It’s a common cliche that the best recipes are made with love.
At Mary Mac’s Tea Room, it’s the truth.
Mary Mac’s, or “Atlanta’s Dining Room” (at least according to a 2011 resolution filed in the Georgia House of Representatives), has been in the same spot on Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta since 1945.
From the day that Mary MacKenzie founded her tea room (originally called Mrs. Fuller’s Tea Room), it has been an Atlanta institution where anybody who walks through the doors is immediately embraced as family.
From the iconic tomato pie to the award-winning fried chicken to the beloved bread basket, Mary Mac’s puts the “comfort” in comfort food and the welcoming staff will elevate your tasty meal into a heartwarming experience.
There’s nothing in Atlanta quite like it.
While nearly everything in our city has undergone substantial changes, Mary Mac’s has remained a fixture, demonstrating the timeless wisdom that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This establishment paints a more vivid picture of Atlanta than any museum or historical site ever could.
In order to learn more about why it has been such a powerful presence in Atlanta for nearly eight decades, I spoke at length with Jackie Laster, a server, trainer, and caterer, who has worked at Mary Mac’s for over a decade but, based on her expertise in all things Mary Mac’s, I’d believe it was even longer.
In our conversation, she enlightened me about the earliest days of Mary Mac’s Tea Room, how it has changed (and stayed the same) since the 1940s, and why it means so much to so many locals.
Mary Mac’s Background
In 1945, it was quite uncommon for women, particularly in the South, to open restaurants. Mary MacKenzie was undaunted from her goal of serving the best southern food around, so she instead called it a “tea room,” inviting less concern from the patriarchy. At the time, hers was one of sixteen tea rooms in the area.
Only Mary Mac’s Tea Room remains.
When I asked Jackie why she believes Mary Mac’s is the last tea room standing, she pointed straight to the role it’s played in its patrons’ lives: “Mary Mac’s is definitely a family establishment.” She continues, “People who used to work downtown would come here on their lunch break, people have gotten married here, people would come here after going to the Fox Theatre…this is a lot of people’s Southern tradition.” When I asked more about this Southern tradition, she explained, “When people think about authentic Southern cooking, they think about food that’s cooked with love.”
Mary MacKenzie ran the tea room with love from 1945 to 1962 before handing the reins over to one of her employees, Margaret Lupo. Margaret was a bona fide business woman, setting the table for other women to open businesses at a time when there were only a handful. She turned more heads for making her dining room unsegregated because, according to her daughter, “You were all equal folk at the table.”
Margaret broke these barriers while raising six children and stepchildren and serving on the board of the Georgia Hospitality and Travel Association and founding the Midtown Business Association (today known as the Midtown Alliance) and the Women’s Commerce Club. Her diligence elevated the Mary Mac’s experience to the stratospheric level from which it hasn’t dropped since.
After over three decades of second-to-none service, Margaret Lupo was ready to retire from the strenuous life of running a restaurant. Her granddaughter knew John Ferrell from Florida State University and he expressed interest in purchasing the famed restaurant. Margaret was extremely particular about the great responsibilities of running Atlanta’s Dining Room so, according to Jackie, she “trained John Ferrell for 18 months before she felt comfortable with him having the place.”
Jackie personally feels that this transition in ownership in 1994 was so smooth due to Margaret’s enduring legacy among the rest of the staff. “Even though she wasn’t here, they were working for Margaret. That was their dedication to this lady.” This isn’t to say, however, that John didn’t have the respect of his new team. Jackie reiterates, “He did what Margaret Lupo showed him how to do.”
John ran the business like a well-oiled machine, providing fabulous experiences to over 10,000 visitors a day. However, in the face of COVID-19 in March 2020, he made the challenging decision to close the restaurant for the safety of the staff and guests.
Mary Mac’s remained closed for a majority of its 75th year in business until Harold Martin, Jr. came along.
Harold has an incredibly impressive resume, having graduated from Morehouse in 2002 and then worked for 12 years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, during which he also casually earned his JD from Yale Law School as well as his MBA from Harvard Business School. He served as Interim President of his alma mater in 2017 and then acquired Taco Mac in 2018. With such a busy schedule as an investor and executive, one must wonder: how did he come across Mary Mac’s?
While Harold was studying at Morehouse, he found a new home away from home. Whenever he’d come in for a meal at the tea room, the entire staff welcomed him with open arms and served him his Southern favorites. As he embarked on his career, he always had a warm spot in his heart for Mary Mac’s and constantly returned.
Harold never forgot the Southern hospitality or the legendary food (the pork chops are his go-to), and eventually made an offer to purchase the restaurant. He worked with the team to ensure they could re-open with even stricter safety and sanitary measures than they already had (they recently earned a perfect score on their health inspection, winning the coveted Golden Spatula Award).
Additionally, he made two major decisions. First, he would keep all 100+ employees on staff. Second, he was not going to change a thing about the restaurant or its menu.
Once again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Speaking of which…
Alright, let’s talk food.
As we’ve already covered, not much has changed at Mary Mac’s since 1945, including the menu and the recipes.
Jackie explains, “Every morning and every evening shift, the chef comes out and checks everything on the line. They make sure the macaroni is tasting well, the corn is good, the greens aren’t too salty.” When everything is made from scratch, you can never be too careful to ensure a consistently fresh and delicious bite for each customer. While kitchen technology and methodology have advanced in myriad ways since the Baby Boomer era, Mary Mac’s Tea Room doesn’t see the need. “That’s one of the things that really makes us stand out,” Jackie says with a smile. “We do everything in-house, even down to us making our own bread.”
Now, about that bread.
Every table at Mary Mac’s gets a complimentary bread basket, consisting of fluffy yeast rolls and tasty cornbread. But (and this is essential) you need to make sure to come after 4:00 PM when a sweet and warm cinnamon roll is added to the mix. You never need to worry about leaving this restaurant with an empty stomach, but remember: there’s always room for one more roll.
One of the most enduring traditions at Mary Mac’s is bringing out a bowl of pot likker with cracklin’ cornbread for all first-time guests. Pot likker, for the uninitiated (AKA non-southern), is the salty and porky broth you get after cooking collard greens. Cracklin’ cornbread is cornbread with crispy pork skins baked into it, packing an absurd amount of flavor per bite. Jackie recommends a first timer “take that cornbread and just sop up that juice. Or crumble it in. Or just eat it on its own. It’s like an Oreo…there’s no wrong way to eat it.”
As far as the regular menu items, they have collectively earned rave reviews on every forum from Trip Advisor (winning a Travelers’ Choice award) to countless food critics and bloggers across the nation. And with good reason.
Where do we begin?
I asked Jackie if it was somebody’s first time coming to Mary Mac’s Tea Room what she would recommend they order. She then proceeded to rattle off well over a dozen must-haves.
- Fried chicken. (“We’ve got the best fried chicken. Our chicken fried chicken smothered with white pepper gravy is bomb.”)
- Pot roast. (“It’s the truth.”)
- Shrimp and grits. (“Our shrimp and grits are phenomenal. When a lot of places say ‘cheese grits,’ they just make grits and throw cheese on top…no, no, ours is actually blended and evenly proportioned.”)
- Meatloaf. (“A lot of people are sleeping on the meatloaf, but I’m telling you, they’re missing out!”)
When it comes to sides, the list goes on:
- Creamed corn.
- Collard greens.
- Tomato pie. (“Stewed tomatoes, sauteed onions, three different kinds of cheese with a creamy mayo-based sauce and a Ritz cracker crumb. Definitely a must-try.”)
- Fried green tomatoes. (“We make our own horseradish sauce.”)
- Black eyed peas.
At this point she acknowledged with a laugh, “I can’t think of anything that I don’t like.”
On the sweeter side, she recommends:
- Peach cobbler.
- Banana pudding.
- Key lime pie. (“It’s sweet but tart.”)
- Coconut cake. (“The piece is gigantic!”)
After all this talking about the food, I had to try it for myself.
I took a quick tour through the kitchen, inspecting the massive fryers full of chicken and the stacks on stacks of freshly baked yeast rolls, then put in my own order:
Smothered fried chicken with gravy, mac and cheese, tomato pie, and all the rolls I could fit onto my plate.
After taking the requisite pictures, I dove right in.
And let me tell you…it did not disappoint.
The chicken skin was crispy, the meat was juicy, and the gravy was a delightfully salty blanket on top, soaking the rice bed and making every bite a treat. The tomato pie was a unique hybrid of heavy from the Ritz crust and mayo and light from the tomatoes, with a surprisingly complex flavor profile that took me a few bites to fully appreciate. And I’m no food critic (if you couldn’t tell already) so I’ll just say the mac and cheese was exactly what you’re looking for with mac and cheese.
Even though I already ate lunch a few hours earlier, I devoured my meal, making all different kinds of sandwiches on the rolls and cornbread, just to experience all the taste combinations that I could.
So, having eaten the food for myself, I asked myself the question that prompted this entire article…
What Makes Mary Mac’s Different?
Much like the food, there is no secret special sauce that makes Mary Mac’s Tea Room such an iconic Atlanta institution.
This is an institution lifted to remarkable heights by countless remarkable women. From the first two owners (Mary MacKenzie and Margaret Lupo) to dozens of staff members, the impressive power of women runs through every inch of the restaurant.
It’s one of the few places where true nonpartisanship and harmony exists. Not only will you find patrons of all types sitting all throughout the six rooms of the restaurant, but the halls are littered with hundreds of photos and newspaper clippings that truly show no allegiance. There are photos of former Georgia governors Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue, national politicians like Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and even the freaking Dalai Lama! There’s even a chaotic mix of sports teams memorabilia, from West Virginia’s football team to Florida State University basketball.
Jackie wasn’t exaggerating when she said that everybody is family.
But when it comes to what really makes Mary Mac’s Tea Room different…it’s everything.
It’s the bread basket.
It’s the menagerie of patrons from all walks of life.
It’s the ceaselessly smiling staff.
It’s the way the gravy floods over the fried chicken and spills onto your sides (and fingers).
It’s all of those… and more.
I’ll let Jackie take it from here.
“If you’re looking for food made with love fit for anybody’s belly and made to put a smile on your face, come down to Mary Mac’s. We would love, love, LOVE for you to be a part of our family.”