updated 07/20/2012 AT 6:00 AM ET
•originally published 07/20/2012 AT 7:55 AM ET
Sylvia Woods, whose namesake soul-food restaurant has been a Harlem landmark for nearly half a century, died Thursday at her home in Westchester County, N.Y., only hours before she was to receive a special award from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reports The New York Times.
She was 86, and although no cause of death was announced, Woods had been suffering with Alzheimer’s disease the past few years. Her family said she was surrounded by loved ones at the time of her death.
“We lost a legend today,” Bloomberg said Thursday, reports New York’s Daily News. “Generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution.”
Sylvia’s Restaurant, at Lenox Avenue near 127th Street (and the main thoroughfare of 125th Street), opened its doors on Aug. 1, 1962, after Woods, a former beautician from South Carolina, and her husband Herbert bought the tiny luncheonette where she had worked as a waitress. Money for the enterprise came from Sylvia’s mother, who mortgaged the family farm for the purchase.
“I know I had to make it or else my mama was gonna lose her farm. So I gave it all that I had to give,” Woods is quoted as once telling Nation’s Restaurant News.
Starting with six booths and 15 stools, Sylvia’s served ribs, hot cakes, corn bread and fried chicken, along with candied yams, collard greens and black-eyed peas with rice.
The restaurant eventually expanded to 250 seats and became the unofficial social center of Harlem, with a clientele that included Roberta Flack, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Robert F. Kennedy and every New York City mayor, notes The Times – citing, too, Woods’s “effusive warmth.”
Known for personally placing the napkins in her customers’ laps, Sylvia – as everyone called her – mothered them all, and earned the affectionate nickname “The Queen of Soul Food.” (When she once attempted a healthier menu, no one ordered from it.)
“I keep pressing on, she told The Times when she was 68. “I can’t give up. I’ve been struggling too long to stop now.”
She retired six years ago, at 80, and her children – sons Van and Kenneth, and daughters Bedelia and Crizette – and numerous grandchildren took over the business.
Herbert Woods died in 2001. Her four children, 18 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren survive Sylvia – as does the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Endowment Foundation, established in 2001 to provide scholarships to Harlem students.
“Even as her brand became a nationwide success,” said Mayor Bloomberg, “she never forgot to give back to the community that helped make it all possible.”