If politicians campaigning for office in Atlanta want to prove to their would-be constituents they know how to eat like the average American, they better make plans for a Varsity photo op, complete with chili cheese dog and Frosted Orange.

The hot dog landmark on North Avenue draws a wide variety of customers. Gordon Muir, Varsity CEO and grandson of founder Frank Gordy, recalled that longtime employee Erby Walker once remarked that, at the Varsity, you might “see your garbage man or you might see the governor.”

That’s exactly the selling point for politicians to campaign at a restaurant: It’s a gathering place for people of every socioeconomic class, political leaning and educational background. Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint or a restaurant that helped feed the civil rights movement, eateries give politicians a place to kiss babies and shake hands.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry tries a chili dog at the Varsity in Atlanta during the 2004 campaign as he chats with restaurant owner Nancy Gordy Simms (a supporter of President George W. Bush). Curtis Compton/AJC file

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“Before there was the internet, bars were your first Facebook, so to speak,” said Brian Maloof, owner of Manuel’s Tavern. “It was where you went with your friends to discuss things.”

And what better way to show your constituents how down-to-earth you are than by rubbing elbows at a neighborhood restaurant?

“That atmosphere itself breeds intimacy,” said Tracy Gates, owner of the Busy Bee Cafe. Located on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the Busy Bee is known for feeding such civil rights leaders as the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the man for whom the street is named.

Gates believes the Busy Bee has become a popular stop for politicians because “it’s a part of African American history.”

Busy Bee owner Tracy Gates (left) and Vice President Kamala Harris share a laugh outside the restaurant during a December visit. (Tia Mitchell/tia.mitchell@ajc.com)

Credit: Tia Mitchell/AJC

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Credit: Tia Mitchell/AJC

Gates said the Busy Bee sees more tourists these days, but it still receives visits from politicians. In December, Vice President Kamala Harris stopped by to pick up food after watching her alma mater, Howard University, play Florida A&M University. This was Harris’ second time visiting the restaurant, and President Joe Biden came previously while on the campaign trail, Gates said.

Dave Poe opened his namesake barbecue restaurant near Marietta Square in 2006. He has played host to campaign events and provided catering for Republicans in the U.S. Senate. “Barbecue and politics go hand in hand,” Poe said, adding that there’s something about barbecue that “levels the playing field.” You can find pickup trucks and Mercedes-Benzes in the same restaurant’s parking lot.

Dave Poe’s BBQ is typical of a Southern barbecue place, from the wood-paneled surfaces to the license plate wall decorations and the menu featuring redneck lasagna, in which mac and cheese is mixed with Brunswick stew. His eatery also has made cameos in a few campaign videos, including one for Attorney General Chris Carr in 2023.

Heath Garrett, the Marietta-based political strategist behind Carr’s commercial, said Poe’s has a “feel of sincerity. It’s the kind of place that everybody in Georgia would have gone to, even in their hometown.”

Poe is ecstatic that his restaurant gets used for political campaigns, because it brings in plenty of extra business.

Garrett noted that barbecue events are a part of the “Georgia political tradition.” The food is affordable, easy to eat on the go and suits a variety of tastes.

But, despite it being traditional in Georgia, Garrett said he sees this type of campaigning declining, which he considers a loss. Candidates interacting in person with people keeps them grounded, he said, and seems to be missing in the current “hyperpolarized, hyperpartisan environment.”

Manuel’s Tavern on North Highland Avenue in Atlanta has been a center for political campaigns and discussion for decades, particularly among Democrats. Brian Maloof said it was his grandfather, Brownie Maloof, who started the tradition when he owned downtown Atlanta’s Tip Top Billiard Parlor, which found a ready clientele of judges and lawyers. Brownie’s son, Manuel, later opened his own tavern after the Tip Top closed.

President Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he leaves Manuel’s Tavern after a 2015 visit. Curtis Compton/AJC file

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Former Atlanta Journal columnist Paul Hemphill drank at Manuel’s and often quoted the proprietor, which helped the tavern cement its status as a bar with a history of political visitors, including presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as President Barack Obama. Manuel Maloof also entered politics, getting elected as a DeKalb County commissioner and later serving as commission chairman and CEO.

Since his father died in 2004, Brian Maloof carefully has maintained Manuel’s status as a political bar. But, he said, through the years he has observed a growing “lack of enthusiasm in politics.” He said he doesn’t see the same level of excitement or commitment, and some groups that used to meet at Manuel’s have “disappeared.”

“To hear what a candidate is saying in the full context of his visit is very important, and I think that gets missed on social media a lot,” Maloof said. Only so much of a campaign can be conducted online, he said, and “in the end you have to eventually get together.”

As the 2024 election season begins to rev up, Poe said he expects to hear from politicians more frequently.

“You come to realize that there are Democrats and Republicans all eating together, and they don’t have any problems with each other,” strategist Garrett said. “They’re finding commonality around a hot dog or a barbecue sandwich or something like that, and I think this is one of the traditions that I do see starting to decline, but I’m hoping it’ll see a resurgence.”

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