By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — For a long time, any politician who made their way to Harlem knew they had to stop at Sylvia's Restaurant — and not just to sample her famous collard greens or fried chicken.
The restaurant's roundtable in the back has hosted many a political gathering and even a couple of presidents.
"We still have our share of political events. We are still the premier space for the political scene," said Kenneth Woods, Sylvia's son and the president of Sylvia Woods Inc.
So the news that President Barack Obama had chosen Red Rooster Harlem, just a block away, to host a $30,000 per head fundraiser later this month, did not bother Kenneth Woods at all.
"This is a positive thing," Kenneth Woods said as he pointed out a photo of Obama visiting his restaurant a couple of years ago. "It brings more excitement to Harlem and shows that Harlem is wide open for new ventures."
A spokesman for the Democratic National Convention confirmed that Obama will be in the city for a March 29 fundraiser. The event at Red Rooster will be a small, but high-yielding affair with about six tables and donors paying $30,800 per ticket. Afterward, Obama will attend a thank you, invitation-only reception at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Some are calling the visit a way for Obama to keep his support among African-Americans high.
Obama was last at Sylvia's, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, in November 2007 when he dined with the Rev. Al Sharpton while seeking his support during the presidential campaign. Obama gave a speech at the Apollo Theater after meeting Sharpton.
Asked if the Obama fundraiser marked a transition, Kenneth Woods said he saw things differently.
"You say transition but this is really growth and building. You are seeing progression and that's not a bad thing," Woods said.
As news of the president's upcoming visit spread, the fundraiser is being anticipated as a bellwether of sorts for Harlem, said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks of N Boutique and a founder of Harlem Park to Park, a business alliance.
"The old ideas about Harlem are eroding. Harlem, in terms of its reputation, is comparable to the rest of New York," said Evans-Hendricks. "You can't question us if the President of the United States is holding a $30,000 per head fundraiser here."
Representatives of Red Rooster's owner Marcus Samuelsson referred questions to the DNC, but Samuelsson has been very complimentary of Sylvia's in the past.
"I'm bookended by two great restaurants, Sylvia's and Chez Lucienne, and hopefully Red Rooster can represent a contemporary version of new Harlem that brings the former, the present and the future together," Samuelsson said at a pre-opening party last year.
Samuelsson is the former winner of Bravo's "Top Chef Master's." He has authored a couple of cookbooks and also prepared Obama's first state dinner.
As a third generation Woods famiy member involved with the business, Tren'ness Woods-Black, Sylvia Woods' granddaughter and head of public relations, said she's seen representatives of every presidential administration since the 1980s eat at the restaurant.
"As my grandmother says, there's plenty of room to go around for everyone. I've done (Samuelsson's) radio show. We'll send each other sugar or flour if we run out," said Woods-Black. "It's about being a village and working together."
And the way Evans-Hendricks sees it, it's a long campaign. The two restaurants could serve different purposes for Obama.
"When it gets down to really campaigning and getting voters behind you, you have to go to Sylvia's. To gain support in Harlem you have to stop here," Evans-Hendricks said. "There's a lot of handshaking to be done between now and the elections, so Sylvia's will be a stop at some point."