Hundreds in Harlem Celebrate Sylvia's 50th Anniversary With a Parade

By Jeff Mays and Paul Lomax  on August 1, 2012 5:56pm

HARLEM — Betty Lou Smith, a retired nurse, sat outside of Sylvia's Restaurant on Lenox Avenue surrounded by friends and feeling satisfied.

She had just eaten a soul food breakfast from one of her favorite restaurants.

"I had to have seconds of that gravy. I put it on that biscuit," said Smith, 72.

"It's amazing that they cooked grits for so many people and they came out perfect," chimed in Smith's friend Lillie Foy-Wilson, 71, a retired city worker.

Smith and Foy-Wilson were part of hundreds of people who came out to a parade and breakfast Wednesday to celebrate the restaurant's 50th anniversary just weeks after its namesake, Sylvia Woods, 86, died July 19 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Woods was laid to rest Saturday in her native Hemingway, S.C. after two previous services in New York, including one at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where President Bill Clinton made remarks.

As much as the restaurant was known as a stomping ground for black politicians and a hot spot for busloads of tourists, Sylvia's is still a neighborhood restaurant, said Woods' oldest son, Van Woods.

"it feels good to have so many of our people helping us to celebrate 50 years," said Van Woods.

"Thank you for all the support you gave my mom over the years," he told one woman.

Actor Michael K. Williams, best known for playing racketeer Chalky White on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and gang member Omar from "The Wire" served as master of ceremonies, but not until he had some 'catfish, grits and country eggs."

"It means so much to honor Sylvia's legacy, her life and the work she did in service of the community," said Williams.

"Sylvia's isn't going anywhere. She left behind a strong legacy and culture for her family," Williams added.

Sylvia, know for the warm way she greeted and attended to those in the restaurant she started with her husband , was on the minds of revelers today.

"This is a fantastic day. My mom always enjoyed this day because she loved to give back to this community," said her son Kenneth Woods, 59.

Kimberly Robinson, 42, an airline executive from Philadelphia enjoyed a meal of fried chicken, mash potatoes with mac & cheese.

"There were two restaurants I always wanted to go to in New York City and Sylvia's was the first. The food is delicious and I'll be back without a doubt," she said.

Ayinka Janette, 77, who was born and raised in Harlem added, "I started coming here (Sylvia's) when she first opened up this place. I was very close to her and I'm missing her very much."

Van Woods said the restaurant, run by three generations of the Woods' family, is now planning for the next 50 years. In addition to their line of food and sauces and now hair care products

He revealed renderings of plans to turn Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th streets into "Sylvia's Plaza." A new hotel or boutique condo building would rise on the site and at the bottom would be a two level Sylvia's restaurants.

"We are grateful for what we've done so far but we are planning for the next 50 years," said Van Woods.

Allison Chapman, 46, an administrative assistant, and  Jerrylyn Sourzes, 76, a retired home health aide, both from Far Rockaway, said they came to celebrate.

"We just wanted to be around our people and share the culture," said Chapman.

"When we think of Sylvia's we think of family, a mother, nurturing, caring," said Sourzes. "And good food."

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