Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about New York’s favorite restaurants, both old and new.
This time, we’re taking a look at the world-famous Syliva’s Restaurant, in Harlem, founded by the Queen of Soul Food, Sylvia Woods, in 1962. For more than 60 years, Sylvia’s has been a beacon for the community, serving authentic soul food and homestyle cooking at a restaurant that has welcomed presidents and locals equally for all these years.
Today, Sylvia’s family runs the business, keeping her legacy of serving the local community alive and well through a pandemic.
Sylvia Woods was a true entrepreneur.
Born and raised on her mother’s farm in South Carolina, Sylvia Woods moved to New York City shortly after marrying her childhood sweetheart, Herbert. She became a waitress at what was then known as Johnson’s luncheonette.
“In 1962, after several years of dedicated service to her employer, Mr. Johnson recognized Sylvia’s entrepreneurial spirit and sold her the luncheonette,” says Taniedra McFadden, chief operating officer of Sylvia’s Restaurant, and Sylvia’s granddaughter. “Sylvia’s mother mortgaged her farm to loan Sylvia the money for the purchase.”
Before Sylvia took over the luncheonette, it was tiny: It only had 15 stools and six booths. Today it’s so much more. It’s a family-owned enterprise that now includes Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem; Sylvia’s Also, a full-service catering hall; Sylvia’s Catering and Special Events Division; a nationwide line of Sylvia’s Food Products; two cookbooks; and ATOC, Inc., a real estate holding company.
Today, eight of Sylvia’s family members are currently running day-to-day operations of the restaurant.
“Pre-pandemic, we had over 110 employees, some of which had been with us for over 30 years,” says McFadden. “Since the devastating impact of COVID-19, we have had to drastically reduce our staff and we currently have about 30 employees.”
The marquee at Sylvia’s will never go dark.
“As long as Sylvia’s is open, the marquee will be lit,” says McFadden.
“The marquee lets the community know that we are still here for them. It lets everyone know that we will continue to be a beacon of hope and support in the community as long as the marquee is lit.”
Everyone loves Sylvia’s, and we mean, everybody.
The long list of luminaries and notables who have eaten inside Sylvia’s Restaurant is incredibly long—and you’re likely to see photographic evidence of their visits all along the walls of the space when you visit.
“If guests want to get a bit of the history of Sylvia’s, they can look at the pictures on our walls,” McFadden says. “We have pictures that span back to the 1960s when Sylvia’s first opened, some of past celebrity guests and lots of family photos.”
She adds: “Visits from President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris were very special to us. Bruno Mars and Conan O’Brien filmed here and those were fun times.”
But as much as celebrities love Sylvia’s, it’s the regulars — celebs or not — who keep the place going, she says. “Our regulars include celebrities as well as our Harlem neighbors. We have some guests that come almost every day and order the same meal. Ms. Irene, Mr. Owens, Mr. Kenny — they are notable to us and help to keep us going every day.”
Don’t sleep on the barbecued short ribs.
While the overwhelming majority of diners love ordering the signatures —the Sylvia’s Down Home Southern Fried Chicken and the baked macaroni and cheese — McFadden says it’s worth trying her personal go-to order: the barbecued short ribs with an order of macaroni and cheese and potato salad.
“It’s tender beef ribs with that chargrilled flavor brushed with our signature Sylvia’s Sassy Sauce. It’s delicious,” she says. “I know, I know, there’s no vegetables in that meal, but it just tastes so good.”
She says that while a new dish might be added for the holidays every now and then, it’s rare for new dishes to be added. “We usually stick to our classic dishes.”
Community is everything for Sylvia’s.
“Sylvia’s was built by the support of the community,” says McFadden. “They continue to support us and we feel it is important to give back to them when we can. Sylvia Woods also made sure that anyone who was hungry was fed. We continue that tradition by giving meals to those in need who are hungry.”
Every year on August 1, the restaurant’s anniversary, they host an annual community breakfast, and the restaurant has donated meals to various organizations over the years. That mindset has only intensified over the last 15 months.
“During the pandemic, in collaboration with the National Action Network, we created the Sunday Supper where we donated thousands of meals to members of the community,” McFadden says. “We also partnered with organizations like Madison Square Garden to provide meals to essential workers.”
Sylvia’s Restaurant is open for takeout and outdoor dining seven days a week.