By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on February 27, 2015
A couple came into Manuel’s Tavern in early February wearing stickers showing they had just toured the Carter Presidential Library.
Former President Jimmy Carter had recommended they go to Manuel’s for lunch, they told Brian Maloof, the owner of the tavern.
Such stories never cease to amaze Maloof. A former leader of the United States is telling people to eat at the tavern that his late father, Manuel Maloof, made famous.
“Dad used to refer to it as the store,” Brian Maloof said of Manuel’s that will celebrate 60 years in business in 2016. “We have been blessed. We want to make it to 100 years.”
That is why Maloof and his family have decided to sell the land and the building to Green Street Properties. Brian Maloof will continue to operate “a refurbished” Manuel’s once it reopens after an extensive renovation. Construction is expected to start next year.
From the outside, it’s easy to overlook the magnificence of Manuel’s Tavern. It is located in a patchwork of 100-year-old buildings that have been stitched together to create a unique atmosphere of split-level rooms connected with ramps and passageways.
At the heart of the tavern is the original building, the long bar — a relic in its own right — lined with bar stools and wooden booths. The bustling kitchen is on the other side of the bar. The walls (and ceilings) are filled with memorabilia that tell tales of Atlanta and Georgia spanning the past six decades.
Manuel Maloof opened the original bar in 1956 in what had originally been built as a “seed and feed” store and later became a deli.
Maloof’s father, Gibran Maloof, had owned the Tip Top Billiard Parlor on Pryor Street across from the Fulton County Courthouse. That started the special relationship between the Maloof family, the tavern and politicians.
The actual bar from Tip Top was saved from a fire, and it was placed at the new Manuel’s Tavern at the corner of North Avenue and North Highland.
The location was strategic because it was only one block away from DeKalb County, which was then a dry county.
“We got Emory students in there and Agnes Scott students,” Brian Maloof said. “It was a big hook-up place.”
Over the years, Manuel’s became a favorite of politicians — primarily Democrats — as well as journalists, writers and out-of-town visitors interested in coming to a place authentically local.
The official history on Manuel’s website states that it is where Jimmy Carter announced he was running for governor in 1970. It was where Emory theologian Tom Altizer first talked about his theory that God was “dead.” It is where L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, writer James Dickey, U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, actor Brian Dennehy and singer David Crosby had visited when in town. Other frequent guests included Walter Mondale, Ted Turner, Lewis Grizzard and countless writers and journalists.
It goes without saying that Atlanta mayors Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and Bill Campbell were regulars.
Brian Maloof said one day former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin had to ask some members of the Atlanta City Council to leave the tavern because so many were present, there was a quorum, and they had not advertised a public meeting.
Gov. Zell Miller and Gov. Roy Barnes would go to Manuel’s. And even Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue was known to stop in for lunch.
In 1992, the Democratic presidential ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore stopped by Manuel’s. Clinton is said to have eaten the fettuccine Alfredo on that visit.
The magnet was Manuel Maloof — a larger-than-life personality who became a dominant political leader in metro Atlanta. He served as chairman of the DeKalb County Commission and later as the first CEO of DeKalb County.
Brian Maloof can recount how people would stop by his home to ask for his father’s blessing before they ran for office.
Brian, however, said his father owed a great deal of his success to his younger brother, Robert Maloof, who eventually became the day-to-day manager and co-owner of Manuel’s Tavern, something he rarely disclosed to customers.
“There wouldn’t have been a Manuel’s if there hadn’t been a Robert,” Brian Maloof said. “Robert made it possible for Manuel to be the CEO of DeKalb County. Robert was the heart of the tavern.”
When Manuel Maloof passed away in 2004, there was great concern about whether the tavern would continue to have its same spirit and soul.
But both the customers and its longtime employees have taken such a stake in Manuel’s that it’s hard for Brian Maloof to make any changes without getting major pushback.
Even switching Manuel Maloof’s and Zell Miller’s portraits in the restaurant made national news — something Brian Maloof insists wasn’t done for political reasons. He just wanted his late father to have a prominent spot over the bar.
Although he has little interest in politics, Brian Maloof still is in awe of the special role that Manuel’s has played on the state’s political landscape.
Without providing names or details, he said that after his father had passed away, he got a call from a state legislative whip who said he needed space for 50 people the next morning at 6:30 a.m. so he could “whip” fellow legislators into shape. Of course, Brian opened up the tavern.
Brian Maloof said the stories are endless. “I get calls at home if we change a menu item.”
One man told him that before he was shipped out to Vietnam, “I was here drinking my last beer.”
Even Brian Maloof doesn’t know what compelled him to open a chicken coop on the roof of Manuel’s. It now has the maximum – 24 chickens laying fresh eggs.
“I do things all the time that make no sense,” he said. “But it all seems to work out in the end. We had four 90-year-old Dominican nuns on the roof playing with the chickens.”