20,000. Mom was like, “I don’t have nothing but a husband and some children. I don’t got no money.” He said, “You should talk to your mother and ask if she’ll mortgage her farm. You only need $18,000 because you got $2000 in savings.” Mom was always good at saving her tips.

KENNETH WOODS

She got the money and bought the restaurant. For the first year she used the name Johnson’s. But when she’d paid off everything she owed, that’s when she put her name on it. That’s when it became Sylvia’s.

DAVID PATERSON, former governor of New York

I first went to the restaurant I think around 1972. There was nothing special about it. It was like a lot of places you would see. I don’t think you’d get the sense then that we’d be talking about it 40 years later. But it was not just a restaurant but a hang-out. Sylvia’s became that major place that you saw people.

BEVERLY SMITH, Harlem native and longtime Sylvia’s patron

I don’t think they ever closed down. During snowstorms they were open. During the blackouts they were open. They were always open, and Sylvia was always greeting you at the door with a big smile and a hug.

ED KOCH, former mayor of New York

At the time, there was only one restaurant in Harlem, and that was Sylvia’s. So if you wanted to take somebody to Harlem or meet somebody in Harlem, there was no other place to go.

GRANDMASTER FLASH, DJ

For a long time, I always wondered who Sylvia was. When I finally got to meet her, a couple of years later, it was a woman that I’d seen many times because she would seat people. Usually people who own businesses are in the back office, or they’re home and they have other people running their business. But not Sylvia. She was always there. Always.

CRIZETTE WOODS, Sylvia’s daughter

I was literally almost born in the restaurant. My mom didn’t want to leave and go to the hospital. She just hung around. Her close friend Sally, who was a cook, kept telling her: “You’ve got to get out of here! Go to the hospital! She’s going to be born any minute!” Within two weeks of giving birth, she had me in the restaurant every day. She made a little bed for me in a breadbox.

AL SHARPTON, Baptist minister and civil rights activist

The first time I visited Sylvia’s, I was in my late teens. It was just a counter. She was a block and a half from the Apollo, and everybody that played the Apollo or went to the Apollo loved soul food.

CLARENCE COOPER, former general manager at Sylvia’s

When the Apollo musicians came dressed in their suits, Sylvia would put a napkin on each of their laps. She made sure they were returned back to the Apollo with no food stains.

AL SHARPTON

The first time I went was with James Brown. He loved to go to Sylvia’s. Even when he wasn’t performing at the Apollo, he’d call me and say, “What’s going on uptown, Rev?” I’d say, “Everything’s good.” And he’d say, “Let’s ride through Harlem.” And when we rode through Harlem, one of the stops had to be Sylvia’s. He always said, “You haven’t been to Harlem if you haven’t been to Sylvia’s.” Everybody knew about Sylvia’s way before New York Magazine.

VAN WOODS

An article came out in New York Magazine called “Harlem On My Mind” by Gael Greene. This was in 1978 or 79. Let me tell you, it blew the doors wide open to Harlem.

GAEL GREENE, restaurant critic

I had some friends, extremely white, blondes, who said to me one day, “Let’s go to Harlem for breakfast.” I said, “You must be kidding.” Because in 1979, nobody went to Harlem. We drove to Lenox, 125th street, and there were derelicts on the streets, falling out of the bars. Sylvia’s was surrounded by bars. It wasn’t too encouraging. We got out of the car and walked into the restaurant, and there was this cute little lady with glasses and an apron who hugged us and said, “What do you want to eat?” We had our breakfast and then came back later for dinner.

ED KOCH

I’m not going to look at New York with rose-colored glasses. There were, for a number of years during my administration, high crime areas, and Harlem was one such area. But not around Sylvia’s.

GAEL GREENE

I remember when we parked the BMW in front of the place. I was hoping it would still be there when we got out. And sure enough, it was.

LIZ BERGER, president of Alliance for Downtown New York

I lived downtown. I had grown up downtown. Harlem was just not a part of the city that I knew. Going to Sylvia’s, it changed our whole feeling about Harlem. So we started inviting our friends. But people were concerned. “Well, how would we get there?”

GAEL GREENE

I gave the story to my editor at New York, Ed Kosner, and he said, “Are we really going to tell our readers to go to Harlem?” And I said, “These people are wonderful and they welcome you and it’s charming.” All you had to do was get in a taxi and wait for them to drop the meter and then tell them you’re going to Harlem.

VAN WOODS

After the New York review, Sylvia’s was bursting at the seams. And then other media started picking up on us. The crowds started coming, and it ain’t never stopped since.

CLARENCE COOPER

They came from Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France. We probably had the largest number of patrons from Japan. They seemed to be enamored with the food. I don’t think there was ever a day when she didn’t serve somebody from Japan.

BEVERLY SMITH

It was the Japanese tourists before anyone else. White folks were still way too afraid of Harlem. The Japanese were fearless in their pursuit of fried chicken.

DAVID PATERSON

One day I went in there and it was all white and Japanese. I said to Sylvia, “Hey, when are we going to have some affirmative action? When are you going to let some black people in here?”

TREN’NESS WOODS-BLACK, Sylvia’s granddaughter

I tell people all the time, you can go to Sylvia’s by yourself. If you want to dine by yourself, that’s fine. But if you don’t, you can sit at the counter and you’re always going to meet someone. I’ve seen people strike up conversations and exchange information. “I’m going to come visit you in Italy.”

KENNETH WOODS

We started getting celebrities coming in. Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, Muhammad Ali. When James Brown would come, it would be like family. He and mom would just hug. He was like a relative that we hadn’t seen in a long time.

CLARENCE COOPER

We were so impressed when Bill Clinton came in. A sitting president! He’s busy running the world and running the United States. He has time to come here for lunch? Also, Mandela’s wife. She never came to this country without coming first to Sylvia’s. She came straight from the airport, from Kennedy, directly to the restaurant. Chris Rock came a lot. I think he even mentioned Sylvia’s in a movie.

CHRIS ROCK, comedian and actor

If you ever watched the Madagascar Christmas special, Marty the Zebra says he can’t wait to get some candied yams from Sylvia’s.

ROBERTA FLACK, R&B singer

When I started to attend Sylvia’s restaurant on a fairly regular basis, everybody else had the same thing in mind. It got so crowded in there, you’d have to wait outside. I would take friends, two or three at a time, to have breakfast with me, especially on Sundays. We’d end up having to eat at the counter. You couldn’t be hoity-toity in there.

GRANDMASTER FLASH

The stars is one thing. But it was most impressive to me when they got the everyday person from faraway countries to come to Harlem to eat. They could’ve ate in Midtown, 42nd street, lower Manhattan. But they came to Sylvia’s. I’d sit in there and hear German accents, Russian accents, English accents, and I’d be like, “Oh shit, this is super cool right here.”

CRIZETTE WOODS

Celebrities looked at Mom as a celebrity. I remember I was with her once and Diana Ross walked by, and Diana Ross was like, “Look, look, it’s Sylvia Woods!” Mom couldn’t believe it. She was like, “Why is she so excited to see little ol’ me?”

TREN’NESS WOODS-BLACK

Most restaurants you go to, you hardly ever meet the owner, much less take a picture with them. People would line up to take their picture with Sylvia. There would be busloads of folks from all over the country, and they had to take a picture with her. She would sometimes take pictures with over a hundred people a night. My grandmother was the most photographed restauranteur ever. I would put money on it.

CLARENCE COOPER

In the back there used to be a round table where Sylvia would sit. She could see everyone as they entered the dining room.

TERRY FRISHMAN

That table was where she welcomed everyone, and where people would come over to say hello. She was the most hospitable woman. She was as welcoming to someone she never knew as she was to someone she’d known her entire life. Each person felt special.

CHARLES B. RANGEL, U.S. Congressman

I remember how she would stop by every table and ask, “Are they taking care of you? Is there anything you would want?” I don’t think they train people to do that in business management school.

BEVERLY SMITH

She would come by and pat your shoulder and give you a little squeeze. She didn’t have to do it. She did it because she cared and she wanted people to have a good experience.

MICHAEL KENNETH WILLIAMS, actor

Cake Man Raven and I would drive from Brooklyn all the way to Harlem to have breakfast at Sylvia’s. It was like visiting family. It was more like going to your mom’s house or your aunt’s house. I was always greeted with smiles and warm feelings.

VAN WOODS

I used to think my mom was too free with love. I just felt she embraced too easily. Maybe I was jealous. I was the oldest child, so I used to get all the love. But then the other children came along, and then the business. All the customers got her love. It infuriated me. I said, “Maybe you should be more reserved.” But she was not. She loved people and she showed it. She said to me, “Van, don’t be selfish. Give love, show love.” That’s what she ran off.

MELISSA CLARK, co-author of Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook (and food columnist for the New York Times)

I lived in Brooklyn, and I’d take the train up to Harlem, an hour each way. Before I left, Sylvia would always pack up food, not for me but for my husband. I would go home on the subway with these two huge to-go containers with macaroni & cheese and oxtail and collard greens. It’d be sitting on my lap and it would smell so good for the whole hour ride back to Brooklyn. People would be smelling it on the train. She was so generous. She couldn’t possibly let me go home without two days worth of meals.

LIZ BERGER

She was a good cook. I think sometimes that gets lost in the legend. Sylvia made food that evoked a sense of home even if it had never been yours. I’d never been anywhere in South Carolina. Yet when you ate Sylvia’s salmon cakes, or her grits and collards, you felt very much like you were home.

ADAM RICHMAN, Travel Channel host

In New York, where so much is made about truffle oils and chasing the latest trends, it’s nice to have someplace where you can just get fried chicken and ribs. It’s good food served at a good price by good people. I think it’s a lost aesthetic in some respects.

ROBERTA FLACK

Sylvia’s had the kind of food that we all knew. We knew what to expect. But we were often overly surprised. We knew it was delicious but, as my godchild says, it was too delicious. You couldn’t resist it. I lost all semblance of self control when it came to Sylvia’s biscuits and fried chicken. I enjoyed it a little too much. And Sylvia knew it. She’d say to me, “We’ve got some delicious salads today.”

MARCUS SAMUELSSON, chef and owner of the Red Rooster Harlem

I love the familiarity of her menu. Every customer knew what to order in those classic counter-type services. Everybody had a favorite dish.

GAEL GREENE

The biscuits, of course. And the ribs. I loved the ribs.

BILL LYNCH, political consultant

I loved the salmon cakes and eggs and grits.

CHRIS ROCK

Sylvia’s is the heavyweight champ of fried chicken.

GRANDMASTER FLASH

Fried chicken, candied yams, collard greens. That’s probably what I ate the most.

ROBERTA FLACK

The grilled chicken livers and scrambled eggs. Let me go a little further. Grilled chicken liver with tons of grilled onions and scrambled eggs, medium. Oh yeah.

ED KOCH

And the portions were very big. Very big.

BILL LYNCH

We used to have political meetings at Sylvia’s, what we called at that time power breakfasts. It was our Regency restaurant. You know the Regency down on 61st Street?  Where everybody goes for a power breakfast? Sylvia’s was our power breakfast. We did the strategizing of the David Dinkins’ campaign there. If people in the community saw you there, they knew something serious must be going on.

AL SHARPTON

Any day you could walk in and Harlem’s opinion makers and influential people would be there. If you didn’t frequent Sylvia’s, it was assumed after awhile that you had retired. I would eat dinner at Sylvia’s even if I wasn’t hungry, because you had to remain viable. In 2007, when then Senator Barack Obama wanted to have dinner with me and show that he was not taking the black community for granted, he said to me, “Take me to Sylvia’s.”

BILL LYNCH

There wasn’t any private tables. There were no back rooms. There was just one room with a counter.

DAVID PATERSON

I remember one time I was having a little misunderstanding with Reverend (Calvin O.) Butts, he and I went to Sylvia’s to settle it, and we were sitting there right in the middle of everybody. When I had lunch with Jesse Jackson, we weren’t secluded or shielded off from people. But if anybody came over and disturbed you, Sylvia would disturb them right back. “Hey, let the senator eat. Leave him alone!”

BILL O’REILLY, political commentator

(Al) Sharpton and I have a dinner every year, kind of a tradition. So (in 2007) we selected Sylvia’s and we met up there, and the next day I was doing a radio commentary on how blacks and whites misunderstand each other. And I said that my history is a good example. I have a grandmother who didn’t like black people. The problem was that she didn’t know any, had never met a black person. Ever. And I said, “I would have liked my grandmother to see last night that I was dining at Sylvia’s in Harlem and everything there was exactly the way it would’ve been at any other restaurant in the country.” It was actually a compliment.

(During the broadcast, O’Reilly also said, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’”)

AL SHARPTON

What Bill said was stunning. Did he think we’d be break-dancing up and down the aisles?

BEVERLY SMITH

Even though it’s world famous now, there are still locals at Sylvia’s. It’s still one of the few dining rooms in New York City that’s truly diverse. We always think how diverse New York is, but when you go into restaurants, you see either one group or the other. Sylvia’s has everybody.

BILL LYNCH

I think Sylvia’s will live on for a very long time. Even though she’s not there, I think it’s become an institution in Harlem. I still go there. I was there a couple weeks ago. Every fourth Friday, there’s still a power breakfast by leaders in Harlem.

ADAM RICHMAN

The restaurant bears the physical markers of its own history. You see the lunch counters, then you see where they expanded to one dining room, then you see where they expanded to another dining room.

CHARLES B. RANGEL

They own an entire city block now. And they did it building by building.

DAVID PATERSON

We were always against what we called vertical development, where buildings in New York were expanding the air space and adding on floors. I used to call Sylvia’s horizontal development. Because every time a store would close on the block, they would annex it. They just drilled through the wall and put in tables. And it was moving in the direction of downtown. I used to say, by 2020 Sylvia’s should be down around 96th street.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON

Sylvia and her family, they were always the most positive about me coming to the neighborhood. Sylvia was like, “Of course you should open a place next door to me. It’s good for the street.” It showed how strong they were, how much belief they had in their brand. Strong people don’t get intimidated.

CHARLES BROWNING, actor and Harlem resident

One of the special things about Sylvia’s is the furniture. Their chairs are cheap linoleum. You know what I mean? It’s all plastic with the rustic gold detailing. It’s nothing like those multi-million dollar restaurants that are suddenly all over Harlem. It’s what Harlem used to be.

KENNETH WOODS

If I had a choice, I’d redo the counter. It’s fifty years old. You have to modernize, but you can modernize for efficiency and still keep your authentic qualities. Even though you evolve, you have to hold on to your authentic self, the core of who you are.

ADAM RICHMAN

We have such amazing history in New York, and it’s seldom that pieces of it are preserved. We’ve turned CBGBs into a clothing store. In a city that’s known for being on the culinary vanguard, I think it’s kind of awesome that one thing has remained the same in a neighborhood that’s changed so very much.

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the New York Times Magazine, January 30, 2012.)