Martha Lou’s Kitchen, which was vaulted to international fame by well-placed soul food fans, including chefs Sean Brock, Andrew Zimmern and Sara Moulton, has served its last plate of fried chicken.
As first reported by WCBD, the Morrison Drive institution closed Sept. 1, following the sale of the iconic pink building that housed Martha Lou Gadsden’s celebrated cooking for 37 years. According to Gadsden’s granddaughter, Melanie Alston, the building previously owned by Craig Bennett is slated for demolition.
Gadsden, 90, apparently isn’t overly concerned about being displaced after decades of renting.
“It’s her retirement age,” said Alston. “But she is going to miss doing business.”
Business barely dropped off following the onset of the coronavirus.
“We did well during the pandemic,” Alston said, attributing the ongoing success to the restaurant’s overwhelming popularity and facility with takeout items such as turkey wings, lima beans, baked chicken and collard greens.
Alston isn’t ruling out serving those customer favorites again. Martha Lou’s will continue to offer catering services and the family is discussing whether to eventually reopen the restaurant in another location.
“If we’re going to have something else independently, we’re going to revisit that in six months to a year,” said Alston, who for two years ran Martha Lou’s Kitchen #2 in North Charleston.
In a 2016 oral history interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance, Gadsden said she started her restaurant career as a waitress at the legendary Ladson House Restaurant on President Street in the late 1960s when her nine children were old enough to take care of themselves.
She opened her own restaurant in 1983 in a converted service station, selling hot dogs and soda pop.
But Gadsden was eager to distinguish her kitchen from the snack bars around town, so soon switched to making the kind of home-cooked dishes she could create again and again without consulting a recipe, such as smothered pork chops and okra soup.
Still, she admitted her repertoire wasn’t complete: She wasn’t satisfied with her biscuits, so instead served sweetened Jiffy cornbread at her restaurant.
“I like what I do and I do what I like, and if I didn’t like it it would be a drudgery, but I like it,” Gadsden told the interviewer. “I don’t never get up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, Lord; I don’t know what today going to be.’ I get up with a meaningful attitude. I’m ready to go — ready to go. As long as I can go, I’m going.”
Brock’s affection for Martha Lou’s and its owner was documented in a 2011 New York Times column, which concluded, “In the cosmology of Southern cooking, Martha Lou’s is no dwarf planet. It is close to the sun itself.”
Then-critic Sam Sifton’s praise incited a torrent of additional press coverage: Bon Appetit characterized the restaurant as worthy of a pilgrimage and Southern Living hailed it for upholding Gullah Geechee cooking traditions.
By 2016, the influx of tourist traffic was so intense that Gadsden was able to hike her prices, charging $14 for a meat-and-three plate which previously cost $8.50.
“Everybody goes crazy over the chicken,” she told Southern Living. “I don’t know what it is about the chicken.”
Nobody was more surprised by the far-reaching acclaim for Martha Lou’s than Gadsden, Alston says, describing her grandmother as humble. Even after multiple television appearances she had trouble believing that customers would come all the way from Ohio for a menu listing chitterlings and mystery meat.
Once, Alston said, her grandmother took a call from a soul food appreciator in England. He wanted to know if he needed to make a reservation in advance of his upcoming trip.
He was assured there would be room for him at Martha Lou’s.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.