At Mary Mac’s, hospitality is a favorite side dish

I will never forget the first time that I met Jo Carter.

It was an early Sunday afternoon, and I was enjoying my first few bites of cornbread muffins and chatting with my friends when I saw one of them look over my head and grin. While I tried figure out what he was staring at, I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders, and before I had time to react, I was greeted by the friendly, Southern drawl and oddly soothing back rub of Jo Carter.

An employee of Mary Mac’s since 1993, Carter worked as a server for more than a decade before rheumatoid arthritis forced her to retire, and she returned to her hometown in West Virginia. It seems that she won just a few too many fans at Mary Mac’s because it wasn’t long before owner John Ferrell called to get Jo back, ultimately offering her the newly made-up position of “Goodwill Ambassador.” It was now her job to make sure that all of the customers were enjoying themselves and would want to return, and she now spends her days roaming the floor, greeting everyone like old friends, and freely administering her now-famous back rubs.

No list of classic Atlanta restaurants would be complete — some may go so far as to say “credible” — without Mary Mac’s Tea Room on it. What began as a small meat and three on Ponce de Leon in 1945 has expanded and endured to become a true Atlanta institution, perhaps more so than any other restaurant in the city.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, as WWII left behind countless widows in Atlanta in need of a way to support themselves, many turned to the restaurant business. But in that day, it was somewhat frowned upon for a woman to just up open a “restaurant,” so many took to calling their Southern kitchens “tea rooms,” despite the fact that you wouldn’t find a teapot in the place.

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Originally opened as Mrs. Fuller’s Tea Room in 1945, this small 75-seat storefront kitchen on Ponce changed hands in 1951 when Mary McKinsey bought the place, eventually changing the name to Mary Mac’s Tea Room in 1953. One of 16 tea rooms operating in the city at that time, Mary Mac’s is the lone survivor of that era, now on its fifth owner since McKinsey created the now iconic comfort food destination.

McKinsey ran Mary Mac’s until 1962, when she retired and sold the business to her good friend, Margaret Lupo. For the next 30 years, Lupo would continue the Mary Mac’s traditions of crafting classic Southern cuisine from scratch daily, using the freshest ingredients available. Lupo famously insisted that all patrons be treated exactly the same, regardless of color — an idea that was ahead of its time for early 1960s Atlanta. Lupo also oversaw the expansion of Mary Mac’s to the 400-seat machine that it is today, as she bought out the surrounding storefronts until ultimately purchasing the entire building in 1972.

But Mary Mac’s nearly met its end when Lupo sold the beloved Mary Mac’s in the early 1990s. After changing hands twice in a matter of months, Mary Mac’s went from rapidly expanding, opening two new locations with six more in the works, to the brink of destruction. By late 1993, owner Lee Effenson had closed every Mary Mac’s in the city, including the original Ponce de Leon location. It was then that John Ferrell, a friend of Lupo’s daughter Marie and her husband Steve Nygren, took up a lease-to-buy option on Mary Mac’s and breathed new life into the tattered tea room. By early 1994, after months of cleanup and renovation, Mary Mac’s returned and has not slowed down since.

It was during Lupo’s reign that Mary Mac’s cemented itself as an Atlanta institution of Southern cooking, a torch that Ferrell still carries today. All of the produce is still fresh, though now that they are up to seven dining rooms, this means that pallets of corn and collard greens must be delivered daily to keep up. Everything in the kitchen is still done by hand, from shucking the corn to stringing the green beans. The menu reads like an all-star list of old-school Southern classics — one can only imagine the number of plates of fried chicken ($10.95) with bowls of collard greens or sweet potato souffle that have come out of that kitchen over the years.

First-timers might be surprised to find that you still hand-write your own order on a ticket and turn it in to the server, a practice long since abandoned except at a few sushi bars around town. And those first-timers would do well to order a round of the Pot Likker with crackling bread starter ($3.95/bowl). This hearty collard and ham-hock stew is nearly a lost art, a Depression-era dish kept alive in a select few Southern kitchens. And while the time-tested recipes like the chicken and dumplings ($11.95) or roast pork with cornbread dressing and gravy ($12.50) have a heavy hand in the fiercely loyal customer base of Mary Mac’s, the real draw is something less tangible.

Which brings me back to Jo Carter.

Is the fried chicken really responsible for lining the walls of Mary Mac’s with so many celebrity photos — ranging from the Dalai Lama to Clay Aiken — that it is nearly impossible to gawk at them all in one visit? Is it really the cornbread that makes Mary Mac’s one of the first places many locals bring out-of-town friends for a taste of Atlanta?

I say no — it is that sense of hospitality and equality started by Margaret Lupo and embodied by Jo Carter that keeps Mary Mac’s thriving today. And more so than anything the kitchen serves, it is what makes it an Atlanta Classic.

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