Photos pretty much double as wallpaper at Manuel’s Tavern. There are so many pictures, each with a story. Bobby Agee probably can tell you about most of the framed faces that decorate the place. After all, Bobby has been working at this Poncey-Highland watering hole for 43 years.
He led me to the big dining room behind the bar, to a cluster of yellowing photos near the round six-top by the front window, and pointed to one circa 1978. Posing behind the bar are six hippies with a lot of hair. That’s a younger version of Bobby there on the far right. Also in the portrait are his fellow bartenders at the time: Andy Lowe, Pat Glass, Hal Peller, Curtis McBride and Bill McCloskey.
Bill McCloskey. He’s the reason that I came by last week. I wanted to talk with Bobby about the fellow he’d worked with for ages, and who now is hanging out in his retirement recliner with the angels. Bill worked at Manuel’s for nearly 50 years, retiring only this past April. His recent death leaves a bittersweet, hollow feeling among Manuel’s regulars and staff.
“It’s a tremendous loss,” Manuel’s Tavern owner Brian Maloof told me. “He had an impact on everyone that worked here. He was the mediator of disputes, a firm hand for quality customer service — and he played both roles very well. He was a huge attraction here, to our past, going all the way back to the early days of Manuel’s Tavern.”
Indeed, the void is felt not just by current staff, but old-timers who worked there way back when — guys like Mike Klank, co-owner of Taquería del Sol. Mike worked on and off at Manuel’s for nearly 20 years, from the early 1970s, when he was still a student at Georgia Tech, until 1987, when he opened his first restaurant, Azteca Grill.
Oh, but Bill sure did leave them with a bucket full of memories. Memories of his kindness, certainly.
“My kids’ first bicycles came from Bill,” Mike said, recalling how Bill gave him the bikes when his daughters, Sheila and Lauren, had outgrown them.
There are memories of his grumpiness, too. A photo near the bar captures it with the caption: “Rare photo of McCloskey serving a customer and smiling.”
And, there are vivid memories of his snarky style of bartending.
“Bill would make drinks wrong on purpose,” Bobby said, laughing about the time a snooty lady got her comeuppance when Bill put his entire hand in her drink to pull out a lime wedge. This, after having meticulously — and with great showmanship — made her fruit-filled drink using tongs and toothpicks because she didn’t want his fingers touching anything that would hit her lips.
More often than not, though, if you wanted a complicated drink, Bill would have somebody else make it.
“Bill wouldn’t make anything that was too much trouble,” Bobby said.
Or, he might just tell you bluntly, “This is not Buckhead,” Mike added.
Manuel’s Tavern definitely is not Buckhead. Its patriarch, DeKalb County politician Manuel Maloof, made certain of that.
Manuel taught Mike that lesson on Day One. “The first time I worked here, he said, ‘Boy, you need to learn one thing here: The customer’s always wrong. We’re always right. If people want to come to my store, then they’re going to behave like I want them to behave. If not, they can go somewhere else.’
“You had to be nice to people, but you didn’t have to stand people not being nice to you,” Mike said.
That ethos is one reason why employees like Mike, Bobby and Bill stuck around for so long.
“I learned how important, in being a restaurateur, it was to be good to your staff,” Mike said. “If your staff is happy, then they take care of the customers. The Maloofs were awesome to us employees. If you were a good employee, they were right to you.”
It’s still that way. Heck, Brian Maloof is the one who bought Bill his comfy retirement recliner.
The other reason industry lifers like Bill and Bobby made a career at Manuel’s is the people on the other side of the bar. Bill may not have been amenable to shaking up a Singapore sling or a grasshopper, but he was more than willing to talk with patrons. After all, bartenders are unlicensed therapists, sometimes even confession-hearing, nonordained ministers, and Bill was great at that job. “He made us a lot of money by chit-chatting,” Mike said.
As Bill’s health declined in the latter part of his life, he moved off the floor and took a morning shift to prepare the restaurant for opening.
But, Bobby is still behind the stick, even in the evenings.
Bobby is 68 now, with a wife, three kids and six grandkids. When is he finally going to hang it up?
Apparently, Bill prodded Bobby with that question a lot over the past few years. Bobby wonders if it’s because Bill wanted “to go down as the longest-standing employee here.”
Bill is still going to win that competition. He’ll be at Manuel’s as long as the place has four walls around it, his ashes parked on the premises, joining four other unique individuals who played a part in the tavern’s storied life: Manuel Maloof; Manuel’s older brother (and the tavern’s former co-owner), Robert Maloof; Manuel’s son Greg; and longtime customer Calvin Fluellen.
Bobby pointed out each of those urns as he walked me to the back door.
“Bobby, you can’t quit,” Brian Maloof has told him. “You’re the only one that knows the history of this place.”
Those photos at Manuel’s aren’t just for decoration. They are relics of sinners and saints. And somebody needs to know the gospel of Manuel’s, to preach the good word.
McCloskey is survived by his former wife, Victoria Lambert, daughters Lauren A. Lambert and Sheila Lambert, along with a sister, Jackie McMonigal, as well as nieces and nephews in Minnesota.
Visitation with McCloskey’s family will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 5 at A.S. Turner & Sons Funeral Home & Crematory (2773 N. Decatur Road, Decatur), followed by a memorial service at noon. A remembrance will take place at Manuel’s Tavern (602 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta) after the service.
RELATED: MORE ABOUT MANUEL’S TAVERN
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