Manuel’s Tavern: An oasis of politics and beer, at a crossroads

Ground zero for Democrats

For decades, the intersection of North and North Highland avenues in Atlanta has been the crossroads of politics in Georgia.

Manuel’s Tavern is a bar. But more than that, it is a political bar. And still more than that, it is a Democratic political bar, down to the smoky portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. that hangs near the beer taps.

In 1970, Jimmy Carter kicked off his campaign for governor at Manuel’s. The tavern remains the closest watering hole to the Carter Center, and for decades after he left the White House, the former president and former first lady Rosalynn could be spotted there, a Secret Service agent at the table next to them.

In 1992, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, with his largely unknown wife, Hillary, pressed the flesh at Manuel’s. So did his running mate, Al Gore and his wife Tipper. In 2008 and 2012, celebrants of Barack Obama’s election as president – and then his re-election – overflowed into the tavern’s parking lot.

Certainly, Republicans frequent the tavern. Beer is nonpartisan. But since the collapse of Democratic power in this state, beginning in 2002, Manuel’s Tavern has served as a kind of government-in-exile in Georgia – largely due to the efforts of Angelo Fuster, former advisor to the late Maynard Jackson, mayor of Atlanta.

At every Republican presidential candidates’ debate this year, Fuster made sure a peanut gallery of critics was sitting in front of the bar’s big screen TV.

Democratic thought is strong and distilled here. In 2004, the highlight of the Republican National Convention was former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller – a Democrat – nominating George W. Bush for re-election as president.

A press release from a group calling itself the Swift Bar Veterans for Truth, announced a Zell-watching party at the tavern. Three hundred whoopee cushions were distributed and an oil portrait of Miller was ceremoniously exiled to an upper and often vacant room in the bar.

The Miller portrait has since been returned to a place of prominence.

If, in its next iteration, Manuel’s Tavern retains its Democratic heart, and if the party can someday get its act together, the resurgence of Democrats in Georgia will likely begin at this crossroads.

Michelle Nunn hatched her 2014 Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate at Manuel’s. That one didn’t work out. But it certainly won’t be the last one.

— Jim Galloway

A journalist’s watering hole

Where politicians go, so do journalists. It’s a symbiotic relationship, like the little birds that eat bugs off the backs of hippos. Politicians need reporters and vice versa, and that’s why Manuel’s Tavern was the nexus of news.

The late Manuel Maloof, the namesake of the tavern and a Democratic godfather, was an irascible sort who enjoyed his role as unofficial matchmaker between the two camps.

The man himself was often hard to get along with.

For journalists, getting chewed out by Manuel was a rite of passage. When he was DeKalb County CEO, I once asked him a question – I think it was about crime in the suburbs – and he went off on me, saying reporters must have to go home and bathe after the work they do.

Later, fellow reporter John McCosh asked Manuel a relatively innocuous question and the famous grouch replied, “You guys must have to take three showers a day after doing what you have to do.”

I guess it was a stock insult.

One day the son of Lebanese immigrants was going on about how tough immigrants have it. “But someone like you wouldn’t know anything about it,” he said to me, a white guy.

I told him my mom came from Ireland.

“Ireland?” he exploded. “They’re not immigrants!”

The jibe irked me, so I boycotted the place. Why should I give that so-and-so my hard-earned non-immigrant cash?

But then I noticed something. I was the one missing out – on banquets, softball team meetings, after-work gatherings, you name it.

Finally, I realized I was sticking it to myself while trying to stick it to him. Later, I spoke with him about something and he seemed nice enough.

Let bygones be bygones, I figured. So I returned to his bar. One day he noticed me and wanted to tell me something about a story I had recently written: It was a load of crap.

— Bill Torpy

Manuel's Tavern. 602 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. 404-525-3447, www.manuelstavern.com.

After five years active duty with the Marines, serving as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and elsewhere, Larry Taylor remembers coming back to Manuel’s Tavern in 1968 and receiving the following greeting from the burly man behind the counter.

I can't remember your name, but I remember your politics, you damn right-winged (pejorative), said the bar's owner, Manuel Maloof.

Yes, Taylor was home sweet home.

If that doesn’t sound like a tender bar to you, then you didn’t know Manuel. A politically incorrect politician, a profane philosopher and a hot-tempered host, he lambasted his friends and patrons with love disguised as insults. And in 60 years of serving brewskis, his bar inspired a following that loved him right back, just as passionately.

Right now that following is worried. The building, at the corner of North and North Highland, has been sold to Green Street Properties. Shortly after Christmas Manuel's will close for several months, during which time it will be disassembled, renovated from top to bottom, and put back together, albeit in a slightly smaller footprint. The 9,600-square-foot bar will lose about 2,000 square feet along North Avenue, which will be converted into a separate unit to be leased by another business.

Many patrons reacted to news of the temporary closing as if they were being evicted into the snow.

“I refer to it quite often as everyone’s living room,” said Brian Maloof, the youngest of Manuel’s seven sons, who bought the bar from the family in 2006, two years after Manuel died. “I’m rearranging the furniture. People have gotten very comfortable here and they do not want anything to change.”

Patrons are especially worried about the multi-story mixed use development Green Street is going to build on the tavern’s adjacent parking lot.

“I thought an office building was going to be built on this site,” said Carter Center VP Phil Wise as he sat down to a hamburger lunch recently. Brian Maloof, who has the hooded eyes and Roman nose of a beefier Donald Sutherland, shook his head wearily. “Nope. Nothing on top.”

Manuel’s will stay and Maloof promises to put back almost everything the way it was, but taking apart the tavern will be a challenge. The walls and shelves are littered with photographs, paintings, plaques, sports trophies, filthy beer cans, a taxidermied rat and other debris that has drifted in on the tides of time.

To Maloof's surprise, a contingent of academics and archivists have stepped up to the task. Filmmaker Ruth Dusseault and a dozen colleagues are creating a digital archive by methodically recording images of every item on the walls in the bar, using a GigaPan robotic "head" and a 3-D laser scanner.

Dusseault’s detailed records will help Maloof rehang the walls, and he is eager to make that happen, because whenever he moves something, he catches hell.

If this seems like a lot of fuss over what the New York Times calls a dive bar, it’s best to note that few taverns in Atlanta have generated such a trove of history and literature.

It all starts with the personality of the patriarch, Manuel Maloof, the son of Lebanese immigrants, who created a twin career for himself as a barkeep and as the godfather of DeKalb County politics.

While tending his own bar, which he opened in 1956, Manuel was elected to the DeKalb County commission in 1974 and rose to chairman and then CEO.

Along the way he worked hard to promote Democratic politics, and his bar became a kind of salon for journalists, politicians, academics, theater people and activists, while never losing its status as a cop bar and blue-collar hangout. “He was a walking encyclopedia of politics,” President Jimmy Carter told the AJC when Manuel died. “Manuel’s Tavern exemplified the great man’s character, in that everyone felt welcome, even the ill-advised customers who were not loyal Democrats.”

Carter, who announced his candidacy for governor at Manuel’s, has been a regular patron at the tavern, along with others in the Democratic pantheon, and photos on the walls testify to visits from President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.

While plenty of campaigns were brainstormed in the 100-year-old building — originally a seed and feed store — neighborhood activists also claimed it as a headquarters, including the protesters who successfully stopped a parkway from plowing through Candler Park and Druid Hills.

“We thought of it as our second home,” said Anna Foote, former Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association president and daughter of famed anti-road activist and Georgia Tech professor Bud Foote. She and her five brothers all had their first legal drinks at Manuel’s.

“There was no way to be involved in Democratic politics here without getting to know Manuel,” said Democratic consultant Angelo Fuster, who worked for Carter and for Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Bill Campbell. “He took me under his wing and became a mentor in many ways.”

While he had little tolerance for customers who weren’t buying, Manuel also had a place in his heart for the penniless and the downtrodden, which is why he let perpetually broke painter Dean Chapman pay for a long overdue a bar tab with a grand-scale portrait of a reclining nude. Reportedly the model was Chapman’s wife.

And all manner of other groups found a home in the bar, which unofficially hosts regular meetings of retired firefighters, fly fishermen, chess players, fiddlers, storytellers and the marijuana advocates in NORML.

“I’ve been pretty much everywhere,” said Taylor, who retired from the Marine reserves as a general, “and I’ve never been in any place where you could get such an unbelievably broad cross-section of the population, from former presidents all the way down to winos.”

Manuel Maloof’s allegiance to the bar goes beyond this world into the next. On the wall behind the bar, near a portrait of President Kennedy, hangs an urn with his ashes.

Change has come incrementally to Manuel’s. The bar eliminated smoking, began hiring female servers, and Brian Maloof took a step toward sourcing food locally by building a chicken house on the roof.

Some of the employees have been with the tavern for 20 years or more. Bill McCloskey, whose portrait hangs to the right of the Chapman nude, was hired during the Nixon Administration.

McCloskey’s long tenure is due partly to his affability: Whenever Manuel would fire him in a fit of pique, he’d just show up again the next day.

The patrons are grateful to the staff, and a small group of patrons have started a GoFundMe page to help the employees who will be out of work while the bar is closed for renovations.

The servers have real worries — about important things like making house payments — but patrons have existential concerns about change coming to this bastion of history and permanence.

“We all want something we can rely on,” said former state representative Doug Teper, and Manuel’s is one of the few institutions in town where history counts.

Teper and others hope to toast that institution for a long time to come.

MORE ON MANUEL'S TAVERN: Photos: Manuel Maloof and his Tavern, 1978-2015 | A timeline of Manuel's Tavern, 1978-2015

In Other News