When Sylvia’s chef and founder Sylvia Woods died in 2012, W. 126th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem was co-named “Sylvia P. Woods Way.” When you get an entire block named after you in New York City, you’re pretty much immortal. And Sylvia’s is about as immortal a restaurant as you’ll find in New York City.
Sylvia’s opened in the 1960s, and it’s been Harlem’s most iconic Southern soul food mecca ever since. It’s evolved and expanded over the years - the restaurant now takes up the entire block between 126th and 127th on Malcolm X Blvd and has multiple dining rooms, a diner counter, and a separate lounge that all together seat around 450 people. There’s also a Sylvia’s product line of BBQ sauces available in grocery stores, and a catering business. Needless to say, Sylvia’s children and grandchildren have been keeping busy.
The food, simply put, is incredibly satisfying. It may not be as mind-bogglingly good as the soul food you’ll find down south, but for NYC this will absolutely do the trick. Sweet, falling off the bone ribs, crispy fried chicken, catfish, all the sides, giant slices of pie… you get the picture. It’s loud, it’s low-key, and there’s always a lot of action to take in. Even though service tends to be slow and not overly attentive, they make up for it with friendly, happy employees.
Before you start eating at all the trendy new spots in Harlem, paying respects and filling your belly at Sylvia’s needs to happen first. Obama has eaten here, pre-vegan Bill Clinton has eaten here, as has pretty much every other big name who has blown through Harlem. On our last trip here, we sat at a table next to Busta Rhymes. Woo-Hah!, place your fried chicken where my eyes can see.
If you are a fan of chicken livers, do not miss out on Sylvia’s. This appetizer is served almost like fajitas - the livers come mixed with sauteed onions and peppers and topped with gravy.
Sylvia’s ribs are our favorite thing on the menu. It’s the thick “Sassy Sauce” that really gets us: it’s sweet and tangy in all the right ways. The meat is plentiful, and overall this is exactly what you want to eat when in the mood for Southern food.
Pick either white or dark meat (go dark), and two sides, and prepare for happiness. There is nothing fancy here - straightforward, crispy fried chicken that’s probably made with some kind of cornflake breadcrumbs. Dump hot sauce on top and party on. All crisp on the outside, nothing but love on the inside. Do it.
Catfish is one of the four main food groups at Sylvia’s that absolutely needs to be represented on your table (fried chicken, mac and cheese, and ribs being the others). It’s lighter than you might think, and grilling up any fish and then smothering it with butter is a recipe for success.
If you’re a chicken & waffles kinda guy or gal, you will not be disappointed. We will say, the waffles could have a little more flavor.
Mac and Cheese. Mac and Cheese. Mac and Cheese. Mac and Cheese. Oh, did we mention Mac and Cheese? Yeah, you need that. Also, the potato salad is killer, as is the mayo-heavy cole slaw. Collards are not too bad either. Overall, the sides are excellent and come two per entree so you can sample a lot of them.