For the Love of Ponce

Bar and restaurant workers, business owners, and a beer can–crushing stripper tell us why Ponce de Leon Avenue is the best street in Atlanta for drinking and eating (and drinking)

Ponce: Majestic Diner

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Perhaps more than any stretch of pavement in the city, the expanse of Ponce de Leon Avenue between Mary Mac’s Tea Room and the Majestic Diner possesses the historic charm, the culinary creativity, and the total weirdness that makes Atlanta, well, Atlanta.

Where else in town—or, really, in America—can you find a 1.5-mile segment of street that’s home to an octogenarian 24-hour diner, a 1960s doughnut shop owned by a sports megastar, a modern French restaurant serving crab crepes with black-corn butter, a city block–sized food hall dishing everything from classic tonkotsu to $32 lobster rolls, two sprawling rooftop bars (one boasting a straight-up amusement park), a cozy strip-mall haunt inspired by Twin Peaks, and, taking the whole thing way over the top, a beloved basement strip club where Lynch himself, along with the neighborhood’s salty regulars and its James Beard–winning chefs, would feel right at home?

Ponce not only has survived the eras with its spirit and identity intact; it has continued to grow and thrive while retaining its idiosyncrasies. The street’s many intersections of highbrow and low remain beautifully confounding, and its conflicting evidence of Old South and New is as intoxicating as ever. No matter your background, your desires, or (for now) your bank-account balance, you can’t help but have a blast on Ponce.

“Ponce de Leon has always been a special place, and, like many special places, it is a place in-between, both an official and unofficial dividing line between many places real and figurative,” says Eric Simpkins, whose first memories of Atlanta nightlife were formed on Ponce in the 1990s and who, in 2017, opened the restaurant and cocktail bar Bon Ton on a Ponce side street. “Whether you are talking about neighborhoods, different races and cultures, countercultures, economic classes, or music scenes, it is a meeting place of so many different ideas and times.”

Ponce: Hotel Clermont
The high-frills rooftop bar at the renovated Hotel Clermont

Photograph by Alex Martinez

To fully appreciate the magic of eating and drinking here, you first must understand the two legendary destinations that bookend Ponce’s key corridor. At the easternmost point is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Atlanta. The Majestic Diner’s red neon sign announcing “‘Food That Pleases’—Since 1929” stands as a beacon, and its Streamline Moderne facade provides a wall of windows to the world that is Ponce de Leon Avenue. That world is at its most entertaining in the wee hours of the night, as is the Majestic itself, which is open 24/7.

But even the afternoon shift has hosted its share of memorable events, according to former employee Ana Duckworth, who worked at the Majestic in the early aughts.

“There were always lots of music discussions going on there. It was a wonderful introduction to all the local garage bands,” Duckworth says. “I remember my coworker coming in with demo tapes of new songs his band was working on. A few kids from his band worked afternoon shifts with me. Back then, you got a free meal during your shift, but it was a hard and fast rule that the pork chops were off-limits. One day, I walk in, and those kids from the band are there just chowing down on pork chops! Guess the pork chop incident didn’t really affect their career trajectory. Their band is the Black Lips.”

Near the Ponce corridor’s westernmost point, its other bookend, Mary Mac’s Tea Room, has kept its doors open since 1945. John Ferrell, who purchased the legendary Southern meat-and-three in 1994, has made it his mission to retain a taste of small-town sensibility in the middle of the big city. “We had a customer standing outside who was trying to catch a cab to his hotel,” he recalls. “I offered to give him a ride. He was from the Northeast, attending a dental convention. He thanked me, saying it was a great example of Southern hospitality. About a year later, I was leaving the restaurant, and there was a couple waiting for a cab. I offered to run them to their hotel. When they got into my car, they were laughing. They said, ‘Our dentist was here a year ago and told us that the owner offered to give him a ride to his hotel—and here you are today, doing the same thing!’”

Another selling point for Mary Mac’s: its proximity to one of the first Atlanta outposts of Krispy Kreme Donuts. The shop is so treasured that Basketball Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O’Neal had to have it. Shaq commemorated his 2016 acquisition of the Ponce Krispy Kreme with a celebratory tweet: “Ur favorite doughnut just got even HOTTER, baby.”

Just east of Mary Mac’s and Krispy Kreme, the inimitable Atlanta Eagle, a 31-year-old gay bar, is hyped as “a one-stop shop for anyone looking for larger, hairier, and leather-clad.” Just west of them, Bon Ton, Simpkins’s hip New Orleans–inspired joint tucked behind Cuban standby Papi’s, strikes the perfect Ponce balance with its riffs on classic po’boys (including the perfect Nashville hot oyster roll) and on classic cocktails (including the just-as-perfect Smoked Bourbon Mai Tai).

“Bon Ton is a bit of an ode to the idea of Ponce and another great city in Louisiana that is certainly dealing with similar issues,” says Simpkins, alluding to the threat of gentrification. “I think you can be too fancy and nice (never too hospitable), too expensive, too greedy, too selfish, and definitely too boring for Ponce.”

Ponce: MJQ
The dance floor at MJQ

Photograph by Eric Cash

Heading east from there along the Ponce corridor you come to Atlanta’s most literal underground club, MJQ Concourse. Much of the current clientele in the vast subterranean space is barely older than the legendary club itself, which draws renowned DJs and a packed-to-the-brim mix of cool kids. In the pocket‑sized strip mall a few yards behind MJQ’s unassuming entrance, there’s the low-key Bookhouse Pub, named for the headquarters of Twin Peaks’s secret society of vigilantes, the Bookhouse Boys. In similar underdog fashion, it holds its own against its massive, intimidating new neighbor, Ponce City Market. In fact, Bookhouse, with its Native American artwork and bric-a-brac, is where Ponce City Market’s bartenders and chefs knock off after long shifts in the galleys of PCM’s food hall. They find respite in Bookhouse’s tiki-inspired cocktails and its lack of pretense.

“Frank Silva is honestly one of my favorite bartenders in the city,” says Julian Goglia, a partner in Ponce City Market’s the Mercury restaurant. “Murphy Renault, the other owner, is usually there, drinking a soda, splash of cran. So, buy him a soda, splash of cran if you want to brighten his night.”

Ponce: Eats
The no-frills food at Eats

Photograph by Johnathan Kelso

The Local, another popular bar in a plainer vein, is just a few steps away from Bookhouse and MJQ—but it’s the Local’s sister business, Eats, that earns icon status on Ponce. A quarter-century since it opened, Eats still offers huge portions of greatest-hits comfort food (cornbread, collards, casseroles), served cafeteria-style with an extra helping of nostalgia.

Ponce: Bon Ton
A pair of Bon Ton cocktails

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

At the other end of the spectrum (and yet only a block away), forward-thinking restaurant and cocktail bar 8Arm offers ambitious compositions such as a dish of refried black beans graced with ramp kimchi and Burgundy truffle, and the Wake the Dead cocktail, a variation on the classic Corpse Reviver that combines VSOP cognac with a bitter red aperitivo and espresso liqueur. 8Arm stays open until 2 a.m. on the weekends, often making it the last stop for danced-out MJQ patrons. It then wakes up with the city as a weekend brunch hang. Skip Engelbrecht, a partner in the operation, has seen some strange things in those long hours.

“There was this guy named Joseph. You didn’t know if he was actually homeless—he could have also been a sound guy for a band. He became a weekly figure in our lives. One day, he comes in and says, ‘Hey, I have to move to South Carolina. It was great knowing you guys.’ A few weeks later, he adds our whole staff on Facebook and starts giving us updates on his life. Then, one day, he’s like, ‘Hey guys, bad news: I cut my finger off. I looked around for it for a while, but I couldn’t find it, so I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ So, I guess now I don’t have a finger.’ We reply, just kidding around with him, ‘Hey man, sorry about your loss. If you find it, send it to us!’ A week later, he sends another message: ‘Hey guys, found my finger, it’s in the mail.’ We were like, ‘No way that’s true.’ A week later, a bloody envelope shows up. And there it is, in a Ziploc bag, wrapped in a paper towel.”

Looming over Eats’s and 8Arm’s small operations, the mixed-use behemoth Ponce City Market is—depending on whom you ask—either exhibit A in Ponce’s promising future or a sure sign that the end of the street’s gritty charm is nigh. In its original incarnation more than 90 years ago as the Southeastern distribution and retail center for Sears, Roebuck and Company, the building was the nucleus of life in the city. Sears closed the retail center in 1979 and cleared out a decade later, after which the city bought the building. The vast majority of the 2.1-million-square-foot structure lay mostly dormant for decades. But after it was scooped up in 2011 by real estate investment company Jamestown (whose partners saw value in its adjacency to the then-forthcoming BeltLine Eastside Trail), it transformed not just Ponce but the entire Old Fourth Ward.

The once-quiet fortress of red bricks now houses hundreds of residents (two-bedroom lofts can fetch $3,700 a month), along with trendy offices, a mall’s worth of high-end shops, and that teeming food hall of 30 or so restaurants and stalls, many from big-name chefs and James Beard winners.

One of them—chef Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia, Star Provisions, and Floataway Cafe—already had fond recollections of Ponce when she decided to open W.H. Stiles Fish Camp in Ponce City Market.

“We used to celebrate birthdays and other milestones with the Floataway staff at the Clermont Lounge,” she says, “although I rarely would touch a glass to my lips there (bottled beer only, out of the bottle).”

Ponce: Blondie
The Clermont Lounge’s infamous Blondie

Photograph by Artem Nazarov

No place on Ponce better encapsulates the singularity of the street than the Clermont Lounge. Many of its performers have been disrobing at the strip club for upwards of 20 years. None of them is more famous—or speaks more loudly to the perseverance of Ponce—than Blondie, a 60-something dancer best known for her ability to crush beer cans between her breasts. (She also, as Quatrano and countless others can attest, uses them as instruments for pummeling a customer’s head.) “We did totally enjoy the shows,” Quatrano says, “especially when Blondie motorboated [my husband] Clifford for his birthday.”

For decades, the hotel above the endearingly sleazy lounge was one of the dodgiest destinations on Ponce. Now, like Ponce City Market, it’s been radically redeveloped. The swanky Hotel Clermont has rooms that can go for $250 and up on the weekends and a line out the door for its rooftop bar. And nestled between the hotel and the lounge is one of Atlanta’s finest new restaurants, Tiny Lou’s, with a modern French menu and a name that nods to a legendary burlesque dancer who once worked downstairs.

Mercifully, the hotel’s renovation left the basement lounge largely untouched. Without the Clermont, there would be no Ponce as we know and love it.

“I’m proud to be a part of the legacy of this street,” Blondie says. “Who knew I would be working here 40 years, shaking my booty?”

This article appears in our November 2018 issue.