Some time just before Dec. 27, the chickens will leave their penthouse coops to retire to the owner’s farm.
Before then, one last pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon will be pulled from the tap, and one final Dogzilla — a half-pound monster weenie drowning in chili, cheese, kraut, onion, relish and slaw — will appear before some foolhardy customer with an iron gut.
As you may have heard, Manuel’s Tavern — the iconic North Highland Avenue watering hole founded in 1956 by DeKalb County politician Manuel Maloof (1924-2004) — is closing.
Well, that’s not exactly true.
Perhaps we should say it’s transitioning. Going into rehab. Shutting its doors for the three to four months required to take the 100-year-old Poncey-Highland landmark apart and put it back together again.
(In February, Maloof’s son Brian announced the family was selling its land to Green Street Properties. The developer will build a mixed-use project in the next-door parking lot while bringing the beloved tavern up to standards for the next generation of tipplers.)
It’s a preservation project. Not a tear-down. And the same goes for the menu.
So weep not, lovers of Big Stan’s Brunswick Stew, the J.J. Special and the McCloskey. Manuel’s will get a new kitchen. But the egalitarian, wallet-friendly fare — which has evolved over time from hot-dog parlor eats to tasty pub grub — won’t be 86’ed.
Still, if you want to marvel at mighty Dogzilla or wing-binge in the midst of what the New York Times called “an overwhelming accretion of dusty beer cans, moldering sports pennants, law enforcement uniform patches, snapshots of well-known politicians and anonymous tipplers, risqué oil paintings traded as payment for ancient tabs,” etc., get thee to Manny’s before the kitchen closes at 11 p.m. Dec. 27. (You can drink till midnight.)
Until recently, I’m sorry to say, I had not been a groupie.
Sure, as a new-to-town, fresh-out-of-college Atlanta Journal-Constitution copy editor in the early 1980s, I stopped by a few times. My colleagues and I would spend our Saturday night breaks at the dive, chugging beer and scarfing chili dogs, then return to work to write front-page headlines. I recall feeling all dirty and transgressive afterward, but can’t recall a single time we had to stop the presses to fix an unfortunate hiccup.
Now, after three 11th-hour visits to this not-really-endangered gathering spot of poets, politicians, journalists and derelicts, I see I’ve missed out. Like the Atlanta academics who are digitally documenting every dusty scrap of Manuel’s memorabilia, I’ve done a little research myself — of the culinary kind.
Over plates of “Terry Style” wings (they’re smothered with barbecue sauce), and even a holiday turkey burger oozing with herb dressing and cranberry sauce and paired with sweet-potato tots, I’ve taken notes on Manuel’s odd-ball dishes, some of which are tributes to regulars, long-time employees and family members.
Megan’s Favorite, Brian Maloof told me, is named for his daughter, now 21, who grew up fixing peanut-butter sandwiches with apples. Her namesake sourdough sammie is made with crunchy peanut butter, Nutella and Granny Smith slices.
Maloof, one of eight sibs, has been running the family business since 1999.
In the early days, there wasn’t really a kitchen — just a bar with booths. “I think it was pimento-cheese sandwiches and what Dad used to refer to as boneless chicken dinners, which were hard-boiled eggs,” he recalled. “We did have hot dogs … and kraut. Bags of chips and dill pickles. That was it.”
Over time, attempts have been made to “upgrade” the food. But people don’t go to Manuel’s for fancy. “That’s not what we do,” Maloof said.
“The menu is driven, I guess, by the collective palate of our everyday customer,” he explained. “What sells, what doesn’t. And it comes down to beefy hamburgers with fantastic buns, hot dogs, ribs, barbecue, blue plates. It comes down to simple comfort food that we do well.”
What Manuel’s aspires to be, said Maloof, who keeps chickens on the roof to lay eggs for the restaurant, is “everybody’s living room.” A place where governors, CEOs and ditch-diggers all feel welcome.
I’m down with that.
Here, then, is my list of Manuel’s must-try-before-you-die doozies.
1. The McCloskey. I don’t get it. It’s just a burger with lettuce and tomato. “It’s named for Bill McCloskey,” an employee of 45 years, Maloof explained. He used to ask for a “bigger” hamburger; thus the half-pound patty became his calling card. “It was just shrunk down to: ‘I want a McCloskey. … I want what Bill gets.’”
I requested my McCloskey cooked “medium,” with cheddar and bacon. Alas, the meat was too dry, the bacon a tad chewy. So, I’ve learned to dial back to “medium rare.”
2. Big Stan’s Brunswick Stew. A special of long-time cook Stanley Barnes, this classic Southern bowl is full of finely ground meat and just a hint of garlic. Folks get it by the quart to go.
3. Loaded Dogzilla. Because people typically order two hot dogs, “it just made sense to have a bigger hot dog,” Maloof said. So they came up with this half-pound grilled beef frankfurter. “You can really pile on the sauerkraut, chili and slaw and turn that into big meal,” he added. “Whenever I deliver them to a table, I always say, ‘I’ll be right back with your Rolaids.’”
4. J.J. Special. Named for a Maloof family friend, this half-pound burger — my fave — comes on wheat with American and Swiss cheese and raw onion. “He didn’t want the lettuce and tomato, and he wanted it cut into quarters, little bites,” Maloof said of J.J. “Instead of writing all that down, it became: ‘We want a J.J.’”
Served with both steak fries and rings, the sandwich is sliced in half. It you want it in fourths, ask for a J.J. Old School. “I think it had something to do with some dental work J.J. had done,” Maloof said, “and it made it easier for him to eat it that way.”
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