Manuel's Tavern: A Historic Stop for Visiting Historians

Martin Lehfeldt, December 2006

Atlanta has no shortage of watering holes for both the locals and the thousands of conventioneers who throng our city on a regular basis. However, those attending the American Historical Association meeting can find a salubrious respite from all of the speeches, panels, and job interviews by making their way to Manuel's Tavern at the corner of North and North Highland Avenues'a quick drive (ample free parking) or cab ride from the downtown hotel area.

Established in 1956 by Manuel Maloof, the tough-talking son of Lebanese immigrants who was also a significant local politician and eventually became CEO of the DeKalb County Commission, the eponymous tavern continues to be a favored gathering place for politicians, newspaper reporters, and sports figures as well as contractors, day laborers, and telephone repairmen. People pay for their drinks with both platinum American Express cards and crumpleed bills. Manuel cagily located his business close to the boundary of Fulton County (which permitted the sale of alcoholic beverages) and DeKalb County (which was dry), thereby providing professors and students from Emory University and Agnes Scott College in DeKalb with easy access to otherwise forbidden libational pleasures. (DeKalb, by the way, is pronounced "De-Cab," with the accent on the second syllable.)

Manuel, who died in 2004 at the age of 80, made no secret of his political allegiances. Centered behind the bar is a painting of John F. Kennedy, and around that portrait hang black and white photographs and pictures of FDR, Hubert Humphrey (his personal hero), and Lyndon Johnson. Look further and you'll also see pictures of the Clintons, the Gores, the Carters, Sam Nunn, and Andrew Young, among others. [Note: Republicans will also receive courteous service.]

For many years, Manuel's was simply a tavern, serving beer (principally Andeker's and Budweiser) and sandwiches. Some of us locals were worried when Manuel got a license to serve mixed drinks. However, the effeteness that we thought might follow never materialized, and the expansion of the menu to include hearty appetizers, good steaks, seafood, and other delicious dinner items never threatened the ambience. The tavern also has its own good house brew on tap—the "602." You'll pass a few video games on the way to the restrooms, and the cash register, beside which stands an unused spittoon, has been replaced by a computer, but there aren't many other concessions to modernity. The faded sports pennants, the collection of German beer steins, and a host of other souvenirs are still behind the bar as is the scale model of a Budweiser beer wagon being pulled by eight Clydesdales.

The best time to arrive at any good bar is between 4 and 5 p.m., and Manuel's is no exception. The evening rush hasn't started and you can find a stool at the long bar or seat yourself in one of the old wooden booths. Order a drink, watch CNN news on one of the two muted TV sets mounted behind the bar, catch your breath from the meeting activities you just left behind, or have a conversation with Pat Glass, the friendly afternoon bartender. You may even want to ask him how and why those dollar bills are stuck to the high ceiling. (If you have a large group, the adjoining rooms have round tables around which to share pitchers of beer.) Studs Terkel would have loved this place.

Manuel's has recently bowed to the will of the anti-tobacco zealots and created a large non-smoking room. However, to get the true flavor of the place, you owe it to yourself to belly up to the bar or grab a booth in the older section, where ashtrays are still standard issue. Whatever your preferences or biases, though, treat yourself to at least a couple of hours of enjoyment in what is arguably Atlanta's most legendary and colorful drinking establishment.

—Martin Lehfeldt is president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations and a board member of the Georgia Humanities Council. He is the co-author of The Sacred Call, a biography of Donald L. Hollowell, one of the South's premier civil rights attorneys of the 1950s and 60s.