Family, friends mourn passing of Lowcountry soul food restaurateur Alice Warren

Updated: Oct. 30, 2020 at 5:38 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Funeral arrangements have been finalized for the woman who brought people of all different walks of life together to enjoy a good meal at her two Lowcountry restaurants.

Alice E.M. Warren, former soul food restaurateur, died Saturday at 74.

The community is invited to the viewing which takes place Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at W.M. Smith-McNeal Funeral Home, located at 2119 Dorchester Road in North Charleston.

Affectionately known as “Ms. Alice,” she had a passion for cooking and community. She owned Alice’s and Alice’s Fine Foods restaurants in Charleston and North Charleston.

“On any day, you could be seated next to a senator, mayor, chief of police, pastor, or a celebrity passing through the city,” Antwan Smalls said. Smalls started working for Warren when he was just 13 years old as a dishwasher, and later became her business partner after he opened his own restaurant.

Warren was the youngest of seven girls who grew up in Colleton County. And though she never married or had children of her own, she had an enormous extended family.

“Everywhere you went, you met someone who would tell you that ‘Ms. Alice was like a second mother to me,’” Warren’s niece, Harriett Doctor, said. “My aunt had a smile that was infectious and an even bigger heart.”

Doctor says Warren had problems with her kidneys and had been on dialysis for more than a dozen years. In early October she contracted COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized.

Alice Warren had been a staple of the Charleston restaurant scene since the mid-1960s.
Alice Warren had been a staple of the Charleston restaurant scene since the mid-1960s.(Antwan Smalls)

“We were cautiously optimistic concerning her health, because she was starting to recover from the coronavirus. But due to complications from her kidneys, she wasn’t able to pull through,” Doctor said.

Doctor says although her aunt couldn’t work in a restaurant anymore, Warren still catered meals for people, enlisting the assistance of close family members to help prepare her well known dishes.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard was Warren’s neighbor and released the following statement in response to her passing:

With the passing of my friend and neighbor, Miss Alice Warren, this state, and especially the city of Charleston, has lost a great entrepreneur, powerful civic leader, icon and a humble servant of God. She always had a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. Miss Warren helped thousands of people throughout her days by giving them employment and caring for those who were in need or those who were aspiring to be future entrepreneurs. She will be sorely missed.

Warren worked as a chef and advisor at My Three Sons restaurant, which Smalls opened with his mother, Lorraine Smalls. Warren had worked in and had been involved with the restaurant until her health no longer allowed her to do so.

The following is an excerpt from a tribute written by Smalls in honor of Warren for a previous celebration:

One of the many things that Charleston has been known for is its food and cuisine. Alice E. Warren known as “Ms. Alice” has been a staple in the Charleston Food scene since August of 1966. She came from humble beginnings, growing up on a farm in Ashton which is located in Colleton County. In the beginning “Ms. Alice” worked as a maid at Burke High School while also working at a restaurant named Ladson House. In 1967 that all would change when she got the attention of her mentor, the late Edward Ladson. He saw the potential and within one year she was promoted to head cook and was able to quit her job at Burke. After working with Ladson for 13 years, he decided to turn over the managerial duties to “Ms. Alice” while his focus shifted to catering services for supper clubs and other private parties. When Ladson opened in 1963, he had no idea that he was the bridge for what would shape the black food scene in downtown Charleston. After 22 years Ladson House closed its doors.

In November 1986 along with Price Whitaker, Alice’s Fine Food Restaurant became a reality at the first of four locations that “Ms. Alice” would open. This is the location where my mother, Lorraine Smalls, started working with her. The original location was on the corner of King and Cleveland across from the King Street Palace until hurricane Hugo destroyed the building.

The second location would be in North Charleston on Old Meeting Street Road from Nov. 1990 to Dec. 1992. Realizing there was a need in the city of Charleston, “Ms. Alice” would open a third location downtown on Meeting Street from Sept. 1991 to July 1994. This is where I came into the story. I started as a dishwasher at the age of 13 and worked through high school and college. As the business continued to grow, “Ms. Alice” made the tough decision to close the North Charleston location to focus on the downtown location.

At every location, the food and reputation spoke for itself. In Oct. 1994, “Ms. Alice” opened the fourth and final location in the heart of King Street. “Ms. Alice” gave Frederick Whaley a lot of credit for his leadership and guidance in advising her that this location would be the most productive location.

This fourth location was unique because it offered the ability to seat about 80 in general seating area, then it offered a private banquet hall that seated about 110. The daily flow was about 300 people of all races and nationalities. On any day you could be seated next to a senator, mayor, chief of police, pastor, or a celebrity passing through the city. She embodied the spirit of making good food for everyone to enjoy. In 2003, Alice’s Fine Foods closed its doors for good and the food industry has never been the same in downtown Charleston.

I often tell Ms. Alice every chance I get that her legacy will live through us because she has poured so much into us.

Lorraine Smalls says two of her favorite dishes made by Warren were deviled crabs and crab soup. Smalls says Warren was like a mother to her and gave her a job after she got out of the military in the 80s. She was honored to have Warren as a co-chef and advisor when she opened My Three Sons restaurant with her son, Antwan.

Smalls says Warren’s death is terrible loss, because she touched the lives of so many.

Celebrities including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former comedian/civil rights activists Dick Gregory, and former national radio talk host Tom Joyner all broke bread at some point in their lives at one of Warren’s restaurants.

There will be a private graveside service for immediate family and close friends only on Monday.

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