Willie Mae's Scotch House (2401 St. Ann St., 822-9503) started as a bar in 1957, and if not for the tantalizing aromas of Willie Mae Seaton's home cooking, it might have remained just that.
"My grandmother's customers from the bar said, 'We always smell your good food coming out the house. You should open up a restaurant,'"recounts Kerry Seaton, great-granddaughter of Willie Mae and general manager of the restaurant. "And here we are, 52 years later."
Certainly none of the family could have predicted the international attention and accolades the restaurant would garner. After winning an America's Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2006 and being featured on The Travel Channel, National Public Radio and the Food Network, Willie Mae's kitchen went from neighborhood lunch spot to cultural landmark.
"My grandmother never advertised," Kerry says. "She worked off word of mouth. She really liked it small. She liked having the family and friends feel."
The Seatons preserved the restaurant's down-home ambience, even though the family has gotten a lot bigger in recent years. Tourists and locals crowd the 14-table dining room for lunch Monday through Friday. The red beans and rice, cornbread, butter beans, potato salad, smothered veal chops and bread pudding still come out of a tiny kitchen, though there are now three deep-fryers where formerly there was only one. As the sole heir to Willie Mae's top-secret recipe, Kerry makes all the wet-battered fried chicken herself.
"Nobody in the family knows the recipe, just me," she says. "I do it all myself, but they respect the idea and go along with it. They respect the vault. We keep [the recipe] in the vault."