The lively neighborhood of Harlem is, of course, well known for its history, its people, its art, its culture, but also for its food. No tour of Harlem, no mention of Harlem is complete without noting one of its most famous attractions: Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food Restaurant. Located on Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard) between West 126th and West 127th Street, Sylvia’s is located in the heart of Harlem and on one of its most busiest avenues, making it the perfect food stop to satiate both local and tourist taste buds. With clientele like Reverend Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and even the controversial Bill O’Reilly as well features on many talk shows and even more honors and accolades, it is without a doubt that Sylvia’s is not only one of Harlem’s most notable food stops but also a main attraction.
It all began with “Queen of Soulfood” Sylvia Woods, who was born on a farm in South Carolina. She received her license and worked as a beautician in Hemingway, South Carolina, and even opened her own salon at a young age. However, after moving to Harlem, New York in 1944, she began working as a waiter in Johnson’s Luncheonette. Sylvia had found her true calling and her employer even noted her talent and entrepreneurial spirit. He sold her the restaurant in 1962, which consisted of a few booths and a counter. Decades later, Sylvia’s has flourished into a family owned enterprise consisting of cookbooks, a catering hall, a lounge (Sylvia’s Also), a nationwide line of Sylvia’s Food Products, as well as the warm inviting restaurant one sees in Harlem today. It makes up such an integral part of community not only because its longevity as a black-owned business, but also because of the food it specializes in. Since a lot of Harlem’s population consists of African-Americans who migrated from the south during the Great Migration and thereafter, Southern Soul Food is a part of their history and diet. This gives restaurants like Sylvia’s a history and a place in the community since it caters directly to the culture of the residents.
Since 1962, the restaurant has expanded its size and it is now a family business ran by three generations of the Woods Family. It also serves up a jazz brunch every Saturday and a highly spirited gospel brunch on Sundays from 1-4pm. There are also other singers, dancers, and artists that perform at Sylvia’s for its customers. The menu includes everything from Southern fried chicken, grits, and cornmeal fried whitening for breakfast to stewed turkey wings and Southern style chitterlings for a daily special, and Harlem styled waffles and golden fried ribs for an entrée. (I would suggest the baked macaroni & cheese and candied yams for your side orders.) Oh, and don’t forget your strawberry bread pudding with bourbon sauce for dessert. But you might not want to sample all of this is one sitting, because Sylvia’s food is heavy and tasty. You might feel the juices running out of the fried chicken on your first bite, but the moisture of the macaroni and cheese is a definite. This is probably a stop best made on the last leg of your tour, but Sylvia’s is definitely one of Harlem’s greatest soul food restaurants and an important stop in the Harlem tourism experience.