Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (2024)

Dating to 1957, Treme restaurant earned fame for fried chicken.

  • BY IAN MCNULTY | Staff writer

    Ian McNulty

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Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (10)

In 2023, Kerry Seaton-Stewart stood outside her restaurant Willie Mae’s Scotch House shortly after a fire had ripped through the beloved Treme institution and pledged that it would be back.

She didn’t know at the time just how long or complex that journey would be. But now, she and her husband Mike Stewart have a new plan to bring their fried chicken and Creole soul classics back to New Orleans by doubling down.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (11)

While rebuilding continues at the original St. Ann Street restaurant, the family is now preparing to open a second location of Willie Mae’s in downtown New Orleans.

This location will be called Willie Mae’s Nola, and will open at 898 Baronne St. The address was previously home to the Caribbean-inspired restaurant NOLA Caye (which closed late last year). It’s a modern space in a former warehouse with a full bar.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (12)

Willie Mae’s Nola is slated to open near the end of the summer, in time for football season.

“New Orleans is home, so it’s good to be home,” Seaton-Stewart said.

Doubling down

Willie Mae’s opened a Los Angeles location a few years ago and ships its signature dishes nationally through Goldbelly.

Opening this downtown outpost is a way for the family business to make a return to New Orleans while the work to bring back the St. Ann Street restaurant continues. Seaton-Stewart reiterated her commitment to bring back the family’s original restaurant.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (13)

“There’s no replacing the original, we’re definitely going to bring it back, that’s our family legacy restaurant,” she said.

It's not the first downtown foray for Willie Mae's. The family once had a second New Orleans location on the other side of downtown, a stand in the Pythian Market food hall. That entire food hall closed down in 2022 after its building changed ownership.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (14)

The plan is to keep this second Willie Mae’s open as a downtown destination even after the St. Ann Street restaurant reopens. It will serve a similar menu, which is centered on wet-battered fried chicken, famously light and crunchy with its crackling-crisp crust, red beans and butter beans, corn bread and bread pudding.

Rebuilding a legend

Willie Mae’s Scotch House is known as one of the city's oldest Black-owned restaurants. The Essence Festival of Culture is normally the busiest time of year for Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and this is the second that the restaurant will miss.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (15)

The fire that broke out at 2401 St. Ann St. in the early morning hours of April 10, 2023 left the old corner spot in ruins. The road back has been slower and more costly than originally projected. Seaton-Stewart said the work calls for a complete rebuild inside and will likely take another year.

The long family story behind the restaurant fuels the drive to bring it back.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (16)

Stewart-Seaton is the great-granddaughter of restaurant founder and namesake Willie Mae Seaton, who started Willie Mae’s Scotch House as a bar back in 1957.

Once she began cooking for her customers, the business evolved into a restaurant. For a long time, it was a low-key neighborhood joint, the epitome of the backstreet Creole eatery.

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (17)

In later years, the restaurant's popularity catapulted. In 2005, the James Beard Foundation honored Seaton with its America’s Classics Award, recognizing restaurants that “serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities.” Just months later, the restaurant and its neighborhood were devastated by the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. A long rebuilding effort became a rallying point for a widespread community of supporters.

The restaurant reopened in 2007, with Seaton-Stewart running the operation. Willie Mae Seaton died in 2015 at age 99.

Many travel and food TV shows came calling and the restaurant quickly became a bucket list destination for foodie tourists. It became common to see a line stretching down the weatherboard flank of the restaurant. Even President Barack Obama stopped in for lunch in 2015, during a visit marking the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The new Baronne Street location will put Willie Mae's in proximity to the big event venues and hotels downtown.

Willie Mae’s Nola

898 Baronne St., projected opening late summer 2024

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

2401 St. Ann St., projected reopening 2025

Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (18)

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Email Ian McNulty at imcnulty@theadvocate.com.

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Willie Mae’s, closed since 2023 fire, to bring back its fried chicken at new NOLA location (2024)

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