Manuel’s Tavern, Atlanta GA

Good grief, this place is a breath of fresh air. I visited Manuel’s Tavern maybe twice, many, many years back, and never made it a habit. More fool me. The venerable neighborhood bar, which will celebrate its 55th birthday next Saturday, is an absolute joy to visit. It’s a site absolutely radiant with Atlanta’s history, where extremely good pub food, locally-brewed beer, and, surprisingly, some of the best burgers in the city are available. I was pleased when added it to their list of Georgia-reviewed restaurants, knowing that I would need to return. I was even more pleased after my visit.

Also worth smiling about: as often as I’ve had to complain about the unpleasant, paranoid propaganda of Fox News being broadcast unwelcomely at regional restaurants, Manuel’s Tavern is where Democrats eat and drink. Politics are not necessarily part and parcel of meals in the dining rooms, but of course, in the bar, guests will be drinking under photos of FDR and JFK.

Anyway, my boss, Krista, who loves this place, said that she’d like to join me when I made my way to Manuel’s. We were not able to sync schedules, so she asked me to go without her, just so long as I had her favorite burger, prepped her way.

Manuel’s was originally the site of a delicatessen called Harry’s. Manuel Maloof bought it in 1956, brought his brother Robert on board to help run it, expanded it into the businesses on either side and created one of Atlanta’s most beloved neighborhood joints. There seems to be room inside for hundreds, with teeny little corridors leading into rooms that guests might never know were there.

The walls are a living history lesson of the city. In 1956, the Braves had not yet relocated from Milwaukee. You can see the lineups of the 1956 and 1958 AAA Crackers on one wall instead. Newspaper stories by Ron Hudspeth relate the days when Manuel spent as CEO of DeKalb County. Any guest could spend hours studying all the memorabilia and writings posted along the dark wood paneling.

Manuel’s two best-selling burgers are the McCloskey Burger – a half-pound patty with lettuce and tomatoes – and the J.J. Special, served with two cheeses and onions along with a heap of wonderful steak fries and some onion rings. Normally, J.J. Specials are served on wheat toast, but I was instructed to have one on a Kaiser roll. It was terrific. That these burgers fly under everybody’s radar is criminal; they are, flatly, among the very best burgers in the city. Along with a pint of Athens’ wonderful Terrapin pale ale, it was a really nice lunch.

While families are welcome in Manuel’s, the clientele tends to skew older and the conversations flesh out the remarkable sense found here of the city’s stories in a nutshell. Even as Atlanta razes and wrecks its history and old, beloved businesses fail – the Atlanta Book Company, right across the street, shuttered earlier this month – the oral history of the city is being retold at Manuel’s tables. I raised my eyes from my novel – Gregory Mcdonald again – as four older men talked about the days when Paul Newman would race at Road Atlanta. If you’re a local, then as your eyes read that line, you probably remembered the old Road Atlanta logo from T-shirts you had not seen in three decades.

This is a place where stories are told, and as new customers and families find the place, where new ones will be written. I was too drunk, too young and too stupid to enjoy Manuel’s when I was 22. Today, I love it more than I can express. Fellows, we all need to meet here soon and plan to spend a long and wonderful happy evening.

Update (3/11/13): Heard the good word last week that Manuel’s is going smoke-free in 2014. That’s terrific news.

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