Atlanta Orders In: Dining institution Mary Mac’s begins new chapter

Atlanta classic Mary Mac's Tea Room dishes up Southern classics like fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.  Becky Stein for The AJC
Atlanta classic Mary Mac's Tea Room dishes up Southern classics like fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. Becky Stein for The AJC

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

Last remaining tea room in Atlanta reopens for takeout, dine-in service starts Nov. 9

The return of one of Atlanta’s most endearing Southern restaurants means the return of crowd favorites like fried chicken, collards, mac and cheese, peach cobbler and yeast rolls. It means freebie pot likker and cracklin' cornbread for first-timers, as is the custom. It means old-school pencils and order forms at tables.

Yet, Mary Mac’s debut during the pandemic also comes with changes. After 26 years, ownership has passed from John Ferrell to a group that includes local businessmen Harold Martin Jr. and Bryan Rand, and father-son partners Michael Bodnar and John Michael Bodnar of Fresh Hospitality restaurant group. The Nashville-based Fresh Hospitality has a portfolio of 20 restaurant brands, including Taco Mac, for which Martin serves as CEO.

It is Martin’s long-standing connection to Mary Mac’s as a customer that prompted him a few years ago to inquire about purchasing it. “I told Matt Thompson (Ferrell’s son and Mary Mac’s director of operations), ‘If you ever sell Mary Mac’s, please call me first.’ I love Mary Mac’s. I think it should be owned by someone who fully understands its legacy and heritage and why it is unique to the Atlanta restaurant scene,” Martin said.

ExploreMore Atlanta Orders In
The return of one of Atlanta’s most endearing Southern restaurants means the return of crowd favorites like fried chicken, collards and mac and cheese. It also means old-school pencils and order forms at tables. / Becky Stein for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The return of one of Atlanta’s most endearing Southern restaurants means the return of crowd favorites like fried chicken, collards and mac and cheese. It also means old-school pencils and order forms at tables. / Becky Stein for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

He began patronizing the Midtown restaurant in the late 1990s while attending Morehouse College. “A big part of why I went there: it felt like home,” said the native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

One member of the Mary Mac’s staff, in particular, made him feel like family: Ellen Fraley. “She literally looked out for me ever since I was a freshman in college,” Martin said.

Fraley began her more than 20-year tenure as a server about the same time that Martin first sat down to sup on the four-piece fried chicken, sweet potato souffle, green beans and banana pudding, which has since become his go-to order.

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Longtime Mary Mac's server Ellen Fraley passed away this summer. One of the dining rooms at the restaurant has been renamed in her honor. Courtesy of Mary Mac's Tea Room
Longtime Mary Mac's server Ellen Fraley passed away this summer. One of the dining rooms at the restaurant has been renamed in her honor. Courtesy of Mary Mac's Tea Room

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Unfortunately, Fraley passed away this summer. As a tribute to her, the Board Room, one of the restaurant’s six dining rooms, has been renamed Ms. Ellen’s Room.

The vast majority of Mary Mac’s 100-person staff, however, is returning. Like Fraley, some of them have worked at the restaurant for more than two decades. “If we didn’t get our team back, we’d have to do an extraordinary amount of training,” Martin said. “The biggest thing when opening a restaurant is the people.”

It was 5 p.m. on that first day of takeout. A steady stream of cars pulled up to the curb and a server wearing a Mary Mac’s-branded face mask handed bags of hot rolls, meatloaf, butter peas and fried okra through rolled-down windows.

ExplorePhotos: Longtime metro Atlanta restaurants
Mary Mac's Tea Room re-opened Nov. 2 for takeout after having been closed seven months due to the pandemic. The iconic Midtown restaurant will open for dine-in service Nov. 9. 
Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com
Mary Mac's Tea Room re-opened Nov. 2 for takeout after having been closed seven months due to the pandemic. The iconic Midtown restaurant will open for dine-in service Nov. 9. Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

“It’s been nonstop,” said Mary Mac’s new director of operations Chad Reynolds, who also noted that the phone hadn’t stopped ringing with Thanksgiving orders.

When guests once again begin strolling through the doors on Nov. 9, they will notice plenty of changes that make the restaurant compliant with COVID-19 safety guidelines, including plexiglass installed at the hostess stand, 22 hand sanitizer stations throughout the 13,000-square-foot space, fewer tables that reduce seating capacity by half, and pencils that are now sanitized after each use.

But the goal remains the same as ever. “Mary Mac’s is the premier purveyor of Southern hospitality and cuisine and tradition in the Southeast,” Martin said. “It’s a high bar. We have an amazing team that is able to execute that.”

MARY MAC’S TEA ROOM

Menu: Southern meat and three

Alcohol: not for takeout; full bar available for on-premises dining only

What I ordered: Brunswick stew; pot likker with cracklin' bread; meatloaf with tomato sauce with sides of macaroni and cheese and butter peas; shrimp and cheese grits with sides of fried green tomatoes and fried okra; four-piece fried chicken with sides of collard greens, pickled beets and broccoli souffle; yeast rolls; Georgia peach cobbler. From the tonic-like pot likker to the fried chicken to the Georgia peach cobbler, this was some comforting Southern fare. To-go containers with multiple compartments prevent soggy takeout.

Service options: takeout (curbside available); order online, by phone or walk-up; no delivery. On-premises dining begins Nov. 9.

Outdoor dining: none

Mask policy: required for all employees. Masks not mandated for guests, although social distancing is enforced.

Address, phone: 224 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 404-876-1800

Hours: 10:30 a.m.- 8:30 p.m. daily for takeout; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. for dine-in beginning Nov. 9

Website: marymacs.com

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