Food

Old Soul: Using Its Storied Past, Sylvia’s Leads Harlem Toward a Vibrant Future

by

At midafternoon on a cold late-winter day, Tren’ness Woods-Black is perched at a table at Sylvia’s (328 Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-996-0660) in Harlem, eating cornbread and sipping hot tea, and insisting that I order a sweet tea. (“Welcome to soul,” she says.) The restaurant has been added onto a few times over the years, absorbing neighboring addresses when they go dark, and so it feels like a bit of a haphazard crosshatch of dining rooms, each slightly separate from the next. But from Woods-Black’s seat she can see nearly all of it, which makes it easy for her to spy regulars as they walk through the door and wave hello.

Sylvia’s is a Harlem institution, a stalwart of soul erected in an era when soul reigned in this area, restaurants and bars lined the avenues, and jazz clubs peppered the streets. This counter joint and its tacked-on dining rooms offer a window into this vibrant past, even as the neighborhood changes — there are few restaurants in any of the five boroughs with the same community presence and legacy.

Woods-Black’s grandmother, Sylvia Woods, established Sylvia’s in 1962, when she took over Johnson’s Luncheonette, where she’d worked for more than a decade. In that time, she’d become one of the neighborhood’s best-known waitresses, and so when Johnson’s owner was ready to get out of the business, he wanted to sell to Woods. He convinced her to ask her mother to mortgage the family farm in South Carolina, and then he turned over the keys, even though that money didn’t quite cover his asking price.

It was important to Woods to keep her family engaged in the business and living close to her, so she employed her own children, and then her grandchildren — she put Woods-Black to work when the girl was just thirteen. “I was very excited to become a busgirl, to get my all-black [uniform] and apron,” Woods-Black remembers. “I was in charge of those tables in the very back of the dining room. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to make tips, and Grandma is going to pay me on top of that.’ ” Woods-Black hoped to move up to server, but Woods surprised her by promoting her to hostess, foreseeing that she’d blossom in a role that put her face-to-face with all of her neighbors.

Her grandmother was right — “She had that natural way of being able to see people’s gifts,” Woods-Black says. Over the years, Woods-Black “watched people grow up, grow old, transition, or have children,” she says. “Now their children come in.” She’s met people from all over the world, too, as Sylvia’s has grown into a tourist destination, and spun off a line of soul-food products.

Today, Woods-Black is the vice president of communications for the business. Her father is the president and CEO, and Sylvia’s is still 100 percent owned by Woods’s family. And Woods-Black continues, in many ways, to play the role of host — that is, if you were to expand that role to the community at large. She liaises with her neighbors in a number of ways, including as a member of the board for NYC & Co. and Harlem Park to Park, and as part of the steering committee for the upcoming Harlem EatUp! festival, a four-day celebration of the neighborhood’s restaurants and food community.

That she’s involved in so many community programs underlines Woods-Black and her family’s belief that Sylvia’s has a responsibility to its place. Part of that is preservation: “Harlem is experiencing a rebirth,” she says. “It probably hasn’t been this way since my grandmother and grandfather were trotting around to the different hot spots. That’s bittersweet, of course — rents are going up, and Harlemites can’t afford to live here for a lot of different reasons.” But even as menus have changed at the restaurant over the years, Sylvia’s has changed very little from its early days — it’s still a soul-food neighborhood joint that’s a gathering place for Harlemites, even if tourists now come here, too.

More broadly, says Woods-Black, it’s on establishments like Sylvia’s, whose proprietors own the building and have a long connection to old Harlem, not just to offer a glimpse of the area’s living history, but to prod new businesses to preserve their environs, too. “We’re preserving this jewel that we’ve been handed,” says Woods-Black. “There’s a certain balance that takes place. We work well together as a community — especially when it comes to this generation of business owners. We understand what we’ve been entrusted with. And those who don’t know, we educate them.”

Sylvia’s is also investing heavily in Harlem’s future: The company has a scholarship foundation that’s sent more than 100 local kids to college, and the restaurant employs those students when they’re home on break. And it’s playing a leading role in crafting that future, via events like the EatUp! fest, which comes to town May 14 through 17. “Harlem EatUp! really pays homage to the history of Harlem,” Woods-Black says, and “will give people a peek into what Harlem may look like a few years down the line.”

In the coming months, Sylvia’s will get a makeover — a major undertaking, says Woods-Black, since the family is working to preserve more than 50 years of history while updating the space. The group is also working on expanding its line of products, putting out a new cookbook, and, perhaps most significantly, building a casual concept that can be expanded into multiple outlets.

But the heart of the business, Woods-Black promises, will always be the restaurant. “In the years to come, when you come to Harlem and it looks a bit different from the history books, you’ll cross Lenox Avenue and know that you’re in Harlem — you’re going to feel the vibrancy of what Harlem stands for,” she says. “We’re authentic. We’re Sylvia’s. You know what you’re going to get when you come in.”