Editor’s note: When this ode to Manuel’s was published in September 1979, 42 years ago, the stalwart bar already was in its third decade.
When Manuel Maloof bought Harry’s Delicatessen at 602 N. Highland in 1956, DeKalb County was dry. Manuel’s fortuitous location just across the county line brought Emory University’s thirsty knowledge-seekers and thus established the intellectual branch of a most eclectic clientele.
Maloof encourages that sort of thing. The burly son of a Lebanese tavern owner practically grew up in his father’s bar on Pryor Street downtown. The Tip Top was across the street from the Fulton County Courthouse and drew the trade of lawyers and politicians. It was also where the Stone Mountain trolley turned around. Manuel worked in the bar as a youngster. He was nurtured on a rich broth of conversation—political tale and courtroom lore.
Now, Manuel’s Tavern nurtures its own rich broth of conversation. Talk is not listed on the menu, but it’s a staple of the house. It was at Manuel’s that theologian Tom Altizer, then at Emory, first proposed that God was dead. It was at Manuel’s where young Maynard Jackson went to woo the student vote in the 1968 U.S. Senate race which laid the groundwork for his mayoral successes. It was where dozens watched with reverent abstinence the televised funeral of President John Kennedy and where student radicals laid their plans in the aftermath of Camelot.
“The trick is to keep the arguments separated,” says Manuel. There are other rules as well. Cursing is generally frowned upon, a product of Manuel’s belief that a bar should be the kind of place a woman can sit in without being bothered by coarse behavior. Father Malcolm Boyd, who wrote Are You Running With Me, Jesus?, once got away with it, however, when he used a four-letter word—which created an uproar—as a device to start a theological discussion. And Manuel’s bartenders won’t generally serve known alcoholics, since Manuel doesn’t believe a bar should sell booze to “anybody who can’t drink.”
Manuel’s regular customers who haven’t been thrown out of the bar at least once feel neglected. Manuel once threw his own brother out of the bar twice in the same night. Robert Maloof was making too much of that day’s Georgia football win over Georgia Tech to suit Manuel, a Tech fan. The ejections were especially notable in light of the fact that Manuel and his younger brother have been partners for 15 years.
Manuel did not, however, boot out the nun who, in her habit and crucifix, sat down at the bar and tossed down the few beers left in the keg she was returning from a church benefit. For Manuel, raised in the Melkite Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, the nun at the bar “was one of the biggest shocks of my life. But she finished the keg.”
Manuel’s first day in business—August 6, 1956—grossed about enough to keep the lights on and the beer cold. He ran the bar himself, with a single employee, during the first two and a half years. Now, between the original location on North Highland and a newer tavern on Memorial Drive in Decatur, Manuel is called boss by an assortment of 41 bartenders, cooks, and bottle washers.
In the late ’50s, Manuel retrieved the 101-year-old bar that had been in his father’s downtown saloon, a bar whose worn-out top he had helped replace with hard-rock maple as a boy.
Manuel’s has been expanded since he bought the place to include two large rooms on either side of the original bar. An anteroom houses pinball machines and electronic games; darts are played at one end of the lengthy bar; a machine at the other end deciphers your biorhythms for a piece of change. The television set stays tuned to sports and news.
To the relief of many, expansion also has added a second bathroom. Customers who became necessarily impatient while the work was going on were directed to the service station across the street.
“About all that’s left from the old place are the booths and the back bar,” Manuel recollects. The back bar—just the center section with the tall mirror over it—is surrounded by Manuel’s perennially dusty collection of beer cans, portraits (often signed) of his political heroes, and an occasional Maloofism:
“Anybody don’t like this life is crazy,”
Anybody don’t like the food at Manuel’s is also crazy. The menu of sandwiches and burgers, beer-steamed hot dogs, salads, and, for high rollers, shrimp in the shell and oysters on the half shell, is quintessential tavern fare, best accompanied by a tall, cold pitcher.
This article was published in our September 1979 issue and was reprinted in our January 2021 issue.