- Sylvia’s Restaurant, opened in 1962, is a famous soul food restaurant and cultural institution located in Harlem, NY.
- After owner and founder Sylvia Woods’ death, her children and grandchildren took over the business, continuing the family legacy.
- Sylvia’s grandson, Marcus, shows INSIDER’s Alana Yzola how some of their most popular dishes are made.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Alana: When you’re in New York City and you’re craving soul food, you head to Harlem, and anyone that grew up in this neighborhood knows that Sylvia’s is the place to get it. Hey guys, we’re in Harlem about to try some of the most legendary soul food in New York City, Sylvia’s, and we’re even gonna see how they make it, so let’s dig in! From ribs and collard greens to chicken and waffles, Sylvia’s has been dishing out Southern comfort food for 57 years, and people love it!
Musa: I love, love, love, love the fried chicken.
Alana: Seven days a week, locals, tourists, and even celebrities crowd around these famous tables.
Tren’ness: Our barbecue ribs and our pork chops, big fan, Whoopi, hands down, she loves it. Chris Rock, candied yams, macaroni ‘n’ cheese. Everyone loves our cornbread from the Clintons to President Obama.
Alana: The list goes on: Jennifer Lopez, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Beyoncé. So what’s the secret to almost six decades of Sylvia’s success? Sylvia, herself.
Tren’ness: She was the mother of Harlem. She was the perfect mixture of best friend, confidant, cheerleader, grandma, mentor, everything just rolled into one beautiful, beautiful, chocolaty package.
Musa: Sylvia’s like, she’s Mama Harlem, Queen of Harlem, and coming in here was always like going home.
Alana: Originally from South Carolina, Sylvia Woods moved to Harlem in 1944 and got a job working as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette. Eighteen years later, Johnson offered to sell the restaurant to Sylvia. With a loan from her mother, she opened Sylvia’s Restaurant in 1962. Sylvia passed away in 2012, entrusting her family with her tradition of persistent hospitality and love cooked into every bite. Today, Sylvia’s children and grandchildren run the restaurant. This is her grandson Marcus, one of the chefs dishing out Sylvia’s original recipes. I asked him to show me how it’s done, starting with one of my favorite dishes. We are here in Sylvia’s kitchen with Chef Marcus. He’s gonna show me how to make their famous, world-renowned ribs. All right, what’s the first step?
Marcus: First things first, I like to just give ‘em a little pat dry… OK. you have a lot of stuff still on them. You wanna just make sure that they’re nice and clean.
Alana: How long have you been making these?
Marcus: My whole life, honestly, as long as I can remember, I’ve been tryna help season food with my grandmother. Now you wanna make sure you rub it like you’re putting lotion on a baby. You want it to get in each little crevice, all right?
Alana: OK, all right, I’ma lotion the baby now.
Marcus: Yes, absolutely, you treat it like it’s yours. That’s, for me, the love, that’s how you really get involved with your food and really make it a love type of thing. Very, very intimate.
Alana: The ribs then go into a brine of water, vinegar, and some secret ingredients for four and a half hours. Then they’re baked. Next step, Sylvia’s most popular dish, the chicken and waffles. Is this your grandmother’s recipe?
Marcus: Yes, this is her recipe. That’s all her. I mean, everything down to how you seasoned it, we all learned from her.
Alana: Each chicken breast is seasoned and drenched in flour by hand, excess flour is knocked off, and then it hits the fryer for about seven to 10 minutes. Those pieces come out crispy, golden brown, perfect for topping on waffles.
Tren’ness: Everyone that’s coming in is like ordering chicken and waffles. We cannot fry the chicken fast enough. The poor waffle machines are just like constantly, “Ah!” Like if they had a voice, they’re just screaming like, “Oh, my God, leave me alone!”
Alana: Sylvia’s is also known for their collard greens, a Janet Jackson favorite. To get rid of the pesky sand or grit that the greens grow in, they have to be washed multiple times. Finally, they’re cooked in the same big pots Sylvia’s has been using for almost 60 years. But no meal is complete without a side of their four cheese mac ‘n’ cheese and their classic cornbread. Now that I’ve played my part in serving up a little Sylvia’s love, I had to go eat! This looks incredible. I’m getting so many flavors just in my nose without even tasting it right now, and I just literally smell the love coming off of this plate. The ribs are what’s grabbing me right now. The meat is completely fall-off-the-bone tender, and even though they were cooked three times, they’re still so incredibly juicy, which is astounding to me. I just need another napkin. I need the whole stack of napkins. Soul food isn’t meant to eat daintily, you just gotta, you gotta go for it. The ribs were phenomenal, and that chicken had me singing, so crispy, so juicy, and stacked on top of a thick waffle. It’s been great. It’s still gonna be great, and, I mean, I guess you guys can leave. You probably don’t wanna see what I’m about to do to all this food right now. See ya! The last time I came to Sylvia’s, I was 10 years old, but the flavors haven’t changed. The energy and the comfort inside hasn’t gone anywhere, and even as Harlem keeps changing around it, I’m confident that with some d— good food and a whole lot of love, this restaurant will continue to be an anchor for the community, and Sylvia, forever the Queen of Soul Food.