Restaurants serve food.
Taverns offer pitcher specials and maybe host trivia or bingo each week.
Neighborhood icons do those and so much more. They sponsor bus rides to Braves games. They hold golf tournaments, which they’ve been kicked out of on numerous occasions. They serve not only a mean cheeseburger but bacon-wrapped dates, steak frites, and chicken & dumplings.
Can you guess which of those Atkins Park falls under?
Atkins Park Restaurant & Bar is a neighborhood icon in the truest sense of the word, and Atlanta is better off for having a place like it.
Sandra Spoon has a name like an old-school noir detective: alliterative and with a common noun for a last name. She is no-nonsense, but with an inviting edge, like a modern-day Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark. She is the CEO/CFO of this restaurant (as well as the owner-operator with friend Kevin Drawe) and West Midtown staple Ormsby’s, overseeing the ownership and management of the locations and doing all the financial accounting.
But Sandra is really the mayor of Atkins Park, not just its treasurer but its historian, having been with the restaurant since 1985. Though she simply calls herself its “old lady”.
I sat down with Mayor Spoon in a booth at the restaurant to learn more about Atkins Park (named for the area where the three streets St. Charles Pl, St. Louis Pl, and St. Augustine Pl intersect with Highland Avenue) and the story it tells of a community.
Sandra’s average day isn’t as action-packed as you might expect for the owner of a neighborhood tavern. She wakes up and drinks coffee while checking emails and the previous night’s sales. Then she exercises and heads into her office, located on the second floor above the dining room and bar. At this point, she gets to work on all the nitty-gritty for both this restaurant and Ormsby’s. You name it, she’s probably doing it: analyzing sales patterns, doing the insurance busy work, pretty much everything except the tax returns. This is right in Sandra’s sweet spot, as a numbers-oriented person. She says, “I know where every penny is, coming in and going out.”
By the time the GM and chef come into the restaurant, she’s already done hours of work. Then she catches up with them about anything she might have missed from the previous night as well as any repairs that might be needed. “The building’s a hundred and some years old so it always needs to be repaired,” she explains, though the ceiling is still the original, which she attributes to all the accumulated nicotine (over the decades when smoking was allowed) gluing it up.
After meeting with the Atkins Park leadership team, she connects with Michael Goot and Leslie Battle from the Ormsby’s team. The restaurant is now ready to open and Sandra can take off her numbers hat and put on whatever other hats are needed. She’ll do anything and everything (“I’m great at bussing tables,” she says with a smile).
Sandra has been bussing tables, crunching numbers, and more at Atkins Park for nearly four decades, but that’s hardly where the story begins.
From Deli to Tavern
Like any legend, Atkins Park’s origin story is multiple-choice.
Does it begin over a century ago in 1907 when a house was built on the spot where the restaurant stands today?
Maybe the story kicks off in 1922 when the house was lifted to pave the way for The Original Atkins Park Delicatessen, which opened up underneath.
Some might argue the true essence of Atkins Park came right after Prohibition in the early 1930s when they got their beer and wine license, making them Atlanta’s oldest continuously licensed tavern (the liquor license was added in 1980).
But for the sake of the establishment we’re really talking about, the magic year is 1983, when Warren Bruno, Sandra’s late husband, had an idea for a neighborhood establishment in every sense of the word.
The word “visionary” gets thrown around far more than it should. But Warren Bruno truly saw the hospitality world in ways the rest of the industry wouldn’t for decades. At one point he had six active locations, each of which was a different concept. Here’s a far-from-comprehensive list of some of the ideas Warren brought to Atlanta, to varying degrees of success.
He bought this Buckhead bar in the seventies, which remained in business for a quarter century. Much like Ormsby’s today, Aunt Charley’s had games to spare: a bocce ball court, backgammon boards inlaid into the tables, a dart area, a pool table, and more. Sandra describes it as “very much a neighborhood bar, which was his aesthetic.”
Phoenix Brewing Company
Sandra claims this was the first brewpub to open in the state of Georgia. It was in business in Sandy Springs for only about three years in the nineties before closing. “It was before its time, which is why we didn’t survive,” she explains.
At some point in the 1980s, Warren had a specific vision: “I want a taco bar.” This trend-setting taco bar was going to have all Mexican beers and tequilas, but more importantly, there would be cooks in an open kitchen where they would make your food right in front of you. Sound familiar? “It was a modern-day Moe’s or Willy’s”, says Sandra.
Warren had two places in Underground Atlanta during its past heyday: Groundhog Tavern (more on that place coming up soon) and Benchwarmers (no connection to the current chain).
The Current Places
Warren, along with Mike Duggan (co-owner of Aunt Charley’s) and Pete Kennedy (a longtime neighborhood resident) bought the former Atkins Park Delicatessen in 1983. From there, he polished the space, upgraded the booze, and gradually refined the menu. All three of his concepts that remain open have tremendous staying power: 40 years (Atkins Park), 20 years (the sister location in Smyrna), and 13 years (Ormsby’s).
You might be surprised to learn that Ormsby’s was created by the same ownership team as Atkins Park, but the two are closely knit, both serving tasty food and ample booze with plenty of shenanigans to be had.
Sandra explains, “The relationship [between the two restaurants] is awesome. Their employees like to hang out here, which is really nice.” Warren’s visionary tendency came through once again when he came up with the idea for a restaurant with games in it, much like Aunt Charley’s in the past. “There was nothing like that, and now there’s a million places like it, oh my goodness.”
When she and Warren first looked at it, it was only one floor. He then had the idea to put a hole in the floor and take over the entire basement, which had previously been a slaughterhouse (don’t worry, it’s been thoroughly cleaned and exorcised of whatever bad juju might have lingered).
The Neighborhood Ambassador
To only speak of Warren Bruno’s restaurant endeavors would be grossly underselling his contributions to his neighborhood. He was a true jack of all trades – part of several business associations, on the boards of all the local schools, an active participant in restaurant organizations, a member of cycling clubs, and even part of hot air balloon groups (a real thing that actually exists)
Sandra says of her late husband, “He’s the one who taught me about how important community is. To see him engage in his community and they, in turn, reciprocate, is really a beautiful partnership.”
While he had his eggs in so many baskets, he’s most closely associated with his baby of so many decades: Atkins Park Restaurant & Bar. Whether you had the pleasure of personally witnessing the schmoozer of all schmoozers there or not, you were going to have an unforgettable experience at Atkins Park.
The Atkins Park Experience
So what exactly is the Atkins Park experience? It’s a mosaic painting, where each smaller piece tells its own story, yet they combine to form a greater and grander portrait.
Let’s rewind to the aforementioned Atkins Park Delicatessen, where the owners lived right upstairs in the house, which I had the pleasure of touring with Sandra as my guide. While it’s now used as a storage and office area, it’s still a tangible relic of its time: you can see features like the fireplace and the original exterior.
The house, as well as the bar below, has several portraits and stained glass pieces of the phoenix, the symbol of Atlanta’s rebirth from the literal ashes of the Civil War to becoming a major player on the global stage.
Not too many bars have a century-old museum upstairs.
The Annual Golf Tournament
The Atkins Park golf tournament used to be a mainstay. “We stopped for a long time,” Sandra explains, “partially because we kept getting…not invited back to the course.” That a group of tavern regulars would misbehave at a golf course is probably expected. “But now the golfers have matured.”
And thus the Atkins Open charity golf tournament is back. With your ticket, you get a continental breakfast, beer, Jaëger, Fireball, greens fees, golf cart access, driving range admission, a bag of goodies, and a post-play hot lunch, along with a raffle and prizes. Most importantly, the tournament benefits LLS, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, so you can have a great time while supporting an important cause.
The Ghost Room
After over a century of action, it’s hardly a surprise that there is talk of a ghost room.
“We’ve been here a really long time and a family did live upstairs, and that was a bedroom,” Sandra says. “My staff swears that, late at night, they hear things happening in that room.”
I had to see it for myself, so on the upstairs tour, Sandra brought me in. “We’ll see if I can find the light switch,” she joked. Besides some purring and chugging HVAC hardware, I didn’t detect anything amiss. When I asked her thoughts on the potential paranormal activity, she took a long pause and responded, “If you believe in ghosts, you believe in ghosts, right? If you don’t, then it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
The Braves Bus
Like many things in the Atkins Park realm, it all started off quite casually. Sandra recalls, “We asked, ‘Anyone wanna go to the Braves game?’ and now we put a bunch of people on a bus, get a keg, and go to the Braves game.” In the past, they were taking a double-decker bus to Fulton County Stadium; now they’re taking a luxury coach bus to Truist Park. “People need A/C and a bathroom,” Sandra says, but the spirit is the same.
The mark of a true neighborhood is its festival, so of course, Atkins Park spearheaded one of Atlanta’s best: Summerfest.
Summerfest gets tens of thousands of visitors every year and features live music, food and art stands, and even a 5k. Warren Bruno first started it as a block party with other local businesses in 1984 as a way to give back to the community and soothe the animosity growing between the Virginia Highland residents and businesses. Over the decades, it has grown in scale. Atkins Park no longer runs Summerfest but they are still closely tied.
The restaurant industry is easily one of the most turnover-laden in all of America. Atkins Park, however, defies that with several employees who have been at one of the locations for over a decade. Such consistency leads to a sense of camaraderie among the team and the regular customers that a majority of other restaurants and bars lack. Sandra says, “We have been serving generations for decades.” This is just one reason why a neighborhood bar frequently serves as the venue for weddings, rehearsal dinners, birthdays, and other celebrations.
And with familiarity comes antics.
Just one of those comes courtesy of Angie, one of our editors at Atlanta Eats, who told me that on one hazy night in the mid-1990s, she drank an entire bottle of Cholula in return for a free bar tab for her group of ten. When I asked Sandra about this, she started cracking up but did not recall this specific incident, perhaps due to how long ago it occurred but also because this is probably not even the strangest event to happen here this week. “But tell her I’m proud of her,” Sandra says.
There are also the pranks.
Sandra explains, “Because we’re all so close, it’s like playing a prank on your brother or sister.” The types of pranks can vary greatly, but are “those things that never work out well for anyone.” One of the the most notorious pranks in Atkins Park history involves their former Underground Atlanta restaurant Groundhog Tavern.
The tavern used to have two life-sized groundhogs sitting at the front to greet you when you walked in, though “life-sized” might not even cover it: “They’re seven feet tall, one’s wearing overalls and the other’s wearing an apron and a skirt.” When the Groundhog Tavern closed in the early nineties, the team put the two monsters into storage. Eventually, the person running the storage unit cleared out the space and left the groundhogs at Atkins Park. And thus the war began.
It turned into a game of moving the groundhogs around: into closets, at the end of hallways, wherever a mischievous mind might think to put these behemoths. The team once got Sandra by putting one of them in the hallway right across from the safe, so after she went to grab some cash, she turned around, made eye contact, and “threw every bit of the money and screamed.” She then made the executive decision to take them home and place them on the curb to be picked up on garbage day.
But it couldn’t be that easy. Sandra says, “One of them had fallen onto the side of the road and someone thought it was a dead person and called the ambulance.” In no time, a swarm of firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars were in front of her house. “They were all standing there laughing so hard at the stuffed animals lying on the curb.”
The groundhogs once again got the last laugh.
When the COVID-19 pandemic came in March 2020, every restaurant was faced with the same lose-lose dilemma: stay open and risk getting sick or temporarily close down and lose months of revenue. Atkins Park made the call to close down. Sandra recalls, “Every day was an unknown, which was the hardest part.” They continued paying salaried workers for the duration of the shutdown even though Sandra knew there was no way they’d be reopening any time soon. Then they cleaned out the coolers, donated the remaining food, and emptied the place out.
About two months later, Atkins Park started operations back up with to-go business only, getting the software and skeleton staff ready for this new way of transacting. They set up a table outside for a few weeks before re-opening and following standard COVID safety protocols: stools six feet apart, mask mandates, and closing off parts of the restaurant. There was uncertainty about whether the resulting business would be worth the effort, but the community showed up for the place that had always shown up for them.
“Our regulars were here,” Sandra says. “They were buying as much as they could and tipping as well as they could. The support was amazing.” Atkins Park gradually opened back up, coming back to a business model where they were open seven days a week for lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and late night. Another effect of the pandemic was that they built a patio in the back, which remains today. “It’s been a tremendous success for families with young children,” Sandra says. “It’s amazing how many elementary school children are out there with their parents. And they all know each other.”
When Atkins Park was forced to be resilient and adaptable during COVID-19, the neighborhood responded with loyalty.
No tavern should let you leave hungry, and Atkins Park would do no such thing.
Sandra describes the food at Atkins Park as “elevated pub food”. Simply put, it’s comfort food cooked to perfection, with equal parts technique and love, courtesy of Chef Alvaro Bibiano, or Chef Alvie.
They have many bar food staples – Smashburgers, Crispy Chicken Tenders, Nachos – but really color outside of the lines with more ambitious dishes like Fried Calamari, Pesto Salmon, and The Local Vegetable Plate. The grub isn’t just a way to line your stomach before pounding beers and booze, but legitimately impressive food.
I asked Sandra what she’d recommend a first-timer to order. “If you’re looking for something fried,” she recommends the Crispy Chicken Tenders or the Spicy Texas Chicken Sandwich. If you want something lighter, her go-to is the Grilled Steak Salad (she removes the bleu cheese crumbles to make it even healthier).
One of the defining dishes of Atkins Park is the Bruno Burger, topped with sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, and provolone cheese. It has a timeless feel, in part because it’s been served since 1978 at Aunt Charley’s and since day one at Atkins Park. Sandra gave a McDonald’s-esque quote of having sold 12 million Bruno Burgers over the years. It’s based on napkin math, but with multiple locations and over four decades, who’s to say it’s not an underestimate?
I also asked Sandra about a dish that she thinks is slept on by the customers and she suggested the Pan Sauteed Georgia Trout, lightly dusted with seasoned panko and pan-sauteed and served with mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, and bourbon brown butter peaches. She says, “We sell way more salmon than trout, but I’d really recommend the trout.”
A few weeks after interviewing Sandra, I came back on a Friday afternoon to take a few food photos. I arrived no later than 4:45 PM and it was already comfortably packed, that perfect crowd size for an establishment such as this one where you could easily get a table in solitude, or you can join the party and sit at the bar with the regulars and newbies alike. I hopped on a stool next to a gentleman who Sandra said has been “sitting there since 1987”, and this residency became clear when his Heineken was brought over with little more than a nod to the bartender.
I ordered a few of my favorites on the menu (a tall order to narrow down) and settled on these three…
Atkins Park Wings
Most restaurants deep fry their wings in some type of vegetable oil. This is usually fine, if not fantastic. But Atkins Park cooks theirs using the confit method, slow-cooking the wings in duck fat. Once done, these wings are tossed in sauce (either sweet chili-garlic or, for the ones I got, Atkins Park Wing Sauce) and served with ranch or bleu cheese.
If you have any doubt about whether the confit approach makes a noticeable difference, just take a bite. The skin is crispier and the meat is juicier than the non-confit alternatives, an unforgiving tightrope walk that many restaurants stumble from.
As if the wings themselves weren’t tasty enough, the Atkins Park Wing Sauce makes the flavors soar to the stratosphere. It’s a hard flavor to describe: a mild heat balanced by a little sweetness and saltiness. I asked Sandra what went into the sauce and all she would share was that it contains “surprisingly limited ingredients.”
Maybe the secret recipe is hidden in the ghost room.
The ranch dipping sauce is as creamy as you’d expect ranch to be, but there’s an herbaceous layer to it that dances on and off your tongue and invites you to drown your next wing (or carrot or celery or whatever else you can grab) in the stuff.
Spicy Texas Chicken Sandwich
There may be nothing more comforting than a fried chicken sandwich…unless it’s coated in that Atkins Park Wing Sauce and topped with lettuce, tomato, and ranch on a brioche bun. The chicken is crispy and juicy and exactly what you’d hope for in a sandwich like this.
I got mine with a side of sweet potato fries and that fresh and tangy ranch. The fries are homemade and bring that beloved satisfaction of a french fry but with the added benefit of actually tasting like its source vegetable.
Birria is a dish with deep Mexican roots, relying on a low-and-slow cooking method with countless spices and aromatics to provide its distinctive flavor profile. So you’d typically proceed cautiously if you saw one on an American bar’s menu, maybe expecting some sad variation of soggy steak quesadillas. This birria quesadilla, however, is a triumph, thanks to Chef Alvie’s Hispanic heritage and flawless execution.
The meat is stuffed into a tortilla with melted mozzarella and served with a side of cilantro, onions, and the essential birria consomme for dipping. It tastes so much more authentic than it has any business being. It smacks you in the face with a robust array of deep flavors: warm cinnamon, smokey chili peppers, and hearty beefiness. Once you try it, you’ll be convinced you’re at Atkins Park Taqueria.
To Try is to Live
You could write books and books about Warren Bruno’s endeavors and contributions to the neighborhood he loved so much, but if you need to know anything about the man, it’s his mantra: “To try is to live.”
Sandra told me he expressed this sentiment while he was undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the mid-2000s, which he eventually passed away from in 2012. But anybody who knew Bruno, or his remarkable impact, knows that he embodied this philosophy for his entire life. He lived to the fullest and gave everything he had to everything he did – whether an idea was ahead of its time and doomed to fail, or an immediate success.
With Atkins Park Restaurant & Bar, he tried to take an old delicatessen and turn it into a charming tavern, and the result was far beyond that. His place engaged with his community and the community in turn engaged right back, which they continue to do to this day.
And for that reason, Warren Bruno lives on.