Atlanta Classics: Three Dollar Cafe has been winging it in metro Atlanta for 40 years

Three Dollar Cafe's wings are fresh, never frozen, and are available in 13 flavors. Courtesy of Three Dollar Cafe

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Three Dollar Cafe's wings are fresh, never frozen, and are available in 13 flavors. Courtesy of Three Dollar Cafe

Won Woo opened the first Three Dollar Cafe in Sandy Springs in 1983. As the story goes, he came to America from South Korea in 1979, with $3 in his pocket, and a dream of a better life.

There are 10 Three Dollar Cafe locations around metro Atlanta these days, and the company known for its fried chicken wings is celebrating 40 years in business. The founder has retired, though, and his son, Joseph Woo, now is in charge.

“Most of the restaurants are franchised, so they have local operators,” the younger Woo explained during a chat at the Chastain location on Roswell Road. “I’m the CEO of the brand, and I’ve been with the company officially since 2012.”

Though Woo was just a year old when his father decided to make wings his thing, he since has become the keeper of the founder’s story.

Joseph Woo is the son of Three Dollar Cafe founder Won Woo. Courtesy of Three Dollar Cafe

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

“America was the land of opportunity, which did unfold, because my dad came and created this,” Woo said. “He worked in a chicken plant for a brief time. That kind of foretold his future with wings.

“In 1980, he moved to Atlanta, because that’s where all the Koreans were moving. He worked at various restaurants and saved enough money to open a Chinese restaurant. Then he opened a restaurant called Stakeout downtown at Poplar and Luckie.”

After that, the senior Woo was off and running, opening new locations, and adding to the menu through the years.

“It’s hard for us to change our menu now,” Joseph Woo said. “Probably 80% of the menu is the same, because we’ve been around so long. Our guests are used to certain specific items that they want prepared the exact same way it was done 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.”

Three Dollar Cafe offers a burger with American cheese on a brioche bun. Courtesy of Three Dollar Cafe

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Beyond wings, there’s a variety of burgers, including the Hangover, topped with bacon and a fried egg. The classic steak and cheese is made with a proprietary seasoning and is served with steak fries.

Of course, there are nachos, and chicken tenders for the kids, but the entree section has some surprises, including such Italian favorites as spaghetti and meatballs and chicken Parmesan.

“We’ve tried to go a little bit lighter over the recent years,” Woo said, “but people come here wanting to get full, and we’ve always been known for our big portions.”

Each of the Three Dollar locations has a bar program featuring wine and spirits, but beer continues to be the favorite.

“We sell a lot of beer,” Woo said. “We became very popular because we had so many varieties of bottled beer. Now, tastes have changed to draft beer. In some of our newer locations, we have 30 or 40 taps, because that’s what people want.”

At Three Dollar Cafe, you can get a wrap with crispy or grilled chicken tossed in hot sauce, with lettuce, diced tomatoes, cheddar cheese and ranch dressing. Courtesy of Three Dollar Cafe

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

The newest and arguably fanciest Three Dollar location is attached to Coolray Field, where the Gwinnett Stripers minor league baseball team plays.

“There are lots of taps and a more modern interior,” Woo said. “That’s not what I prefer. I prefer a little wear and tear. But it’s hard to open up a new restaurant nowadays that looks like it’s been around for 30 or 40 years.”

One thing you might wonder, given his years in the wings business: Is Woo a flats guy or a drums guy?

“I’m a flats guy,” he said. “They’re a little juicer. There’s more surface area to crunch in the flat piece, and I like to eat them in one bite. There are mixed people, but mostly all-flats, and few all-drums. We do charge more for all drums. I think that’s standard almost anywhere you go.”

Woo attributed Three Dollar Cafe’s continued popularity to it being “a good place to hang out. You can bring your kids. You can have a lunch meeting. Whatever the occasion is, you can have some good food, and some good beers, and watch your game.”

Three Dollar Cafe. Multiple metro area locations. threedollarcafe.com

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