Heart of Atlanta’s westside: Northside Tavern

On a Monday afternoon, Northside Tavern is devoid of blues, bodies in motion and beer.

But, as sunlight filters through the smoke-covered windows, even in this lonely state the tavern is alive with stories — memories seared into every nook and cranny. For owners and siblings Ellyn and Tommy Webb, Northside Tavern is the story of their lives, music and Atlanta’s westside.

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Located on the corner of Howell Mill Road and Brady Avenue, Northside Tavern offers a glimpse into the area’s blue-collar past. The Webb family has owned the bar for 44 years. Ellyn and Tommy’s father, Butler Webb, helped a friend finance it in the 1960s. In 1972, when his college buddy faltered on the loan payments, Webb offered to buy him out in order to save the neighborhood bar.

The then-Northside Package, a former grocery store and gas station, was already a hangout for factory and construction workers who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods of Home Park, Howell Station, Berkeley Park and Bolton. Much of the bar’s business was based on their shifts. This was a bar where hard-working Atlantans slung back cheap beer and replenished their weary souls with comfort food.

“My dad served beer and simple food, like Polish sausages and pigs’ feet. They’d feed the jukebox quarters, shoot pool and drink beer. It was a simple pool hall, but it was their place,” Tommy recalled.

When Ellyn took over the bar in 1993, after the Webbs’ parents passed away, she considered three options: sell, strip club or blues bar.

“I told Tommy, I’m either going to turn it into a strip joint or a blues bar,” she said with a laugh. “I gave blues music a shot first.”

The blues worked, transforming the beer-only pool hall into a bar with both beer and liquor — and, most importantly, music.

Since then, the tavern has played host to the biggest blues acts and launched the careers of bands like the Wood Brothers, the Breeze Kings and local favorite Daniel “Mudcat” Dudeck, who now books most of the bar’s lineup. The waiting list to get onstage runs more than six months, but Ellyn admitted she slips a few bands in because she knows how much it means for them to play there.

“What makes me proud is when local bands put the Northside Tavern on their resume. It opens a lot of doors for them,” she said.

There’s a reason why so many musicians are loyal to Northside Tavern and to Ellyn. She has mentored, nurtured and paid talent fair wages for gigs — many times giving bands a hefty cut from the door. She’s helped people through addictions — sometimes winning and, sadly, sometimes losing, as happened with rising blues star Sean Costello in 2008. Musicians have stayed in her home west of town to save money, get clean or simply escape.

Many of those acts that she helped launch come back to play the small stage simply because of Ellyn and her love for them and music — taking a smaller cut or doing shows for free beer and the thrill of being back where it all began.

It’s not just the musicians whose lives have been touched by Ellyn’s generosity and the tavern’s magic. Employees like bartender John Sarine and door security and retired Atlanta policeman P.J. Roberson have been on the payroll for years because of their love for Ellyn and the bar that has become a surrogate family.

Longtime patrons Susy Meier and Martin Houston met at the tavern in 2002. They, too, say the bar is more than music and beer to them. Musicians and other patrons are counted among their close friends, including Ellyn, who hosted Meier’s bachelorette party in 2006.

“Ellyn is amazing, and what she’s done for the blues in Atlanta is amazing,” Meier said. “We don’t go as often as we used to, but we still love the friends we’ve met there. We try to get there for the benefits they throw for so many great causes.”

Little of the interior has changed in the four decades the Webb family has owned Northside Tavern, as they’ve added only the stage and taken away the jukebox and three of the six pool tables.

Tommy came back into the business at Ellyn’s insistence in the spring of 2015 to help with repairs and the day-to-day minutiae. Tommy, a homebuilder and former owner of a chain of discos in the 1980s, said it’s been challenging trying to fix up the aging bar, with patrons telling him not to change “one damn thing” for fear of ruining the authenticity.

There are tributes to their dad scattered about, including the large barrel tables that he built himself for one of Tommy’s discos in Savannah. When it closed in 1989, Tommy asked his dad if he wanted the tables back. They’ve been at Northside Tavern ever since.

The Webbs have had multiple buyout offers on the property, but none seemed to come close to what the half-acre lot — and the memories encased within the cement walls — are worth to them. They both admit the money is tempting, but there are simply too many people who would be affected by the tavern’s loss.

“I didn’t make Northside Tavern what it is; neither did Tommy, the musicians or our loyal patrons,” Ellyn said. “We all created Northside Tavern. Together. It’s the heart of this community, just as it always has been.”