The restaurant, grocery and deli on St. Charles Avenue is a very differernt way to get good fried chicken than at Willie Mae's Scotch House in the Treme.
New Orleans is the biggest small town in America, but leaving your neighborhood can often sound as daunting as a drive to Missouri. The Riverbend and the Bywater might as well be in separate time zones, and going to the Lakefront from the Quarter might require special vaccinations. For me, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Treme isn’t a lunch option; it’s a journey, and one I rarely make from Uptown even though I’ve never been disappointed. For that reason, Willie Mae’s Grocery and Deli on St. Charles Avenue is a godsend, or as much of one as easy access to good, lifespan-shortening fried food can be.
Is the fried chicken as good there as at the home office? I can’t tell a meaningful difference. The peppery skin is beautifully crispy while the meat beneath it is moist without be freakish. The sides aren’t special, but they’re not why you go. For me, the red beans were thin and banal with a one-note twang that got old, while the white beans were far more satisfying. I had the macaroni and cheese on my first visit and don't remember them one way or another.
Still, the Uptown Willie Mae’s is an odd experience because it feels like a pop-up restaurant. It not only inhabits the space that formerly housed the Fat Hen Grocery, but I assume that the floor plan with the long bar, the inside wooden awning, and the floor plan were part of that business or one that came before. None of it makes any sense specifically to Willie Mae’s or fried chicken, and the counter actually creates some confusion.
When you enter, you belly up to a counter where copies of the menu have been taped down. It can look like a line, but it isn’t. Or it isn’t always. Sometimes groups linger over the menu and talk out their choices as the cashier finishes with an order. You can jump around and order, or you can wait. Whatever the case, you then find a seat and wait for your lunch to be served.
The walls enhance the provisional feel of Willie Mae’s, with nothing on them, nor is there a sign out front. The banner that announced its opening remains up and over one window to let people know what’s going on inside.
Service during lunch time is swift, sometimes remarkably so. Since the room has little ambience, that’s not a bad thing. The restaurant’s not so wrong that you want to get out of it, but it’s not so right that you want to settle in.
The bottom line is at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, you’re a part of a neighborhood and a tradition. It’s what people love about New Orleans’ dining—the sense of being connected to something bigger than yourself. Willie Mae’s Grocery & Deli is a place to go to get good fried chicken. That’s good too, but you won't mistake the experience of one restaurant for the other.