NEW YORK -- Sylvia Woods, founder of the famed Harlem soul food restaurant that carries her name and is a must-stop for locals, tourists and politicians, has died. She was 86.

Woods died Thursday afternoon at her home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., said her granddaughter Tren'ness Woods-Black. She had been dealing with Alzheimer's disease for the past few years.

Woods and her husband Herbert, natives of South Carolina who met as children, started Sylvia's Restaurant in 1962. The restaurant is a Harlem fixture, with tourists and locals coming there for cornbread, ribs, collard greens, fried chicken and other staples of Southern cooking, and politicians making frequent visits while on the campaign trail.

One of those politicians, Rep. Charles Rangel, said he celebrated his recent victory in the Democratic primary for Congress at the restaurant, which is in his district and which he described as "a magical place that brought the community together."

"Ms. Sylvia created a special place on Lenox and 127th street. Sylvia's may have been famous nationally and internationally, but its soul has always remained in Harlem," he said. "Nothing can replace its founder, but her legacy will live on in the memories she helped make."

Rev. Al Sharpton said Sylvia's was "more than a restaurant, it has been a meeting place for Black America." He said he had dined there with many famous faces including President Barack Obama and Caroline Kennedy.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "We lost a legend today. For more than 50 years, New Yorkers have enjoyed Sylvia's and visitors have flocked to Harlem to get a table. In her words, the food was made with `a whole lot of love' and generations of family and friends have come together at what became a New York institution."

Woods had been scheduled to get an award in honor of her restaurant Thursday evening, presented by Bloomberg as part of the annual Harlem Week reception at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence.

A family friend accepted on the family's behalf.

From its start as a restaurant, Sylvia's has grown to include multiple cookbooks and a nationwide line of food products.

Woods-Black said the restaurant, marking its 50th anniversary in August, is more than just a place to eat, that it's a place where her grandmother could express her hospitality, a tradition that following generations have maintained.

"If you come alone, you're never going to dine alone," she said.

Woods-Black said her grandmother had officially stepped down from running the restaurant when she was 80, leaving it in the hands of her children and grandchildren.

She said funeral arrangements were being finalized. The family has scheduled a news conference for Friday to announce the details.

Herbert Woods died in 2001.


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