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'Queen of soul food' remembered in Harlem

Melba Wilson, center, niece of famed restaurateur Sylvia

Melba Wilson, center, niece of famed restaurateur Sylvia Woods, hugs a well wisher outside Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem after Woods died in Mount Vernon. The Harlem soul food restaurant is a cultural icon and has been visited by dignitaries including U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. (July 20, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Sylvia Woods was remembered Tuesday as Harlem's "queen of soul food," as well as a community matriarch who transformed a tiny eatery into a community landmark and a booming enterprise that drew tourists from around the world.

In addition to her cooking skills at Sylvia's Restaurant, "she made you feel right at home," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a memorial service at Abyssinian Baptist Church. "You sat down at the table and you were part of the family. . . . She is a 100 percent, real-life New York City story."

Woods died Thursday at 86 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for the past few years.

She was born Sylvia Pressley to a farming family in Hemingway, S.C., on Feb. 2, 1926. At age 11, she met her future husband, Herbert Woods, while both picked beans after school. He died in 2001.

They were married in 1944 and moved to New York. He worked as a truck driver while she waitressed at Johnson's Luncheonette, which she and her husband bought in 1962 and renamed Sylvia's.

The restaurant started out with a few booths and a six-stool counter. It expanded into several dining rooms and a catering hall over the years, but the counter remained.

"I wanted it so people would feel comfortable coming in after work," Woods told Newsday food writer Sylvia Carter in 1989.

Former Mayor David Dinkins got a standing ovation when he took the pulpit at Tuesday's memorial service. "All people of all walks of life" came to the restaurant, he said, calling it "a home away from home," where she was "the matriarch of the community."

Before the service, a dozen of the restaurant's chefs, in their work clothes, touched the casket as they walked past. A 51-member choir sang hymns.

The pastor, the Rev. Calvin Butts, called Woods "a sovereign matriarch" and drew a standing ovation when he called her "the queen of soul food."

The Rev. Floyd Flake, a former congressman from Queens and pastor of the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, spoke of Woods' decision to open her own business at a time when many African-American women were domestic workers.

She had "a full understanding of 'who I am, and if I can cook for someone else, cook in their kitchens, and help raise their children, I can do it for myself and for others,' " Flake said.

Stephanie McDaniels, 48, of Harlem, said she got a job as a baker at Sylvia's about three years ago after being laid off from her job in a cafeteria at a financial firm. "I never thought in a million years that I would work here," she said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy at a funeral service at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, where Woods lived. Burial will be in South Carolina.

With William Murphy