Chef Marilyn’s soul food has been a Crenshaw District staple for over 3 decades

Owner and founder Marilyn Cole (right) and store manager Terri Davis stand outside of Chef Marilyn's in Los Angeles. (Ashton Edmunds/Medill)

By Ashton Edmunds
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — For more than 30 years, Chef Marilyn’s, Queen of Down Home Southern Goodies has been serving the Crenshaw District and the city of Los Angeles with some of the best soul food. The Southern restaurant sits right next to The Living Room bar on the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard with a burgundy storefront that reads “Chef Marilyn has been serving the community over 30 years”. On the side of the building, Chef Marilyn’s has two wide posters on the wall with one welcoming people to LA for Super Bowl LVI and the other reading “serving the community since 1989.”

“This place is banging. The food slaps. You heard me. Go get a plate,” Ngaio Bealum, a comedian and activist, tweeted out about the restaurant on Friday.

Thirty-three years ago, Marilyn A. Cole, aka Chef Marilyn, started her business on Crenshaw Boulevard and 42nd Street. What was then called “Marilyn’s Place” was a sit-down restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now going on nearly 25 years, Cole moved her restaurant to its current location on Crenshaw and Adams Street. She didn’t realize until she was in this business that she was fulfilling her mother’s dream of opening a restaurant. With this dream fulfilled, Cole’s restaurant is the go-to spot for many.  

“First of all, my regular customers are wonderful. I’ve been serving this community for 33 years, and the people love my food,” Cole said. “When I came here, I started as a sit-down, then I converted to a 99-cent soul food express. It was the first soul food express, and we did wonderful. Even after I closed the express, I continued to have 99-cent items on my menu.”

Once a month, Cole would choose one day to price everything on the menu at 99 cents to make it affordable for everyone to eat. Since the pandemic started, she has kept Chef Marilyn’s open to feed the people in her community because many of her customers grew up eating her food. Now that many of them are seniors, they are depending on Chef Marilyn’s to stay open.

“There’s not any place around here that gives back to the community like she does,” said Terri Davis, the store manager at Chef Marilyn’s. “She was open the whole pandemic.”

Cole is adamant about making sure everyone can eat. With Los Angeles having a homeless population of 56,257, according to city mayors, feeding the homeless all throughout the Crenshaw District has been of importance to Chef Marilyn’s.  

“I feed the homeless, I feed the seniors. I was a part of the senior program where I would feed the seniors across the street when the pandemic first hit,” Cole said. “Soul food is a big part of life.”    

Along with feeding local people in the community, Chef Marilyn’s has served many notable celebrities and politicians such as Stevie Wonder, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Magic Johnson over the course of the past 30 years.

“I’ve did A Midsummer’s Night’s Magic for years. We did the last one, which was the 20th, and that year, we had Steve Harvey host the final night,” Cole said, referring to Johnson’s annual charity basketball game. “They used to bring me into Friday’s during Midsummer Night Magic, and I would have to do the breakfast for Magic every year, and that was unbelievable.”

Cole’s mission is to make everyone feel at home, bringing people together through soul food. The menu features macaroni & cheese, potato salad, baked catfish, oxtails, smothered chicken wings and cornbread. For Cole, her mac & cheese is the most popular thing on her menu. The dish was featured in BuzzFeed and was voted as the best mac & cheese out of three different ones back in 2017.

“It just really feels like home,” said Christopher Udo, a longtime resident of the Crenshaw District. “It’s a place where you can go get an authentic Southern meal for an affordable price and really has just become a staple in our community.” 

As an entrepreneur for more than 30 years, Cole understands the importance of mentorship. Under her guidance, six of her previous employees have opened their own restaurants and catering businesses. Paying it forward is what it’s all about for Cole.

“I’m open to discuss and to help people because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to give back,” Cole said. 

Ashton Edmunds is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @ae11__.