‘Queen of Soul Food’ Sylvia Woods’ Name to Adorn 126th St.

Lenox Avenue and 126th St. Renamed After 'Queen of Soul Food'

Lenox Avenue and 126th St. Renamed After ‘Queen of Soul Food’

HARLEM — The plan to name 126th Street at Lenox Avenue after the late soul food restaurateur Sylvia Woods had been in the works years before she passed away in 2012. But those who attended her street renaming ceremony Wednesday said Woods, known as the “Queen of Soul Food,” long ago become synonymous with all of Harlem.

“Famous people become well known. Great people make things bigger than their own name and personality,” activist and talk show host the Rev. Al Sharpton said Wednesday morning at ceremony renaming the street “Sylvia P. Woods Way.”

Four generations of the Woods family were surrounded by more than 100 well-wishers as the sign was unveiled.

Woods opened her now-iconic restaurant at Lenox Avenue near 126th Street almost 52 years ago with her late husband Herbert Woods after securing a loan from her mother, Julia Pressley, a farmer and midwife who mortgaged her farm to loan money for the purchase.

The restaurant became world famous for serving up southern classics such as fried chicken, collard greens, barbecue ribs and corn bread. Busloads of tourists can now be spotted pulling up to the restaurant where locals still stop in for breakfast. Sylvia’s products are distributed in a national food line and her recipes fill soul food cookbooks.

Rep. Charles Rangel recalled working as a lawyer for the Woods’ and seeing Mr. Woods unload fresh collard greens and vegetables from his truck and realizing how much hard work their operation took.

“People from all over the world ask: ‘Do you know Sylvia’s?” said Rangel.

After she died on July 19, 2012 at her home in Westchester following a long battle with Alzheimer’s, Woods was feted by some of the world’s biggest stars at two different services — including one where President Bill Clinton spoke.

“She was a young woman from South Carolina who became a large part of Harlem after her vision and dream came true,” said Woods’ granddaughter Shauna Woods, 35, a teacher and manager at the restaurant.

Shauna Woods is credited by her family with doggedly pursuing the street renaming since 2007. She coordinated with the local community board, City Hall and gathered hundreds of signatures of support from area residents.

“This was the placed she loved and gave as a gift to the entire community,” said Shauna Woods in explaining her persistence.

Woods’ granddaughter, Tren’ness Woods-Black noted the restaurant’s commitment to Harlem in the form of over 100 employees, many of whom have worked at the restaurant 15 years or longer. The Sylvia and Herbert Woods Endowment Scholarship Fund has sent almost 100 disadvantaged students to college.

By Jeff Mays on May 14, 2014 5:08pm


Traditional soul food, adventurous menus

Executive chef Jonathan Romans gives a twist to familiar dishes at the Harlem bar and restaurant Corner Social.

Executive chef Jonathan Romans gives a twist to familiar dishes at the Harlem bar and restaurant Corner Social.

Broad avenues lined with attractive old buildings, many of them home to cafes, bars and restaurants. Where can I be? Oh yes, Harlem.

These days the Manhattan neighbourhood offers welcoming establishments for exotic dishes and cocktails, along with soul food and home cooking.

Here are a few places I tried on a recent visit:

Corner Social: The friendly bar and restaurant serves an alarming-sounding concoction: deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese croquettes with truffle mayonnaise is US$12 ($15.4).

Executive chef Jonathan Romans, formerly of Tribeca Grill, seeks to take familiar dishes and give them a twist, so don’t be too surprised by cheeseburger spring rolls or the meatloaf sandwich with Grafton Vermont cheddar.

Or you could just settle in at the bar and hand control to the affable cocktail mixer Carmen Operetta. (On Twitter, Carmen is @libationdiaries.)

A 321 Pineapple (Skyy pineapple vodka, pineapple juice, fresh lemon juice, creme de cassis, simple syrup) and a Peach and Almonds (Ciroc Peach, Amaretto di Saronno, orange juice, fresh lemon juice) helped while away an afternoon. The cocktails are $12 ($15.4). The check for one was $65.33 ($83.62), plus tip.

Corner Social is at 321 Lenox Avenue, 10027. Continue reading

Mother and Son to Open Vegan Soul Food Restaurant in Harlem

seasonedveganleadWith all of the soul food spots in Harlem, how would you make yours stand out from the pack? Easy: Create a specialty store, or in this case, a vegan soul food restaurant. The team of Chef Brenda Breener and her son Aaron have secured enough funds through Kickstarter to open Seasoned Vegan next month. The “super-strict” establishment will serve 100 percent vegan soul food.

Though the restaurant will adhere to strict vegan principles, Breener says the term “soul food” should be interpreted “loosely.” “For us, soul food is any meal prepared by a chef who not only includes flavorful ingredients but also infuses tender love and care. With that as a founding theme, Seasoned Vegan gives typical Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and American dishes a vegan, home cooked, soulful twist,” she explains.

Head over to 55 Saint Nicholas Avenue on Feb. 23 to see, or rather taste, for yourself.

Soul Food Restaurateur Calvin Copeland Remembered as Harlem Booster

HARLEM — If there was a dish that best described what acclaimed Harlem restaurateur Calvin Copeland tried to accomplish with his soul food restaurant Copeland’s, it was the chitterlings served with a glass of champagne, according to his son.

“He had the idea to bring fine dining to Harlem with table clothes, jacketed waiters and a maitre d’ but not downtown cuisine,” said Vincent Copeland, a week after his father’s death at the age of 87. “He didn’t want to go upscale with the food because he wanted it to be accessible to the community.”

The elder Copeland died Aug. 23 from Alzheimer’s disease at St. Luke’s Hospital — four years after closing his restaurant at Broadway Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue due to a dwindling clientele and financial difficulties.

His death comes weeks after that of another Harlem soul food folk hero, Sylvia Woods, who as the owner of Sylvia’s Restaurant, was known as the “Queen of Soul Food.” Woods, 86, died July 19 at her Westchester home after battling Alzheimer’s.

“There were only two people always mentioned when it came to soul food in Harlem and it was Copeland’s and Sylvia’s,” said Michele March, who helped Calvin Copeland shutter his restaurant in 2007.

“The rivalry people said was there was false. When Sylvia’s started getting bus tours and so many people she couldn’t feed them she would call and say: ‘Copeland, can you take 20 to 30 people?’ and he would say ‘Send them on up,'” said March.

“That was the spirit they had. I loved them both and the Harlem community-at-large loved them both the same,” said March.

But while Sylvia’s was located in rapidly gentrifying Central Harlem at Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th streets, Copeland’s was in Hamilton Heights which grew with Latino immigrants.

“The business closed because he wasn’t making money,” March said. “You didn’t have enough foot traffic and it became a matter of time. He was spending his own money to pay staff.”

Prior to its closing, Copeland’s served food so good it drew a bevy of celebrities along with tourists and neighborhood residents, his son said.

The menu included chitterlings, or pig intestines, baked macaroni and cheese, potato salad and collard greens along with desserts like bread pudding.

“If you weren’t dressed properly, you wouldn’t even be seated,” said Fred Stanton, a long-time maitre d’ at the restaurant. “He insisted upon dress. I had quite a few confrontations.”

Comedian Richard Pryor was once mobbed at the restaurant, Michael Jackson waited in a limousine outside while his food was delivered to him and Natalie Cole often had pans of bread pudding shipped to her in California.

“God bless Luther Vandross, but my father might be responsible for his early demise. He ate here a lot,” said Vincent Copeland.

Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented Harlem for over 40 years, recalled Copeland as “truly a pioneer not only in our community but also an inspiration to the rest of the country,” he said.

“I still remember when he opened Copeland’s Restaurant in 1967. For decades it brought people together, from both far and near, for some real good soul food,” he added.

But his father was reluctant to close the restaurant because he saw it as a vehicle to helping the community partly because of his own past, said Vincent Copeland.

Calvin Copeland was born in Virginia and began working in restaurants as a child. After his parents died he was sent North to live with an aunt who took him in and taught him her fried chicken recipe.

It was while working at a restaurant in Paramus in the 1940s that he met his wife Rita, an Irish immigrant. They kept their relationship a secret at first because interracial relationships were still considered taboo at the time.

After working in restaurants in New Jersey and New York City, Copeland opened his own storefront catering operation in Harlem at Broadway and 148th Street in 1958. Vincent Copeland said his father wanted the endeavor to be a family business where extended members of the family could work and invest. It was his way of thanking the family for taking him and his siblings in after his parents died.

Soon he was selling soul food and custom cakes and also opened a cafeteria style restaurant before expanding and taking over another storefront where he started Copeland’s.

Vincent Copeland said his father, whom he says struggled with alcoholism for many years before becoming sober, saw the restaurant as a way to give people second chances.

“There was an endless succession of recovering drug addicts, alcoholics and men just released from prison, some of whom had never had a job before,” said Vincent Copeland.

Calvin Copeland gave one homeless man a job as a pot washer and night security man. Another man, a drug addict who refused offers of jobs inside the restaurant, became a car washer and watched for the police as double parked customers ducked into the restaurant.

“He had many offers to move downtown but he was determined to never move that business,” said Vincent Copeland. “He said the business needed to be in Harlem because it was about teaching people to reclaim their dignity like he did.”

That’s why Calvin Copeland always thought he would reopen the business one day, said Gertrude Clark, who was one of Copeland’s first employees. She made the potato salad the restaurant was famous for and other soul food delicacies despite not having a background in southern cuisine.

“He always thought he would re-open even until a year ago,” said Clark. “Even in the nursing home he would talk about the restaurant and ask did the workers get paid.”

Calvin Copeland handled every aspect of the business from cooking to cleaning while his wife Rita handled the books.

A long-time customer, Charlene Singleton, said she was surprised to learn that the man in the white chef’s hat was the owner. She requested the manager after one of the workers wouldn’t fill her request for white meat chicken one day.

“I said, ‘How about you get me the manager’ and he said, ‘What about the owner,” said Singleton. “He worked so hard that unless they told you it was Mr. Copeland you thought he was just one of the waiters.”

Calvin Copeland was preceded in death by his wife Rita. He is survived by his four children, Vincent, Irene Clark, Calvin Copeland, Jr. and Gwendolyn Copeland. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Our Lady of Lourdes RCC, 436 West 142nd Street.

Read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20120829/hamilton-heights/soul-food-restaurateur-calvin-copeland-remembered-as-harlem-booster#ixzz255MMuZjK

Soul Food Alive and Well in Harlem, Say Area Restaurateurs

At the legendary Sylvia's Restaurant, soul food is soul food, said Tren'ness Woods-Black, a third generation owner and founder Sylvia Woods' granddaughter. "People are coming because they want authentic soul food," she said. (friends Eat)

HARLEM—It wasn’t long ago that it looked like soul food in Harlem was in trouble. Stalwarts like M&G’s Diner, Copeland’s and Louise’s all shut down within a year or so of one another.

Some blamed a gentrifying Harlem, others thought a new awareness and focus on health issues like high blood pressure and obesity led to the decline.

But soul food is now alive and well in Harlem thanks to its connection to the African-American culture that makes Harlem a top tourist destination. Along the way, some restaurants have developed their own take on soul food and some of the stalwarts have changed with the times.

“Restaurants like Red Rooster have reinterpreted soul food so we now have more options. Before, you only had traditional options like fried chicken and fried chicken with fried chicken,” said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, a founder of Harlem Park to Park, a business alliance that includes several restaurants that cook soul food or a variation thereof.

At celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant — named after a famous Harlem speakeasy— he serves many southern classics with a twist. The fried chicken is fried yard bird with a white mace gravy. The macaroni and cheese is made with Gouda cheese. There’s cornbread but you can get it with tomato jam. It’s his take on comfort food.

“They are taking food that is traditional to us and approaching it differently,” said Nikoa-Evans.

But at the legendary Sylvia’s Restaurant, soul food is soul food, said Tren’ness Woods-Black, a third generation owner and founder Sylvia Woods’ granddaughter.

“We’ll be 50 next year because when people come to Sylvia’s they are expecting a representation of African-American culture. People are coming because they want authentic soul food,” said Woods-Black, who also serves as head of public relations for the restaurant.

“It has worked for the last 50 years and we are confident it will work for next 50 years regardless of who is in the neighborhood,” she said.

Other soul food restaurants that serve traditional cuisine are Amy Ruth’s and Melba’s

That doesn’t mean Sylvia’s hasn’t changed with the times. To address health concerns, the restaurant removed the pork fat that gives soul food some of its traditional, signature flavor. They lowered sodium and eliminated trans-fats, all before Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced policies to force restaurants to do so, said Woods-Black.

She thinks the demise of some of Harlem’s soul food restaurant is due to gentrification. But it’s not the changing population that gentrification brings but its rising rents.

“We own all of our properties. A lot of the other soul food restaurants closed because they could not afford the rent. Our brand is strong, nationally and internationally known, and able to survive gentrification,” said Woods-Black.

Billie’s Black, a bar and lounge that opened five years ago on West 119th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue, likes to keep its soul food on the traditional side with a few surprises, said owner Adriane Ferguson.

“Our soul food is classic soul food with a Caribbean spin,” said Ferguson. “The food is healthy— other than the fried chicken—and vegetarian-friendly.”

That means the food is cooked without meat seasoning. Ferguson said she prefers using olive oil to keep the food moist and spices and garnish like onions and red peppers to season it up. She prefers fresh vegetables. The menu features a selection of seafood such as shrimp.

“If it comes fresh out of the ground that’s the best you can get. Some people don’t know what a fresh string bean tastes like,” said Ferguson.

As long as she keeps serving good food, Ferguson said she’s not concerned about attracting patrons.

“There is an attraction to Harlem for its cultural richness. You can’t dispute that part of that culture is what people eat,” said Ferguson.

Read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/20111026/harlem/soul-food-alive-well-harlem-say-area-restaurauters#ixzz1bwgxPkod

Manna’s: As Soul Food Dwindles in Harlem, an Unlikely Champion Survives

The lunch crowd is steadily growing on a recent weekday at Manna’s Soul Food on Eighth Avenue in Harlem, patrons stuffing Styrofoam containers with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and collard greens. It’s a bitterly cold day, but the heat from the 50 or so trays in Manna’s food bar fogs the storefront windows.

A familiar song fills the restaurant, one instantly recognizable for fans of Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur, all of whom have sampled it. But this is the original track: The Isley Brothers’ 1983 soul slow-burner, “Between the Sheets.”

It’s a somewhat surprising atmosphere, given Manna’s owner: Betty Park, a 57-year-old Korean immigrant who has battled racial discord, Harlem’s gentrification, the lingering recession and, recently, squabbles with a major developer, to open seven Manna’s locations, four in Harlem.

“A Korean woman opening a soul food restaurant—people laugh at you,” says Park, a tiny woman with a bright face and an affinity for equally bright clothes—today , a vivid pink sweater, in sharp contrast to her employees’ white uniforms. She is taking a break from her usual circuit, rushing between the restaurant’s cash register, storage room and kitchen, where she will soon help a cook perfect a batch of clam chowder.

“People said, ‘What do you know about soul food?’” she continues. “Now they don’t even ask me. They come here for the soul food.”

The first Manna’s location, named for the Biblical reference to food falling from the sky, opened in 1983 to scoffs; the most recent opened in 2008, at the height of a national recession that particularly decimated upper Manhattan.  Known for its food bar of southern-style dishes—$5.49 per pound—Manna’s has not only survived, but expanded, even as economic factors, plus a national focus on nutrition, have torpedoed several longtime competitors.

Harlem’s soul food restaurants are among the major remaining preserves of African-American culture in a neighborhood giving way to a younger generation and increasing gentrification. Yet over the past decade, more than 10 local soul food restaurants have closed, including such landmarks such as Copeland’s, closed in 2007 after 50 years on 145th Street, and Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen and Louise’s Family Restaurant, both shuttered in 2008 after long runs on Lenox Avenue near West 125th Street. Even Amy Ruth’s, which opened to wide acclaim 12 years ago on West 116th Street, filed for bankruptcy last year but remains open.

“Most restaurants are defeatist,” says Londel Davis, owner of Londel’s, which has served upscale comfort food on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 140th Street for 16 years. Davis says many soul food restaurants are reluctant to adapt to Harlem’s changing demographics, marked by an influx of Hispanics, whites and food tourists from downtown. “They are closing because of their own shortcomings.” Londel’s redesigned its bar and dining room to attract a changing clientele, but Davis says business has fallen 25 percent in recent years, nonetheless.

“I want to see the neighborhood go up and not stay the same,” says David Taylor, general manager of Jacob Restaurant, known for its beef short ribs and macaroni and cheese.  It opened five months ago on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near West 143th Street, joining an existing location on Lenox Avenue near West 129th Street. But gentrification “has ruined a lot of small businesses,” he says.

Manna’s is far from invincible itself. In the 1980s, it cost $50,000 to open a restaurant; now it costs about $250,000, Park says. She’s avoided lay-offs but has reduced hours for many of the 60 employees at Manna’s Harlem locations.

“I’m concerned if I’m going to make it,” Park confesses. She doesn’t always: The  upscale seafood restaurant she opened on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in 2007, just before the financial meltdown, closed within a year.

Making matters worse, Manna’s top-performing location on 125th Street near Frederick Douglass was forced to move because of a planned development project. In 2008, Manna’s and four other tenants were evicted to make way for Kimco Realty Corporation’s planned retail center; construction is expected to begin soon. The tenants sued Kimco and eventually settled for $1 million.

Then the project stalled and, to Park’s surprise, Kimco asked Manna’s to reopen in the same space earlier this summer. By September, as Kimco readied for construction, that location had closed again and reopened around the corner at Frederick Douglass and 126th Street.

“It’s like David and Goliath,” says that restaurant’s manager, Tony Kamosi. “It’s corporate America; they don’t care about the little guy.”

Park is kinder toward Kimco; she feels the $300,000 Kimco provided for relocation costs is sufficient. But without a prime location on Harlem’s main street, business has dropped, Park says. The new eatery location closed briefly in November because of problems with a gas line. Now, some tables remain empty at lunchtimes when the place used to be packed

Kimco representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

Park seems to thrive on adversity, however. She came to America in 1974 “for a better life,” she says, and worked at a family-run fish market in 1984 amid a lengthy and contentious boycott of several Korean establishments by African Americans claiming unfair hiring practices.

“I thought, You know what? I have to have black employees to survive in this community,” she says. So in 1985 she opened her first small restaurant in a 300-square-foot basement on West 125th Street along with a black chef from North Carolina, whom she had met through the fish market and who taught her southern cooking.

Now, both her employees and customers are almost exclusively minorities and Park is considered a staple of the business community, though she lives in New Jersey. At Thanksgiving, Park donated 100 turkeys to needy Harlem families and has sponsored YMCA afterschool programs.

“When you come into the community, you have to look at the needs,” says Theresa Freeman, a Manna’s regular, over a pungent serving of chitlins. “That’s just a good business model.”

Park sees some similarities between Korean and southern cooking. Korean cuisine uses pigs’ feet and oxtails, traditional soul food staples, and like some southern styles, tends to be spicy. But Park says customers are becoming less interested in those traditional yet adventurous soul food dishes, instead opting for mainstays like fried chicken, short ribs and mashed potatoes. “A lot of people don’t want to eat it,” she says of her chitlins—pig intestines cooked with liberal amounts of vinegar and hot peppers. “Especially the younger generation, because it stinks.”

Soul food restaurants have also been hit hard by a national focus on nutrition and health. Londel’s longtime corn bread recipe—heavy on milk, butter and sugar—now calls for more moderate amounts of those ingredients, Davis says. Cooking with seasoned meats like pork has yielded to sautéing and broiling. “We need to get away from cooking so old-fashioned,” he argues.

Park disagrees, and still cooks her collard greens in turkey gravy and her stuffing with chicken. She touts the extended salad and fruit bar, but acknowledges that her customers aren’t coming in for cantaloupe.

Whatever the economic conditions, Park hopes her relationship with customers allows Manna’s to survive, like the landmark Harlem soul food restaurant Sylvia’s, which opened in 1962 and is now a tourist attraction that sells its products in supermarkets.

On this day, Park stops midsentence after hearing some loose change drop behind her. She quickly gets up to help a middle-aged woman and by the time their brief encounter has ended, she’s learned that the woman is a schoolteacher. Then she jets back to the conversation she’s suspended.

Trying to locate Park, even  in Manna’s modest storefront,  often proves difficult. At a moment’s notice she might be filling in at the cash register, holding court with a regular like Freeman, unpacking flour in the basement, lugging a pan of mashed potatoes to the food bar, or consulting with a cook over the proper spices for clam chowder.

Someday she’d like to open a more upscale Manna’s or add a takeout window to the restaurants. But for now, she has no plans to open any additional branches, only a dedication to ensuring the existing ones survive.

“Everybody in their life has bad turns,” she says. “But it gets better.”

Adding African Spice to Soul Food in Harlem

Grits, fried chicken, and collard greens are some of the popular dishes soul food lovers crave. Two restaurants in Harlem are putting a North African spin on these favorites.

Mojo,  on the corner of Saint Nicholas and 119th Street, is the inspiration of Mounir Jabrane, a native of Morocco. Jabrane, who opened the restaurant last year, said he’s always been fascinated by Harlem’s rich African-American culture and wanted to add the zing of his own homeland to soul food.

Just two avenues east of Mojo, Red Rooster Harlem is also working on its own soul food fusion.  Former “Top Chef” winner Marcus Samuelsson will be the executive chef of the new restaurant, scheduled to open by the new year. He hopes his Ethiopian roots and cooking will be a welcome addition to the community.

“We wanted to sort of be roots and be authentic,” said Derek Fleming, one of Red Rooster Harlem’s partners. “Let’s give people that understanding that we get what it used to be and we’re going to do our best to bring that to the current climate.”

By Melissa Rose Cooper | December 16th, 2010 |