On the occasion of Sylvia Woods’s death last week, Frederick Douglass Opie, author of Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, looked back on her life and the important role her restaurant Sylvia’s played in the life of Harlem.
Writing for his blog Food as a Lens, Opie outlines the history of Sylvia’s from its beginnings in 1962 when Sylvia Woods started the restaurant as a distinctively soul restaurant based on South Carolina cookery. Around the corner from the Apollo theater, it became popular with entertainers and then later with such stalwart Harlem politicians as Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, and David Dinkins.
An iconic institution of Black Harlem, it continues to thrive despite the many changes and gentrification in the neighborhood. Opie writes:
In the 1970s, Sylvia’s became a stop on tourist junkets full with foreigners who toured the streets of Harlem. This was before white elites living in New York City would consider dining there. I started noticing a lot more white faces on the streets of Harlem and in Sylvia’s shortly after President Bill Clinton opened an office there. After he arrived, gentrification in Harlem started in full force signaled by the arrival of a new Starbucks just around the corner from Sylvia’s. The hard-working Woods and her family built a successful restaurant business that included the branding of her own products, such as collard greens, seasonings, and sauces. Today the restaurant continues under the leadership of Ms. Woods’ children and it’s still a destination for politicians seeking to identify with black voters. Can you imagine the food at the repast of Ms. Woods’ home going service?