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Steve Lopez /POINTS WEST

Maurice Is Leaving the Kitchen

February 08, 2004|Steve Lopez

All the years I didn't know Maurice Prince were wasted.

I stumbled upon this discovery last week, when I walked into Maurice's Snack 'N Chat on Pico Boulevard, east of Fairfax, and introduced myself to the 87-year-old raconteur.

How'd a woman get stuck with a name like Maurice? I asked.

"I don't know, honey," she said. "I wasn't there."

She gave me the once-over, as if fearing I might be some rube who was just going to waste her time.

"What's new?" I asked, reinforcing her misgivings.

"Nothing," she said. "Everything's old."

What's new, actually, is that Maurice's Snack 'N Chat is closing, and when it's gone, one of L.A.'s grand dames will have turned out the lights on a party that began in 1940. Maurice fled the reach of the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas that year, landed in the middle of the blazing Central Avenue jazz scene in South L.A., and never stopped swinging.

She did the town with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, landed jobs at fancy clubs and saucy juke joints, developed a taste for the good life while in the employ of John Gardner and Loretta Young, served secret-recipe fried chicken to the likes of Johnny Carson and Magic Johnson, traveled to the ends of the world, blew all her dough, survived two riots, outlived three husbands and never looked back.

"Killed off every one of them," she said of the husbands.

Maurice sat at a lonely table in a room full of memories, waiting for someone to come buy the furniture.

"I gotta be out of here in a week," she said.

A big pot of lima beans simmered on the stove. The restaurant is all but done, but friends still stop by and expect to fill their bellies.

Someone will call, Maurice said. They always do.

I said nothing for a few moments. In the quiet, she disappeared gracefully into a memory and lingered there, easy and sad. A sharp pain in her bum knee brought her back into the room.

Ninety percent of the business was white folk, she said, and fewer of them came by after the last riots. Then one year in the late 1990s, three waitresses died, and each had been with her since she opened the Snack 'N Chat in 1978.

Maurice said she had handed the business over to her bookkeeper, who later filed for bankruptcy. When the property went up on the auction block a couple of weeks ago, there was Maurice, putting in a half-hearted bid to buy her own place back. Maybe she'd turn it over to her granddaughter and keep the name alive.

But someone else won out, and Maurice doesn't even know what will come of 5549 West Pico.

"To tell you the truth," she said, "I had a little twinge of relief. The restaurant business is hard work, and you surely can't find help like you used to."

The phone rang, just as she said it would. A friend was calling to ask if Maurice would cook for her.

"I'm not doin' that today," Maurice said, just as she did to everyone else who called while I was there.

"I do have some lima beans on."

From across the table, I could hear a voice on the other end saying, "Oh my God," to the lima beans.

"All right, what else you want?" Maurice asked, her pride showing up in a smile. "Chicken? OK. Check back later and I'll have your chicken."

And by the way, don't call Maurice's cooking soul food or Southern food. She invented her own thing, honey.

"It's American home cooking, Maurice style. I don't make greasy food. I cook my chicken in an iron skillet, not a deep-fat fryer. And my vegetables are steamed!"

She asked if I'd been to Patina's cafeteria at the new Disney music hall, and then launched into a stinging critique.

"A little few lettuce leaves, and it's $5.99, $6.99 for that!?"

Maurice looked as if she thought a charge of theft would be appropriate.

"I called the chef and told him it was too expensive. 'That's Patina,' he said. You see that little glass of wine they got there? Nine dollars for a little plastic glass of Chardonnay."

Next she wanted to know if I had seen the Super Bowl halftime show. Millions of words have been written about it at this point, but Maurice nailed it with just one.

"Trashy!"

The beauty of being 87, Maurice said, is that you can just say whatever pops into your head and let it go at that. As if to illustrate the point, a friend and actress named Betty Jones walked in, and Maurice said:

"She's in a TV show I can't stand -- 'The Parkers.' Why do the black people on these shows always weigh 400 pounds?" she asked Jones, who is svelte.

Jones barely heard the complaint. She was thinking about the fact that, after Feb. 15, the Snack 'N Chat will be history.

"Maurice has fed L.A., and I'm so sad to see it go," said Jones. "It was always a party in here. I've seen her host Gladys Knight, Denzel Washington, James Brown. One time Elizabeth Taylor had a surprise party here for her husband, and I walked into the kitchen and saw Elizabeth Taylor eating out of the pots.

"She was stealing a piece of chicken and she looked at me and said, 'You didn't see that.' "

Don't forget the street parties, Maurice said.

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