After the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina destroyed Willie Mae’s Scotch House, waves of volunteers showed up to help rebuild the New Orleans institution founded by Willie Mae Seaton. “They said they were ‘saving fried chicken,’” says her great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton-Stewart.
Three months earlier, in May of 2005, the James Beard Foundation had awarded Willie Mae’s with the title America’s Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region. Seaton opened Willie Mae’s Scotch House in 1957 when she turned her beauty shop into a bar serving Scotch with milk as its signature drink. Soon she opened a restaurant, and her fried chicken — which some call the best in America — made Willie Mae’s famous. Now, 65 years later, Seaton-Stewart opens the first Willie Mae’s outside of New Orleans on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.
“It was a small little family-owned restaurant, where most of the people that came were the dignitaries of the city or neighborhood people. It was elected officials. It was judges, lawyers, doctors, the police chiefs,” says Seaton-Stewart.
“It just blew up. We were spinning in circles,” she says of the effect the James Beard award had on business at the time. Then in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina left the city and Willie Mae’s Scotch House decimated. The restaurant remained shuttered for nearly two years.
At the time, Seaton-Stewart, a New Orleans native, was pursuing her dream of becoming a lawyer. “I went to school for political science. I always wanted to be a lawyer. And so after the storm, I was getting ready to go to law school, studying for the LSAT, sending off applications to law school. That’s where my mind was,” she says. But Willie Mae Seaton, who was 91 at the time, was ready to pass the business on to her great-grandaughter, and the many fans of the half-century-old restaurant hoped for the same thing. They wanted her to take the helm and reopen Willie Mae’s.
“I grew up in a restaurant, running and playing around and it was so cool. I wanted to work there. I wanted to hang out there,” she says, remembering fondly her childhood spent watching her great-grandmother at work and playing MC Hammer and Whitney Houston songs on repeat on the jukebox.
“I went away to college. I came back. I just loved her. I admired her. I didn’t think it was gonna be my life,” she laughs. “But it happened.”
It happened in 2007, after the Food Network called. “They were like, ‘Either you’re going to reopen the restaurant and we’re going to give you “America’s Best Fried Chicken,” or you keep it closed and we give it to the second runner-up.’” So she took the helm and in two weeks reopened Willie Mae’s Scotch House.
“It wasn’t my choice, but I don’t regret it. It was everybody else saying, ‘You need to take the torch or it will be lost. And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted other people to experience what I loved about it, what everybody else thought about it.”
Her great-grandmother, who she would talk to every morning over coffee, warned her that it would be a lot of work. “I would tell her, ‘If you want me to do it, I would. But only if you want me to do it.’”
Willie Mae Seaton died in 2015 and now, 15 years later, 42-year-old Seaton-Stewart stands in the first Willie Mae’s restaurant outside of New Orleans, a newly renovated space on Lincoln Boulevard designed to capture the feeling of the original. She has moved here with her husband and restaurant partner, Mike Stewart, and their young son.
“I don’t do anything out of haste,” she says, explaining how bringing the Louisiana fried chicken to Los Angeles and her friendship with restaurateur-partners Lowell Sharon and Jerry Greenberg was a long time in the making. “Most of our guests, ironically, that travel to Willie Mae’s Scotch House, come from California,” adding that guests have been asking Willie Mae’s to come to California for years.
“I always say that it’s the love that we put in it,” she explains with a smile when asked what exactly makes the chicken so popular. “It’s a wet batter, so it’s very different than what you normally would have. It’s crunchy on the outside. It’s juicy on the inside. It has a little kick. It’s not like the spicy chicken that’s all over, but it has spice to it.”
This isn’t Willie Mae’s first foray in Los Angeles. A Willie Mae’s fried chicken sandwich is available at HiHo Cheeseburger, and though the Venice location was originally planned to open first, a takeaway menu has been available at the Colony in Santa Monica since September. But the Venice location is the only first full-service restaurant outside of New Orleans.
“When I miss home, I can just look at the pictures and feel at home,” she says, pointing out the vibrant New Orleans cityscape paintings on the walls by New Orleans-based artist Terrance Osborne. “I wanted to share that experience with the guests as well.” She also plans to share the experience of Southern hospitality, with her husband in the kitchen and some of the Willie Mae’s New Orleans team brought here to L.A., serving the same menu with the addition of her gumbo recipe.
“It’s a real Creole, New Orleans gumbo. So we have sausage, shrimp, crab, real roux, no short cuts, layers of flavor, just traditional gumbo,” she says, noting that this dish is normally reserved for special events in New Orleans, but here, it will be a regular menu item. “I’m giving you some extra love.”
Willie Mae’s is located at 324 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, www.williemaesrestaurant.com