New Orleans restaurateur Willie Mae Seaton dies

(Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance)

Willie Mae Seaton, the restaurateur whose fried chicken and other soul food specialties earned her a strong local following and national attention when Hurricane Katrina flooded her restaurant, has died. She was 99.

Seaton’s St. Ann Street restaurant, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, welcomed President Obama during his visit to the city in August, 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Her classic backstreet joint originally opened as a bar in the 1950s and became famous over the years for its down-home renditions of local favorites including fried chicken, red beans and rice and gumbo.

Seaton was born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, near Jackson, and came to New Orleans in 1940 with her husband, L.S. Seaton.  She tended bar at neighborhood joints before opening her own place. By 1972, she had converted a beauty salon in the front of her double-shotgun home into a restaurant.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the restaurant and Seaton’s home, which was attached to the building, volunteers from the Southern Foodways Alliance, helped organize the rebuilding effort, which took two years and was aided by donations from fellow chefs and total strangers.

Though Seaton had recently been retired from the day-to-day operation of the restaurant, she had been active up until Hurricane Katrina, still frying chicken and welcoming regular customers.

Shortly before the storm, the restaurant was honored by the James Beard Foundation with an America’s Classics Award. The award recognizes restaurants that are “honest, true and beloved by their community,” according to the foundation.

The restaurant is now run by Seaton’s great-granddaughter and other relatives. They have since expanded to a St. Charles Ave. location as well.

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