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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Willie Mae's

Will Willie Mae’s Scotch House be able to survive prosperity?

Seven years ago, the place was an insider’s secret – a neighborhood place in a dangerous neighborhood, dishing up plates of fried chicken with no suspicion it was on the threshold of becoming a culinary legend in one of America’s great dining cities.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House started life as a corner tavern in 1957 in half a double shotgun house in New Orleans’ Fauborg Tremé, one of the first African American neighborhoods in the nation and one of its more troubled. Somewhere along the line, proprietor Willie Mae Seaton started frying chicken for the saloon’s customers.

And oh, chere, could Willie Mae cook.

As the decades meandered by, word slowly got around about what Willie Mae was plucking out of her cast iron skillets and deep fat fryer. Oh, sure there was a pork chop, a veal cutlet and the occasional seafood dish, but the people were coming for the chicken, with most of them choosing the place’s creamy red beans and rice on the side.

Then came March 2005.

In the annual James Bead Foundation Awards, the most prestigious industry citations in the country, Willie Mae’s Scotch House was named one of America’s Classics, a special designation for outstanding regional restaurants and cuisine. Traveling foodies from across the nation started including Willie Mae’s on epicurean pilgrimages to the corner of St. Ann and Tonti in the Crescent City. Lines got long, then longer. The cash box filled up quicker. After 48 years, the place was an overnight success.

Then came August 29.

Katrina. The storm. The bitch. The collapsing levee system and water that wouldn’t stop until eighty percent of one of America’s signature cities was underwater. The red, spray-painted hieroglyphics on doors and walls telling of horrors lying within. The stench of forsaken death on 95-degree afternoons in a powerless city.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House was not spared. Her restaurant and connected home were flooded, and Willie Mae Seaton herself was nearly ninety years old. The very notion of starting over was more than her tired bones could bear. But in a city where food grows from a topic of conversation into a hobby and finally into an obsession, the idea of life without Willie Mae’s golden fried yardwalker was unbearable to the municipal belly.

What happened next bespeaks volumes about the kindness of Deep South strangers. With the spirit of an Amish country barnraising, people united only by appetites for good food and good works rolled up their sleeves, picked up often-unfamiliar tools and pitched in. Spearheaded by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a ragtag coalition of writers, chefs and everyday chowhounds dedicated to protecting the culinary traditions of the American South, an army of volunteers spent more than a year of weekends repairing and restoring the Scotch House.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House reopened under the watchful eye of Willie Mae and in the more than capable hands of her great-granddaughter Kerry, the only person to whom the kitchen’s secrets have ever been passed.

While the James Beard Award had made the restaurant famous to a small, passionate band of foodophiles, designation by Food Network as the best place for fried chicken in America, along with regular mentions from media über-chefs John Besh and Emeril Lagasse, among others, put Willie Mae’s in the middle of the media mainstream.

Business is booming these days at the Scotch House. Steady streams of taxis disgorge French Quarter tourists and convention delegates at the front door, and the waits are getting longer at the no reservations, two-room restaurant. Grumblings from locals that “their” place is being overrun with outsiders are inevitable.

Mrs. McH and I went and waited a few weeks ago. It was our fourth visit since Katrina. Did the fried chicken continue to live up to its pre-ballyhoo reputation? It did. The red beans were as good as any I’ve had anywhere, and the home-squeezed lemonade made for a remarkably refreshing washdown. The tab (cash only) ran about thirty-two dollars including tax and a nice but not extravagant tip for the pleasant young gentleman who waited on us.

We had absolutely no complaints about anything.

And now I’m scared.

While sudden success may not have killed off as many restaurants as chronic under-capitalization, it’s taken out more than its fair share. Try as hard as I might to look the other way, I’m beginning to see the telltale signals of a place that has its eyes on expansion and not keeping an eye on what they already have.

Business hours are expanding. Willie Mae’s is a lunch-only place with posted hours from eleven until three Monday through Saturday. A new print ad says they’re now open Sundays.

They’ve started to serve beer. Despite Scotch House’s origins as a tavern, the place had been dry for years. While anyone who knows me might find my objections to an eatery selling beer ironic if not downright comical, there has always been a certain charm to be found in a place that makes all its money selling food. Also, a restaurateur’s knowledge that he or she will succeed or fail based totally upon the quality of the food will make for a restaurateur who keeps a sharper eye on the quality of what’s coming out of the kitchen.

According to an ad in one of the tourism magazines, Willie Mae’s is said to be accepting all major credit cards. When asked about this, our waiter said it wasn’t true, that it still has a cash only policy. As nice as he was, I’m not sure he knew what he was talking about. For now, the cash only status and lack of an on-premises ATM still offers the amusing moment of a panicked out-of-town customer trying to find a cash machine in a dicey part of the city or facing the grim prospect of a long afternoon washing chicken grease off dishes in a crowded scullery.

Finally, I had spent great amounts of time in New Orleans over the past 35 years without ever hearing about Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Now it’s in every tourism pub in the city with ads pushing the Food Network “Best Chicken” kudos. Uh-oh.

It’s unsporting at best to chastise restaurateurs for capitalizing on glittering reviews that start bringing in so many customers that expansion becomes inevitable. But I can think of few prospects more deplorable than Willie Mae’s Scotch House opening a new location seating 200 somewhere along a soulless commercial strip in a suburb like Metairie or Kenner, the kind of place where a twenty-foot tall neon drumstick would fit right in.

I don’t pretend to be smart enough to tell anyone the secret of the success Willie Mae’s Scotch House is currently enjoying. My suspicion is that it’s a combination of its very limited menu, dining rooms that aren’t too big for its small kitchen and a dogged determination to make sure that everything is not only cooked to order, but cooked the way Willie Mae herself would were she still manning the skillets.

All to often, the price of changing success is failure. A key question is whether or not the new generation, as personified by great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton, will have the patience to continue doing the same old thing in the same old way that made a small fried chicken joint in Tremé an American culinary landmark. All of us can only hope she will.

Within the time she has to make her decision, go there. And make sure to take cash.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House is located at 2401 St. Ann,
on the corner of Tonti and St. Ann
in the historic Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans.
The hours are uncertain and subject to change,
but traditionally, lunch has been served from
11 AM to 3 PM Monday through Friday.
Cash is always honored; credit cards are questionable.
The telephone number is (504) 822-9503.

1 comment:

  1. I know exactly what you mean about sudden fame affecting a restaurant adversely. It goes on in New York all the time, as people try to chase trends and win bragging rights. I hope it doesn't happen to Willie Mae's, but after reading your piece I would definitely make this place a stop on my next trip to the Easy, so you're partly to blame as well!