Beautiful New York

A Celebration of the City

The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #76

Sylvia Woods (1926 – 2012)

76 Sylvia Woods

Arguably Harlem’s greatest embodiment of the American Dream, Sylvia Woods came to the legendary neighborhood from rural South Carolina and got a waitressing job at a 35-seat lunch counter with her mother’s money. In 1962, she bought the place and named it Sylvia’s. By the time she was a grandmother, Woods had established a soul food empire, with fancy banquet rooms taking up more than half a block on Lenox Avenue and a successful line of bottled sauces and boxed mixes enhancing her legend and earning her the popular nickname “The Queen of Soul Food”. Her restaurant became an essential go-to spot for politicians, celebrities, and tour groups from all over the world. In an ever changing, gentrifying Harlem, the Woods family’s ownership of their restaurant buildings has kept their tradition alive while other institutions have folded in the face of looming rents. Woods famously said, once, “I am Harlem! When people around the world think of Harlem, they think of the food at Sylvia’s.”

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