The History Behind Atlanta’s Iconic Manuel’s Tavern
Certain cities are defined by a place.
This may be a sprawling park, a jaw-dropping natural wonder, or a Great Pyramid with the Bass Pro Shop logo on it.
But it may also be a no-frills restaurant where to your left is a table of construction workers on their lunch break and to your right are state senators hammering out an appropriations bill.
There’s an energy, almost a sense of whimsy, that strikes ATLiens’ ears when you mention Manuel’s Tavern.
What makes it so different from every other restaurant in the Poncey-Highland area? Is it the food? The massive bar? The decor, riddled with a hodgepodge of photos and other pieces of art?
I had the pleasure to speak with owner Brian Maloof and learn from him firsthand what makes Manuel’s an Atlanta icon.
Brian describes Manuel’s first and foremost as “very comfortable, like your living room.”
In that regard, little has changed since “Atlanta’s Quintessential Neighborhood Bar” opened its doors in 1956. Brian’s father, Manuel Maloof, bought Harry’s Delicatessen and reconfigured it into a bar influenced by the taverns he encountered while stationed in Europe during World War II. Over time, he and his brother Robert built Manuel’s Tavern into a piece of the Atlanta story.
When I asked more about Robert Maloof, Brian declared, “if it wasn’t for my uncle, there’s no way this place would be in business.” The two were the perfect yin and yang and shared a remarkable give and take. “It worked out beautifully,” Brian continues, “because they always argued. And it was always quite a show for the customers back in the day to see them bantering back and forth about things.” The story of Manuel’s Tavern often begins and ends with its namesake, but Robert is an integral part of its success.
Manuel had always been deeply involved in politics, earning the coveted and singular title of the “Godfather” of Georgia Democratic politics. He served in a number of local political positions — as the Chairman of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, DeKalb County CEO — as well as other civic roles — chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and chairman of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. He made numerous tangible impacts on the city: he pushed through the construction of Spaghetti Junction (the interstate connector merging I-85 and I-285) and fought to increase the representation of minorities and women in top government positions.
No matter his involvement, his passion for the tavern never faltered (though Robert definitely helped keep the business running while his brother pursued these avenues). In fact, it even seemed that he had a built-in advantage by staying in touch on a daily basis with the common man, keeping a constant finger on the pulse of his constituents and fellow neighbors. Nowhere else in Atlanta (or America, for that matter) could one encounter a gathering place of such a cross-section of people: politicians, journalists, blue-collar workers, celebrities, firefighters, and literally everybody else.
Even after Manuel passed away in 2006, this philosophy of accepting everybody as family lives on.
The Modern Era of Manuel’s
Brian Maloof would be the first to point out that he is quite different from his father.
Politically, he leans more libertarian than liberal. Behaviorally, he’s more introverted than the schmoozer his dad was. “That’s never been who I am,” he admits. “I’ve always tried to hire people who have that personality because I’m much happier sitting in the office, reading through payroll and data worksheets.” Restaurants are built on the shoulders of big personalities, but it’s operators like Brian who keep the doors open through not only his own duties, but also his ability to delegate.
“Technically, I’m the owner,” he explains, “but I view my responsibilities here as the Historical Preservation Manager. That is the best title I’ve ever come up with.” While Brian focuses on the big picture, the day-to-day grind falls to their jack-of-all-trades General Manager Steve Pitts.
“Steve is a genius,” Brian raves. “I don’t know why he works here, but I am so freaking glad he does. He loves the restaurant industry and the politics and the customers…he loves everything about it. This place circulates through his veins.”
Manuel’s has done a tremendous job keeping their employees happy. While I was there, I spoke to a team member named Bobby who has worked there for 47 years, and he’s hardly an exception. Brian tells all new employees, “If you’re just coming here to get a paycheck and you have no appreciation for the magic that happens, you won’t do well here.”
An unlikely source of some of the restaurant’s finest workers is the Georgia Department of Corrections. One of Brian’s greatest joys is partnering with their work release program, where prisoners are slowly reintegrated back into society before parole. He estimates that any given shift may have up to six incarcerated workers, who consistently prove to be hard-working and humble. “One of these guys,” Brian shares with a smile, “was a drug dealer, did his time, worked here, and has now opened three restaurants.”
He surmises that the aforementioned reasons may be why team members stick around for 50 years or longer. The history that some feared would die with Manuel has lived on through these enduring stewards of the brand.
Somebody who has been working under the Manuel’s roof for even a fraction as long has experienced quite a series of unique guests.
The Big Names
The story of Manuel’s would make for a great sitcom, with a new guest showing up each episode. Here are a few of the most memorable…
Jimmy Carter has been a patron of Manuel’s for decades. It was here where he announced his candidacy for Governor of Georgia in 1970, and he remains a loyal customer. “Even though I’ve probably seen it 50 times,” Brian humble-brags, “it’s still exciting for me to get a phone call from the Secret Service saying President Carter’s coming by.” Walter Mondale, his former Vice President also visited a while back, but was virtually unrecognized by everyone but Brian (perhaps indicative of his performance in the 1984 Presidential Election when he only won the state of Minnesota).
President Obama visited Manuel’s while in town in 2015 speaking to Georgia Tech students. He didn’t get anything to eat or drink, but he did shoot darts.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore
While campaigning for President in 1992, then-governor Clinton and Gore, his running mate, came while visiting Georgia (they ended up winning the state, so clearly they chose the right place to visit). Clinton allegedly ordered fettuccine Alfredo and a chicken quesadilla and ate both in one sitting (don’t forget, he was a huge fast food guy back then so the man could eat).
The Atlanta native and senior U.S. Senator for Georgia held several campaign events here.
When Governor Roy Barnes was in office (1999 – 2003), he’d often drive up by himself in his personal vehicle: a muddy Jeep. One of the tenured cooks was outside on a smoke break and greeted the governor, then said, “You’re the governor of my state. You shouldn’t be driving in a car that dirty.” Barnes laughed before going in to sit at the bar and eat. When he finished and walked out, Brian remembers, “My dishwasher, that same cook, and another guy are out there with buckets of soap and water and they washed his whole car.” When Barnes asked why they did that, the cook responded, “No governor of mine is going to drive around in a dirty car.”
Anchorman 2 Cast
While filming Anchorman 2 in Atlanta, cast members Paul Rudd and David Koechner (as well as crew and extras) came in to shoot and then stuck around to enjoy the full Manuel’s experience. In a Facebook post at the time, Brian wrote that he overheard a member of the crew say it’s nice that they don’t need to change much for the 1970s setting of the movie. He joked, “I am not sure how to take that.”
If it isn’t clear from Manuel Maloof’s background and many of those guests, politics is in the DNA of Manuel’s Tavern. It’s also clear that it leans far more Democratic than Republican, in large part due to the heavily blue neighborhood. Brian explains, “Dad’s opinion was that, this is who I am and I’m not going to hide who I am. So he attracted and cultivated a group of people that felt very much like he did and it’s been incredibly beneficial to the business long-term.”
In yesterday’s simpler political landscape, this was not a controversial business practice. But the climate of 2022 is incredibly different than it was in Manuel’s time. “Back then,” Brian reflects, “you could be open about your political beliefs and somebody with a different opinion still respected you. That has changed significantly.” The truth is upsetting but undeniable: “If Dad tried to open a brand new [restaurant] right now, I don’t think it would work.”
While the political discourse has drastically diminished, several other key tenets of the Manuel’s story have shifted.
About Those Chickens…
Shortly after the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s, the restaurant, like so many other previously thriving businesses, had fallen into a financial, and moral, slump.
“My inexperience at running this business really kicked in,” Brian admits. “And so I made all these frantic and stupid changes trying to give the customers what I thought they wanted. But it was a disaster.”
He committed what he now considers to be a cardinal sin of Manuel’s Tavern. “I was blaming the staff,” he recalls, “for not being passionate enough in their work and meeting the needs of the customers.” Brian clearly feels deep remorse for blaming the restaurant’s most valuable asset for economic conditions they couldn’t control. Eventually he “relaxed and apologized to everybody and we went back to the core roots of Manuel’s Tavern and the morale improved a great deal.”
In the midst of all of this turmoil, he had reached his wits’ end. While in a state of desperate prayer, he suddenly had an idea that he still can’t fully explain: what if he built a state-of-the-art chicken coop on the roof? The chickens themselves have already scored plenty of publicity with their very own AJC feature (quite prestigious for poultry), but they quickly became the talk of the town as well as the team members, for better and for worse.
Longtime bartender Bill McCloskey (an Army veteran who passed away in 2019 after five decades of employment at Manuel’s) pulled Brian aside and threatened to quit. “You’re going to embarrass us to a level that will be unrecoverable,” he complained. “Please tell me you are full of shit and not really doing this.”
But Brian stood by his divine inspiration. He elaborates, “Bill went out and tried to get regular customers, whom I have great respect for, to tell me not to do it.” But that idea backfired because every one of those customers loved the idea.
After telling me about the chicken saga, Brian laughed, saying, “I think that first egg probably cost me like $30,000. But what it did for us in the long-term, and what it did for me mentally, for team morale, and for the customers was worth a million dollars.”
Renovating a Piece of History
For neighborhood institutions as historically beloved as Manuel’s, every minor change is scrutinized and seen as an affront to everything that’s decent in the world (hardly an exaggeration…one local food critic boycotted because they changed hot dog brands).
So when the time came to renovate the decrepit building, Brian knew it was going to be quite an undertaking. After Manuel passed away, Brian bought the business from his siblings, but could not buy the property. It soon became obvious that there were major structural issues that were going to require substantial work (and cost) to address. “My siblings, as landlords, didn’t want to pay for that, so the property went up for sale.”
Many developers vied for the coveted property; Manuel’s Tavern was the belle of the ball. Brian felt, however, that most of them completely missed the point. “They had these huge, magnificent, incredibly detailed plans for changing Manuel’s. I had these unrealistic expectations that somebody would fix the infrastructure issues, give us reasonable rent, and let us just continue to be Manuel’s.”
He created quite a rift with his siblings by constantly rejecting these pitches that would have dramatically changed the restaurant after over 60 years of consistency. “Boy, I stirred some pudding up with them over that,” Brian says with a mischievous grin.
Eventually, Green Street Properties came in and offered to leave everything exactly as is. As they began the negotiation process, however, they ran into difficulty executing the renovation, so they handed it to Atlanta real estate behemoth Selig Enterprises who took the baton and raced the project to the finish line. “[Selig Enterprises President] Steve Selig knew my father so he agreed to everything,” Brian shares. Manuel Maloof, the man of the people, once again came through for the restaurant.
The Winding Road of Innovation
Many things differentiate a Manuel’s Tavern experience from that of any other restaurant.
“When somebody comes in,” Brian says, “we know if they’ve ever been here before or not because they look lost.” Rather than being greeted by somebody at a host stand, customers seat themselves. Their server comes wearing “blue jeans and a t-shirt” instead of a uniform, and they’re encouraged to be brutally honest about their thoughts on each dish (i.e. “No, don’t order the burger when this cook is here, he always overcooks it.”) There’s no bartenders; each waiter or waitress makes the drinks themselves so they can hold themselves accountable and remember their customers’ orders. Each of these gestures combines to “make personal connections” that ensure a first timer becomes a regular.
This emphasis on that personal connection led Brian to initially resist UberEats. “I don’t know anybody,” Brian insists, “who takes a customer complaint as seriously as we do.” To a perfectionist like him, the idea of adding so many confounding variables (an excessive wait time, a rocky drive, a hungry driver, etc.) is anything but ideal. However, COVID-19 forced the team to make adjustments.
Despite initial resistance, Brian finally conceded, but not without his own personal touch: a note with his cell phone number.
“If somebody has a bad experience, I want to immediately know about it,” he reiterates.
“This is really strange,” he begins, “and you’re going to think I’m way the hell out there when I tell you this. But, other than sex, food has to be the most personal thing we’re involved in.” He continues, “We consume it, it nourishes our body. It’s inside of us. It provides all the energy and everything we need to function.”
This is why Brian considers the in-person experience to be so essential. “You can come in here and have a level of confidence knowing that 90% of what is made in the kitchen is from scratch, lovingly prepared by a bunch of people who have worked there for a hell of a long time. It’ll come out quick or slow depending on what’s going on back there.” Then, he emphasizes, “it will hopefully meet whatever it is that your body is screaming for, that subconscious desire that you have for nourishment.
“It’s a weird, amazing connection that transpires.”
Adapting to Uber Eats wasn’t the only challenge Manuel’s faced in the midst of COVID-19. By the end of 2020, the restaurant’s very existence was in jeopardy.
Manuel’s Existential Crisis
In November 2020, during the darkest days of the pandemic, Manuel’s Tavern was experiencing catastrophic financial difficulties. “Our worst month,” Brian recalls, “had an 80% decline in sales.” They tried to find a way to serve their customers and keep their staff employed; he and his wife (who also works there) stopped paying themselves, cut back on all subscriptions, and even cut out sanitation pickups because there was hardly any garbage to speak of. But the math still didn’t work. “We kept holding out hope that something was going to turn around and it didn’t happen.” Brian made the announcement he prayed he’d never have to make: Manuel’s would be closing by the end of the year.
Following the public announcement, Brian’s dear friend and long-time Manuel’s customer Angelo Fuster started a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $75,000 to keep the Tavern’s doors open.
“The next day,” Brian remembers, “I woke up at 3:00 AM and my wife’s sitting on the sofa and she’s just crying.” When he asked her what was going on, she showed him her phone. The GoFundMe had already raised $40,000. The $75,000 goal was met within the first 24 hours, and within several days, over $180,000 had been raised for the Tavern.
“It saved our ass, there’s no doubt about it.” Brian already had a hunch about what Manuel’s meant to the community, “but this cemented it for [him] to see that happen.”
“I was shocked and delighted,” Angelo told me about his own reaction to the success of his fundraiser. But, he adds with a cackle, “I still don’t get a discount.”
What’s most telling is not only how quickly the funding goal was met, but how willing the community was to more than double it. Clearly, Manuel’s Tavern means a lot to countless people.
There’s much to admire about Manuel’s Tavern, from its rich history to the storied guests, but it’s the food that brings new customers in and keeps the regulars coming back. Part of this success is due to consistency, and much more of it is due to passion for the food. Stanley Barnes offers both; he started working there while in high school, and he’s been running the kitchen for over two decades now. He was fired up about each dish he brought out, and, after trying them, I’d say his enthusiasm was more than warranted.
McClusky Cheese Burger
There’s nothing fancy about this burger, named after the aforementioned bartender (the one who was embarrassed about the chickens), but every component is deliberate and contributes to its fresh flavor. The patties are hand-patted every morning and the buns arrive fresh. Brian sums it up, “It’s nothing super spectacular, it’s just a damn good hamburger.”
I agree completely. The bacon has the ideal crunch and the meat of the burger is full of flavor. Every bite is exactly what you’re looking for in a burger.
Few people associate Manuel’s Tavern with BBQ, but Brian is rightfully proud of them (they use a commercial smoker) and quite surprised by how many they sell.
They have a great char and a fantastic smoke flavor, which both still come through no matter the amount of barbecue sauce. Be aware: the meat falls right off the bone and the sauce sticks to your fingers, so you’re going to find yourself in the middle of a beautiful mess.
Loaded Hot Dog
The Loaded Hot Dog is no exaggeration…that thing is filled to the brim with relish, chili, coleslaw, cheese, and sauerkraut. Despite how much is going on in each bite, it’s still surprisingly balanced and the flavors complement each other in a unique and satisfying way.
You can’t be a beloved Atlanta spot without killer wings and the ones at Manuel’s more than rise to the occasion. Brian’s explanation should be music to anybody’s ears: “We use a super jumbo wing […] when you eat ten of our wings, you’ve had a meal.”
We got these wings with Terry Sauce, named after its creator, who used to make them for customers before it was added to the menu. It’s sort of a D) all of the above of wing sauces: a little sweet, a little spicy (“Just like Terry,” Brian joked). This is definitely in the conversation for tastiest wing sauces in town.
While Manuel’s Tavern is a relic of the Atlanta of yesterday, it is also a pleasing reflection of the Atlanta of today. Everybody who walks in that door is treated with respect, no matter their age, race, gender, political affiliation, or sexual orientation, and they will be fed a delicious meal that will hit the spot.
Manuel’s Tavern will warm your heart and fill your stomach, whether you’re a plumber or the President of the United States.
It truly is Atlanta’s living room.