Sylvia Woods, 86, founder of Sylvia's Restaurant and celebrated "Queen of Soulfood," died Thursday in her Westchester County, N.Y., home.
"Sylvia gallantly battled Alzheimer's for the past several years, but never once lost her loving smile," a statement from her family said.
Woods founded her namesake Harlem restaurant in 1962, which later became a landmark to Harlem residents.
"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," New York Michael Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement.
Woods came to New York City from South Carolina in the 1940s. Her mother mortgaged the family farm to help Woods and her husband, Herbert, buy the restaurant where she'd worked as a waitress.
The Lenox Avenue restaurant grew to seat 250 people, including Diana Ross and Muhammad Ali.
Customers dined on the Southern food staples Woods was known for: collard greens, fried chicken, cornbread and ribs.
She once tried creating a menu featuring lighter fare for diners, which did not succeed.
The lighter menu had salads. "And it went to waste. When people come here, they got in their mind what they want," Woods told the The Philadelphia Daily News in 1999.
Woods retired from the restaurant business six years ago, and her four children, Van, Kenneth, Bedelia and Crizette, took over the business along with her many grandchildren. Her husband, Herbert, died in 2001.
At Harlem week, celebrated this week, Woods was slated to receive an award from Bloomberg recognizing the 50th anniversary of the restaurant. A family friend accepted the award on her behalf.