Sylvia Woods, queen of soul food, dies at 86
July 19th, 2012
07:15 PM ET
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Legendary restaurateur Sylvia Woods, known internationally as the Queen of Soul Food, passed away on Thursday, according to a statement issued by her family. She was 86.

“Sylvia gallantly battled Alzheimer's for the past several years, but never once lost her loving smile,” her family said. She died peacefully surrounded by loved ones at her Westchester home.

Woods’ world-renowned Harlem establishment, Sylvia’s, has drawn celebrities, politicians, tourists and locals alike to eat its famed soul food for more than 50 years.

Sylvia Woods – beyond the label, a legacy of dignity and inspiration

Woods and her husband, Herbert, opened the Lenox Avenue restaurant in 1962, featuring southern cooking staples like cornbread, collard greens, and fried chicken.

“We lost a legend today,” New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg said in a statement. “For more than 50 years, New Yorkers have enjoyed Sylvia’s and visitors have flocked to Harlem to get a table. In her words, the food was made with ‘a whole lot of love’ and generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution.”

Following the success of her restaurant, Woods and her family developed Sylvia’s Catering Corp. and a nationwide line of Sylvia’s Food Products.

Woods also penned two celebrated cookbooks, “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, To Harlem” and “Sylvia’s Soul Food.”

Woods announced her retirement from her soul food empire on her 80th birthday, her family said, passing the torch to her children and grandchildren.

Previously - A Secret Supper in Harlem

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Filed under: Celebrity Chefs • Classic • Cuisines • Restaurants • Soul • Sylvia Woods

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Solo

    Gee, I thought Marcus Samuelsson proclaimed himself the Queen of Soul Food.

    July 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  2. BarredOwl

    I understand, your hatred stems from watching many African Americans around you surpass your pitiful earnings, 7th grade education, living in a trailer park and driving your beat up 17 year old pick-up. I know its hard...especially since being white has not worked to your advantage.

    July 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  3. Diana

    EVERY person should honor her by cooking good food with their families today! May this lovely lady rest in peace and her family find grace and love in their memories of her. How anyone can take a moment of grief to spread ignorance is beyond me.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Ants Are In

      Easy. Like me, they've never heard of her. However, unlike me, they have no respect for another person's loss or feelings.

      July 20, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  4. Gwenn

    My condolences to Miss Sylvia's family. Use my 'Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook" regularly. Some great food to be served in Heaven now, rest well, Miss Sylvia, and thank you.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Miran Gaines


      July 20, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  5. Pam

    I grew up eating Southern food, fried in Crisco and vegetable oil. I was healthier eating Southern food than I am now; just do nto have time to cook like that. May Sylvia rest in peace; she has done her part.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. CDG

    Cooking for Jesus now! What a beautiful thought! Peace be with the family...

    July 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  7. babyb4

    You worked a good while. Take your rest, Ms. Sylvia.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  8. palintwit

    Sarah Palin believes that mooseburgers are soul food.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  9. Rosa Bogar

    I am most saddened by the passing of Sylvia Wooda "Queen of Soul Food" I just forwarded info. to Hon. Charles B. Rangel which should have been received yesterday,a mention of Sylvia in the contained mail. She wasfrom South Carolina and I am a native of South Carolina.I ate at Sylvia's last Sept.28th I finished my meal at the airport while awaiting my flight back to Minneapolis.This endeavor I am embarking on brings long over due recognition to many Blacks of South Carolina who like Sylvia left for a better life! but contributed much toward the making of NYC being the great Gity that it is today! A-shaa to the "Queen of Soul Food" You will be missed but always, remembered! Thanks, for everything.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  10. Sara

    As much as New York City is known for its glitz and glam, sometimes the best places are those where you are with family. Sylvia made this restaurant her home and greeted all who came in, including myself. It is a wonderful place, steeped with a rich history and I hope it remains for years to come. Thank you for all of your hard work Sylvia! You will truly be missed!

    July 20, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  11. Alvin P.

    The Woods family lost a pioneer, but we gained an angel to continue to watch over us. Ms. Woods may be gone but, will never be forgotten for her loving ways and generous heart. She touched many hearts and fed a many people, some with stern warnings to make positive changes and it was not always food that she served, but knowledge wisdom, understanig for better direction in life which sometimes was followed by a warm meal to digest in all in to premiate one's willingness to to make greater strides. Her great love for family is evident of her love for God and has been past down through the generations from the wonderful example that she was to them and us. In 2006 for her 80th birthday celebration, Harlem, New York was galvanized and she wore her crown proudly by bringing together city, state, federal and local offficial along side ordinary people as well as some big name celebrities from all walks of life, giving them that down home feel of her legacy mingled with her success as a restauranteur as well as her greatest blessings that is her family, as they were focal point of her life that evening where as she past them the torch. It is one day that will live within me forever, for she was a women who was born in the south work in the north and never lost sight of who she was and what God gave to her and her realizing that it was for others and she shared it thoughly with a beautiful heart from east to west. Personally, I was blessed to spend time with her in her South Carolina Home, in Norfolk VA. in the home of her sister in law, and in Harlem at the restaurant. She was always giving thanks for her family, to her God, for all blessings that surrounds them. I have never heard a complait from her about anyone nor for anything. She epitomize success and never lost sight of what starts out as hard work, emerges into spiriture awarness thus giving into Gods greatest desire for all of us, which is to come unto him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Thanks Sylvia Woods for being my hero. May you rest in peace and God will watch over us.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  12. Wendy

    I am still making her recipe for salmon patties – the best. My condolences go out to the family. RIP Ms. Sylvia.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  13. Copy Room

    My wife and I have been perfecting the many dishes in Mrs Sylvia cook books for years. How wonderful it must have been to be there with her as she went home to be with the Lord. Family, it was not about the food. It was about the LOVE. May God comfort and keep you all.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  14. GE

    My first ever trip to New York was in 2008 and I was told not to leave without having dinner at Sylvia's. Hands down the best Soul Food PERIOD! I briefly met Mrs Sylvia and within minutes her wonderful spirit exuded and she treated me as if I were one of her grandchildren and I told her that I am her grandchild I even got a picture with her that I will treasure RIP Mrs Sylvia...we all love you and will miss you but we know you are with God now and that's the best place to be again RIP Mrs Sylvia form your grandson here in New Orleans!

    July 20, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  15. johnsonj3

    My church usher board from Baltimore, MD would has a shopping trip to New York every other year and Sylvia was where we would go on Saturday after shopping and have dinner, Ms. Sylvia would be there and greet us as we came in the door. The food was great. Rest in Peace Ms. Sylvia. I hope the family keeps the service the same as she did.

    July 20, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  16. SylviaFan

    Oh no! :( This makes me sad. Thank you Sylvia for giving us your best all those years. You live on in your cooking. Rest, child.

    July 20, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  17. BLKvotingAmerican

    RIP, my prays are with the family.

    July 20, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  18. cooking in Mississippi

    I have Mrs. Sylvia's book. I love the Bread Pudding and Peach cobbler receipe.. I really enjoyed the stories. Having that fried chicken on bread on the Train. I ate fried chicken sandwiches for a week yum yum. Rest in Peace

    July 20, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  19. jbanner

    Can you imagine the change this woman has seen in her life? When she opened the restaurant there were still segregated, restrooms and lunch counters in the places that soul food originated, now she lives in once exclusively white Westchester and Harlem is turning whiter ever day. Rest in Peace Sylvia your food has made a difference in people’s lives.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • tessiepie

      There were no segregated bathrooms and lunch counters in Harlem, NY, NYC, New Amsterdam, Brooklyn, Queensborough, etc.. What Slyvia saw from day in in the NY neck of the woods, even in the 40's and 50's, even for black people was progress. It wasn't police dogs and fire hoses across the nation.

      July 20, 2012 at 10:26 am |
      • Meeshell

        Re-read the comment. Segregation DID still exist "in the places soul food originated" (unless you think it originated in Harlem). Her food and restaurant have been part of America's transformation. She's from the South.

        July 20, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  20. beautifulutour

    Thanks to Miss Sylvia and her family for the amazing food. I'm so glad my late Aunt Irene (God bless her soul) took me to Sylvia's restaurant all those years ago and introduced me to a legend. I have Sylvia's green beans and greens in my pantry now. I've been faithful to the brand and will continue to pass it on. Rest in Peace.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  21. Leshia

    Wow, sorry to hear of her passing. Met Ms. Sylvia a few years ago when my children were little. My husband surprised us and took us to her restaurant. We met her and what an impression she left with us. She came and sat with us and our four children. She told us about how she got started and how hard she had to work to get her business going in those times. She then took photos with my little ones, they never forgot. What a humbling experiencing. She was a genuine person and she made you feel special. Thank you for your service and words of encouragement to a young couple just getting started. My prayers to her family in this time that God will grant you peace and comfort.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  22. Joi Gibson

    Rest well Ms. Sylvia.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • GailS

      What a great woman! I never met her, but I went to Sylvia's in Harlem in 1978. My friend, Maureen, from Connecticut took me. I had never had chicken and waffles, but boy oh boy, that was delicious. I've tried to make it a few times since then, but it's never been as good as hers. Condolences to her friends and family. RIP.

      July 20, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  23. Debbie J

    I remember back in 2002 when my daughter and I visited a good friend while on vacation for our first time in NY. The first night we arrived, my girlfriend treated us to dinner at Sylvia's Soul Food. As we walked in, this friendly elderly woman greeted us and was the first to say "Welcome to Sylvia's, someone will be with you shortly". At the time, I wasn't aware who she was but as we sat and ate our food, we looked around and the same lady was greeting guests. I asked our waitress if the owner was around and she replied, "Oh yes, there's Ms Sylvia over there greeting customers. She's here practically everyday!" To our surprise, it was the same lady who greeted us so warmly. Unfortunately, we didn't get to take a picture with her but we certainly enjoyed the hospitality and the oxtails, smothered pork chops, rice, greens, and cornbread. My sincere condolences to the family of such a great lady!!

    July 20, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  24. TAY

    I love her food. Sylvia's was the first please I had chicken & waffles. The best. RIP Ms Sylvia. Gone, but never forgotten.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • chefdugan

      I'm sorry I never got a chance to eat there. Her canned goods, however, are very forgetable. Make that mediocre.

      July 20, 2012 at 9:26 am |
      • PurpleSplash

        You're a jacka$$. The woman just died...if you haven't anything nice to say...say nothing! After all, she leaves behind a family that loved her and admirers who enjoyed the fruits of her labor.

        With that said, I say "Rest in Peace, Ms. Sylvia." My deepest sympathy to her family.

        July 20, 2012 at 10:09 am |
      • XxX

        What a terrible thing to say.

        July 20, 2012 at 10:44 am |
      • Fred

        @ Chefdugan – was a pompous inconsiderate jackass to make such as taste-less comment! If your name (chef) speaks for itself, then your dumbass should know that food packaged in a "canned good" – compares nothing to that of real food made fresh daily. For your one very "mediocre", make that stupid ass statement – there are thousands of others praising this lady's name and service to her community! Some ppl (like you) are sorry ass excuses for human beings!

        July 20, 2012 at 10:50 am |
      • CC

        Shame on you for the "tasteless" comment....must be working at Mickie D's, a real chef would give his/her condolences and keep it moving...

        July 20, 2012 at 11:46 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Whatever. He is entitled to his opinion. He didn't say she was forgettable. Just the canned products. Adjust your Sensitivity Meters down. Sheesh. What a bunch of babies.

        July 20, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  25. Donna Groves

    A legend from what I have read. I am always amazed by the wonderful and amazing things that so many people can achieve when they put their minds to it despite the negativity of others. RIP Ms. Sylvia sounds to me you deserve a break. We need more people with your spirit and determination.

    July 20, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  26. morgan fleming

    One of the great ladies of New York. My best friend lives in Hawaii and when she flew east, we would always take her elderly aunt to Sylvia's who always welcomed us like old and dear friends. She leaves many fond memories in her wake.

    July 20, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  27. DLayne Carite

    An amazing woman* Prayers go out to the family* <3

    July 20, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  28. Roger Gray

    Thank you Mrs. Woods for putting Hemingway SC on the map, great people and great things come from small towns also, The Woods family will be in my prayers.

    July 20, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  29. Former Soldier

    I'm sad to hear this. I had a personal experience with MS Woods that I'll never forget. In 2006 I was in NYC as part of the honor guard for a fallen soldier from Harlem. After the memorial service, the family wanted to take us some place special for dinner. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Sylvia's, they were just closing down for the night. One of the family members went in and talked to Sylvia's nephew and told him who we where and why we were there. He immediately invited us in and they started up the kitchen again and made us the absolute best meal I've ever had in my life. Fried chicken, catfish, greens, macaroni and name it. We had the whole restaurant to ourselves..and they just kept bringing food. Sylvia herself then walked in and sat down with us. She chatted with each of us and presented each of us with a bottle of her famous hot sauce. When we were finally done eating, we asked about the check, and they said "there is no check, it's on us tonight. Thanks for your service." It was a completely humbling experience that I'll never forget as long as I live. Thank you Sylvia, I'll never forget you.

    July 20, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • lauradet

      Thank you so much for posting your story, it brought tears to my eyes.

      July 20, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Danger Kitty

      Oh my God, I'm sitting here crying after hearing that. With all the horrific news we hear every day, to know that there are people out there that still do this kind of thing – it heals my broken heart just a little bit. Now I want to go to Sylvia's and pay double my tab :)

      July 20, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Donna Groves

      Love your story. Thanks for sharing. This is what humanity is suppose to be like. This woman's kindess and selfless act still rings in your heart and I bet you are a different but better person because of your experience with her. Praise God and RIP Ms Sylvia.

      July 20, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Schajay

      I am in tears after reading that story. My aunt was purchasing her food last week and giving me Sylvia's history. My heart goes out to the family.

      July 20, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Junggg

      I'd be lying if I said that story didn't bring a tear to my eye. That's real character right there. It's a real shame when a good person like that moves on, but at least her impact is known.

      July 20, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Ron G

      Awesome, Awesome, Awesome story!

      July 20, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • harlemsoul

      Thanks Soldier for your story... I know that your story is true because I knew Ms Woods personally and that is exactly the kind of woman, chef, and restauranteur she was. In 1999 I opened my 1st restaurant in Harlem named Amy Ruth's. But prior to me opening every other night, I would walk up to Sylvia's and eat dinner. Whenever I would come in Ms Woods would always join me and talk to me for hours, giving me advice on opening my restaurant and what to expect. She never once didn't have time to talk to me. I told a new organization last night in front of Sylvia's that I will forever love and remember Ms Sylvia Woods, and her many acts of kindness and her great food... (btw last night I had me some good ole smothered chicken w/ potato salad and collard greens)...

      July 20, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Stephanie

      Thank you for this wonderful story! God Bless you and the family members that are left to grieve the loss of a great women.

      July 20, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Elaine Burton (Columbia SC)

      What an awesone story!!! We need more selfless people like that in our world. Thanks for sharing and thank you for all you do for our country. God Bless!!!

      July 20, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • moxie

      Soldier Boy, that also brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so much for sharing your story with the world, and thanks for what you did for us as a nation. Sadly I never made it to Sylvia's (shame on me!) but I ADORE her cornbread mix. It is sweet and spicy, apparently just like her :) I will have to go and find it now, and make some for dinner this weekend! RIP and thanks for the food memories...

      July 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • evan

      its so great to hear a story like that, thats why i love family owned restaurants as opposed to fridays, no pride in ownership

      July 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
      • Sunny

        That story brought tears to my eyes. She was a genuine person and every time I went there she treated my family and I like family. She even let one of my daughter's friends interview her. She let another family member take a picture with her to take back to North Carolina. Thank you Ms. Sylvia. RIP QUEEN OF SOUL FOOD!!!

        July 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  30. Lost

    July 20, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  31. Alex

    Love and Respect goes out to Ms. Sylvia and her family. We will miss you, thanks for all the GREAT food. RIP

    July 20, 2012 at 7:19 am |
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