Local Food

Manuel’s Tavern: Where food, politics, and family come together

Manuel’s Tavern is a bar and restaurant in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, located near the Carter Center. The Tavern has been in business for nearly 66 years, but the history of Manuel’s Tavern doesn’t begin at the tavern or with Manuel.

Gibran Mansour Maloof was the father of Manuel Maloof, and his story started back in Lebanon. He was devout Catholic in Lebanon, a predominantly Muslim nation, forcing him to move to the United States due to “extenuating circumstances.” After arriving, he took up a job that required him to walk from Atlanta the border of Tennessee with an ox cart selling to small communities. Like an Amazon for the 1900s, Maloof rode through towns to take orders for home goods and other necessities from the townspeople and would deliver the orders on his next visit. After years of hard work and the deterioration of his health, Maloof took the money he saved up and purchased a bar right next to the Capitol building in Atlanta.

The Tip Top Billiard Parlor was the Maloof family’s first foray into the bar and restaurant industry, and it was successful due to its proximity to the Capitol. During the legislative session, legislators would go to the closest bar they could, and the Tip Top Billiard Parlor provided both that proximity and reliable service. The legislators would converse about their goals and plans for the government of Georgia, and Maloof was able to overhear the plans as the legislators brainstormed. Brian Maloof says his grandfather heard about the development plans for Lake Lanier early on, and he also heard the legislators’ vision for Atlanta to grow into a city similar to London or New York. Because of this inside scoop. Maloof used more of the money he’d saved to purchase land around Lake Lanier. Branching out beyond the restaurant business, the Maloof family created ties to real estate, along with some ties to gambling and liquor.

In addition to their real estate, gambling, and liquor ventures, the Maloof family also made investments into a church. St. John’s Church on Ponce de Leon Avenue was constructed as an attempt to create a community for people like Gibran Maloof who left Lebanon for religious freedom. The Church and the family also poured a lot of time appealing to the Pope of the Melkite Orthodoxy to send a priest who spoke Arabic, and his arrival was met with great appreciation and celebration.

Aside from his outside investments, Maloof continued to run the Tip Top Billiard Parlor. Described by his grandson Brian as a “dark-skinned, straight-haired Arab that was well educated and self-educated,” Maloof did not let this status as an outsider hold him back, and he was able to foster a strong relationship with the African American community. His ties were strong enough that when politicians needed to reach out to these communities, they turned to Gibran Mansour Maloof. According to the younger Maloof, Gibran helped connect these two parties “not for profit, [but it] was for his Catholic faith that made that happen.” Maloof enjoyed being a part of these progressive talks and was influential in helping improve race relations during this time period.

After years of service to loyal customers, the parlor burned down and was destroyed, but the bar remained intact. Manuel J. Maloof, Gibran’s son, was also invested in the parlor before it burned down. After a few attempts to start several other types of businesses, Manuel ended up working many odd jobs and trying to start a few businesses. While working one job, he came across an establishment named Harry’s Delicatessen. The Maloof family and Manuel ended up buying Harry’s, renaming it, and Manuel’s Tavern was born. While Manuel Maloof was establishing the tavern, Gibran helped out and encouraged Manuel to rope in his brother, Robert Maloof, to increase the support he had. According to Brian, this decision to bring in Robert was critical because “there would not be a Manuel’s Tavern without Robert Maloof.” The bar they saved from the Tip Top Billiard Parlor was reused to fit the tavern with a bar. Brian is happy to say that “someone from the family has been behind it for 100 years now,” and he hopes that many more generations will continue the legacy behind that bar.

Manuel and Robert Maloof // Photo via Manuel’s Tavern

As the tavern began to establish itself in the community, the location became an asset to the business. At the time, DeKalb County was dry, meaning no liquor was sold, and Manuel’s Tavern was one of the closest places outside of the county line for residents to find a wide variety of alcoholic drinks. It was also close to Emory University and Agnes Scott University, so the tavern served as a meeting place for men from Emory and women from Agnes Scott. According to stories from his grandfather and father, Brain says “bars were the original social media,” so the tavern was a significant social outlet for college students.

Additionally, the Maloof family continued to maintain their relationships with some of the same state legislators, and the legislators continued to come to the tavern. After seeing an open election for a county commissioner post, Manuel Maloof ran for office. Although he lost the election on his first try, he won the position years later and continued to deepen his and his family’s connections to political circles.

After becoming a state legislator, Maloof served varying positions for 16 years, including as an Atlanta regional commissioner, and he helped to push the city to build its infrastructure more. His dad Gibran had heard at the Tip Top Billiard Parlor that legislators had a vision for Atlanta to grow tremendously and increase its infrastructure, so Manuel helped push through legislation that would aid in the creation of the Tom Moreland Interchange, or Spaghetti Junction, and other infrastructure developments. Because of his connections and friendly nature, Manuel ended up becoming the head of the Georgia Democratic Party, yet he never lost sight of where he had begun. He enjoyed being around the tavern because it “kept him in touch with the average man while making political connections,” and he was a “common man looking out for DeKalb County,” according to Brian. During his tenure, Manuel also attracted attention from Atlanta journalist Paul Hemphill, who wrote about his unique and admirable perspective that set him apart from other politicians at the time. Press like this continued to elevate the popularity and political connections of Manuel’s Tavern, helping it to maintain a unique reputation from other bars in the area.

While Manuel shifted more of his focus onto his political career, his brother Robert Maloof became “the face of Manuel’s Tavern.” His relationship, plus Manuel’s, with many political figures like former president Jimmy Carter also helped to promote the status of the tavern and the Maloof family. While Robert kept the tavern running day to day, Manuel’s Tavern became a staple for Georgia Democrats. Stopping by the tavern became a rite of passage for political candidates. Brian spoke of his father’s influence, saying “if you were running a national campaign, you pretty much had to come by the tavern and have a conversation with my father.” Even years after Manuel became less involved with political conversations, the tradition has been held intact. Carter frequented the restaurant, both because he enjoyed the service and because of his long standing connection to the family, and more recently, President Obama made a trip to the restaurant to pay respect to the rich political and Democratic history tied to the tavern. Even decades later, Manuel’s Tavern has been able to maintain Manuel’s original intentions of providing a place for both the common man and politicians to feel comfortable, get a good meal, and grab a beer.

President Obama visits Manuel’s Tavern in 2015 // Photo by Pete Souza

The current owner of Manuel’s Tavern is Brian Maloof, Gibran Mansour Maloof’s grandson. Brian takes it very seriously to “preserve the history of the restaurant” and to maintain the unique nature of the tavern, with an emphasis that the tavern “doesn’t turn into a chain restaurant.” You won’t find another place like Manuel’s, he explained, because it is “not a place just to get a cold beer.” It serves as a place for anyone, even political figures, to come and find a little peace and quiet. Brian talked about how it is very important to him and the tavern to give any political or social figure space. If somebody of prominence comes in, they want a reprieve from normal life, they want to sit down and have a sandwich and maybe a beer. Carter was an example, as he came in somewhat regularly because he enjoyed the atmosphere. Each time he came in, the other customers paid him respect as the whole restaurant would stand to honor him.

Another more recent example is former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and her staff, who frequented Manuel’s because of a special beer they had on draft, Leinenkugel Creamy Dark beer. The beer is made in Wisconsin and now only sold in Wisconsin, but while Manuel’s carried it, the staff would stop by regularly to debrief and cool off. Tuesday nights are often busy with other elected officials and staff meeting and debating over certain topics. These debates often come to fruition weeks later as a vote in the state legislature, so Manuel’s still plays a role in local politics. Some of Manuel’s busiest nights occur when political debates are happening. The environment is just right, with the “surround sound turned up” and the TVs all turned on to the debate. Election season is a big deal at the Tavern, attracting both political enthusiasts and politicians alike.

President Carter inside Manuel’s Tavern // Photo via Manuel’s Tavern

All of these examples, plus many more, show how much people love Manuel’s Tavern. This love came to fruition just recently when the restaurant began to struggle with COVID-19. The tavern seats about 300 people, but during the pandemic, customers dropped off severely. Brian notes that the “most expensive thing in the restaurant business is an empty chair,” and going out of business became a real threat. After hearing about the restaurant’s growing hardships, a regular patron of the restaurant started a GoFundMe page with a goal of $60,000 to save the restaurant. Without this money, the restaurant would have surely closed, but within the first 24 hours, the page received over $100,000 in donations. After another 24 hours, the page reached almost $200,000 in donations. Through the overwhelming generosity from customers, Brian saw just how much this place meant to the community. He sees now how much it means to the people he sees every week, and he makes sure he never takes the business for granted. It isn’t just a business to some people; it is a second home and a refuge from other parts of life.

One of the most notable aspects of the whole story of Manuel’s Tavern is a small note in Brian’s story. It shows the significant impact the restaurant and the customers have on each other. When long-time customers eventually pass away, the restaurant has brass plaques made to memorialize those who have passed. They situate these plaques near the deceased customer’s regular seat in the tavern. On the plaque, they include the name of the customer, their years of life, and a personal anecdote or fact about the person. Customers who earn these plaques are not average customers; they were part of the Manuel’s family who spent considerable portions of their lives in the Tavern, so the Manuel’s staff continues to honor them through this heartwarming tradition. These plaques can be found all around the restaurant and bar today honoring those who have been lost throughout the Tavern’s ongoing story.

Manuel’s Tavern is a welcoming restaurant and a home for many. It serves as an escape from political banter and spotlights, a place to learn and talk about politics, and a home to know and love your neighbors and friends. The rich history sets Manuel’s Tavern apart from the rest, but the added pleasures of comradery through politics is refreshingly unique in a time when that topic can be so divisive.

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