Why You Should Dine at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta
“Y ou? You are going to a restaurant tonight whose cuisine is southern cooking?” I was asked with incredulity when I mentioned my plans for dinner that evening — and with good reason: I do not particularly care for Southern food. Black-eyed peas? Grits? Collard greens? Hoppin’ John? Pot likker? No thank you. Give me a pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard any day from an authentic Kosher delicatessen…
…and yet, a friend of mine from out of town contacted me and wanted to meet up with me. I will not mention his name here — but let us just say that he came to Atlanta on business from New York; is well known on FlyerTalk; and was born and raised in Brooklyn. I had not seen him in a long time; and I was looking forward to enjoying a pleasant evening with him over dinner.
“Let me know what’s best for you and where”, he said. “I wouldn’t mind have ‘Southern’ food, and that includes BBQ.”
While I was not thrilled with that idea, I wanted to ensure that at least part of his trip to Atlanta was enjoyable — especially as he was visiting on business for a trade show. I have worked at many trade shows over the years. They are usually comprised of long hours and hard work — and that can not only leave almost anyone drained at the end of the day; but it can also cause a person to crave a particular type of what he or she considers good food. Sometimes there is no better reward or feeling of satisfaction than relaxing with a good meal — especially when you are with friends — after a long hard day away from home while traveling on business.
Location and Arrival
What appeared to be a full moon shining brightly over Atlanta on this Friday the 13th evening would suggest to a superstitious person that perhaps staying at home is taking the best precaution; but as usual, I rebelled against that. Sure, I sat in traffic for greater than 90 minutes; but I also left myself plenty of time. While sitting in traffic is not exactly similar to going on a picnic, it is far more stressful when late for an appointment — or when other drivers do something stupid…
…but none of that happened on that bewitching night, as I did not feel stressed at all. I took a short cut off the clogged interstate highway at the Northside Drive exit; cut through the Georgia Institute of Technology; hung a left turn at the world headquarters of Coca-Cola onto North Avenue; and headed eastbound until I reached Myrtle Street, turned left, drove one block, parked the vehicle…
…and walked the rest of the block to Ponce de Leon Avenue, where I saw Mary Mac’s Tea Room light up its own part of midtown Atlanta in its humble splendor.
Seeing that there were many patrons waiting for a table, I walked into the vestibule of the legendary restaurant and approached the host stand.
“Can I help you?” I was asked.
“I am going to meet with a friend and will be back here within the hour. May I reserve a spot for two people, please?”
“What is your name?”
“Brian,” I responded.
“There may be a short wait; but I will make sure you will be seated soon after.”
That was a pleasant start to the evening. I then walked ten minutes to the west to the Hotel Indigo Atlanta Midtown on 683 Peachtree Street Northeast — a newer hotel in an older building — and entered the lobby to meet my friend.
I was going to let him know that I will wait for him outside on such a pleasant January evening, as tables and chairs — as well as a couple of roaring fires, which were unnecessary on this night — are provided by the hotel in case you just want to sit outside and watch the world go by on Peachtree Street; but he was promptly downstairs from his room within minutes.
We then walked and talked back towards the restaurant. He was definitely looking forward to it.
We entered the vestibule of the restaurant and I approached the host stand to let them know that I was here with my friend.
“It may be a few minutes,” he said.
“Not a problem,” I answered as I looked forward to continuing my conversation with my friend — but that would have to wait.
I am not exaggerating when I say that fewer than five minutes later, I heard “Brian, party of two” called out near the counter.
I walked over to the woman who said that and replied, “Wow — that was fast!” With a huge smile on her face, she instructed us to follow another woman, who would direct us and another party to our respective tables.
Of course, there was the seemingly ubiquitous wall of photographs of celebrities and politicians who have dined at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. Ironically, my debut on the big screen occurred at the Plaza Theater just a mile and a half east down the street with the presentation of a short film in which I had the lead role — and the film won two awards. Why was my photograph not on the wall?
We were escorted through two dining rooms — there are six altogether — and seated at a table in the Ferrell Room, which is named after the current owner of the dining establishment. John Ferrell was “hand-chosen” by the second owner to purchase Mary Mac’s Tea Room back in 1994 and become its third owner since it first opened for business in 1945.
Not long after we were seated, the man who was to be our waiter came by and cheerfully greeted us.
“I can detect that New York accent,” he quipped to my dining companion.
“I don’t have an accent,” he replied, sounding as Brooklyn as ever.
This was going to be a great evening.
“This your first time here?” asked the waiter — whose name is Norvell — of my friend.
“You can tell?” he replied.
The tradition at Mary Mac’s Tea Room is that any patron who visits for the first time can ask for a complimentary cup of Pot Likker — a liquid which remains after greens are boiled. If you decide to visit for the first time while in Atlanta, be sure to ask for yours.
We pored through the menu, which has many options. I can tell he was salivating at the possibilities; but he had a hankering for southern fried chicken — crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. “You just can’t get that kind of fried chicken in New York,” he lamented, “unless you are lucky enough to have that one-off chance of getting one.”
“You probably could come here seven consecutive days and have something different every night for dinner,” I responded. He absolutely agreed with that. The choices were overwhelming.
“Do the dumplings have anything in them?” he asked Norvell.
“No…?” I think Norvell was as momentarily confused as I was about that question.
“Why — did you want them filled with something?” I asked my friend, puzzled.
“No — I just thought they would be like the dumplings at a Chinese restaurant, which are usually filled with something,” he explained — and that made sense to us.
It is funny when different cultures collide.
He decided on the dumplings and the grits to go with his four pieces of fried chicken, with a glass of homemade lemonade. As for me — despite my reluctance due to not particularly caring for southern food — I decided to order the blackened catfish with dumplings and fried green tomatoes, with ginger ale as my choice of beverage.
I do not like tea at all — sweet, iced or hot. I suppose not ordering tea in a “tea room” is about as preposterous as a person like me who does not smoke going to a cigar bar.
“You know, normally you would have to fill these forms out,” Norvell said, “but as this is your first time here, I will do this for you.” He explained that Mary McKenzie — who founded the Atlanta institution at which we were dining — created the practice of keeping pencils in a glass on the table so that the customers themselves would fill out the order for the purpose of efficiency.
“She wanted to get the customers in; and then get them right back out,” he explained. This way, if an order was incorrect for whatever reason, the waitperson would not be at fault — plus, orders which were written individually were an easy way to keep track of how many customers dined at the restaurant each day. Despite computers being used to track sales, this tradition remains to this day.
See that bottle of pepper sauce on the left on the table? More about that later…
Norvell quickly brought the lemonade and a small basket with assorted baked goods. “You know,” said my friend after sipping on the lemonade, “you would think that there would be nothing special about lemonade — but this really tastes good.”
Realizing I had not received my drink yet, Norvell apologized when he asked what I ordered again. “Ginger ale with no ice, please,” I said — realizing that this was my opportunity to request a small sip of lemonade just so that I could taste it.
Norvell immediately returned with a gigantic plastic cup and literally splashed some lemonade into it — and all over the immediate area of the table, for which he apologized. “No problem at all,” I said — I thought it was funny — as I was amazed that he filled a quarter of the volume of this cup…
…and yes, the lemonade was indeed very good. If I had to critique it, I would say that if it had ever so slightly more tartness and less sweetness to it — ever so slightly — and had lemon pulp in it, the lemonade would be elevated to perfect.
The assorted baked goods consisted of corn muffins, yeast rolls and cinnamon rolls; and despite their visual imperfections — probably purposely so — all of them tasted fresh, warm and quite good.
Thirty minutes later — at the most but perhaps sooner, as we were not keeping track — Norvell brought out the entrées.
My friend liked what he saw — and ate — and he raved about the grits.
There were two healthy portions of blackened filets of catfish on my plate. I can eat a lot; but I thought I was going to need to take one of those filets home.
The savory dumplings were quite full of flavor.
Upon first glance, you might think that this might not be the best looking presentation of a dish ever. I say don’t let looks fool you. These dumplings were very tasty.
The fried green tomatoes looked like potato latkes — or pancakes — at first glance. I cut one open with a knife…
…and inside was a yellow-green tomato filling, slightly reminiscent of a pickled tomato in a delicatessen in New York. The outside crust was golden brown and nice and crunchy; the inside was moist and had a pleasantly mild tomato flavor. The contrasting textures and flavors elevate this dish as a must-have.
The catfish was good; but even though I initially looked at that bottle of pepper sauce indignanty, I decided that I must try it. Pouring a few drops on blackened fish may seem like an odd combination; but one I tried it, I actually used up at least a third of the bottle on the fish. It was that good! Yes, there was that pepper taste — but it had much more flavor than heat. Definitely try it for yourself if you dine at Mary Mac’s Tea Room.
As I already wrote, I thought I was going to need to take one of those filets home.
I was wrong.
Despite my dinner companion not being able to finish his dinner — the reason he cited was that there was simply too much food — we had to try the Georgia Peach Cobbler.
Slightly tart sweet peaches in a thick and gooey sauce mixed well with the crunchy crust — flaky on the outside; moist and drenched on the inside. I enjoyed this dessert — and cobbler is not one of my favorite desserts.
As we finished our cobblers, my dinner companion noticed Norvell cleaning a glass nearby.
“I would think that someone would be cleaning glasses back in the kitchen,” noted my friend to Norvell. “I have never seen a waiter cleaning glasses.”
“These are the glasses that hold the pencils on the tables,” explained Norvell. “We like to clean the fingerprints off of them for our service the next day.”
This was one of many examples of how the employees of Mary Mac’s Tea Room seem to not only care about their work; but also about their customers.
By the way, there is no sense in keeping the identities of the “stars” of what turned out to be a great evening anonymous any longer, as I have their permission to mention their names…
…my dinner companion was none other than the inimitable Dan Hammer — who is the founder of the legendary Brooklyn Reality Tour — and what are the odds in an article at The Gate here at BoardingArea that the last name of our waiter would be Jetter?
Still at its original location after almost 62 years, the food served at Mary Mac’s Tea Room remains nearly identical since its founding.
In the tough days after World War II, “a woman couldn’t just open up a restaurant, so many female proprietors used the more genteel Southern name of ‘Tea Room’,” according to this article pertaining to its history. “Ponce de Leon Avenue sported clanking trolley cars, the Atlanta Crackers Baseball team and tents serving ice cold watermelons. There were many ornate movie theaters like the Fox Theatre just down the street. And there were at least 16 other Tea Rooms around intown Atlanta with Mary Mac’s being the only one of them left.”
Norvell was impeccable as a waiter. Ironically, he committed some of the very infractions I typically consider verboten and annoying — overhearing our conversation and commenting, as well as touching me on the shoulder when talking as two examples — but yet the evening would just not have been right without him doing those gestures. In fact, quite the opposite: there were times I wanted to invite him to our table and join us. We truly enjoyed his service and hospitality, as he genuinely cared about taking care of anything we wanted or needed.
The ambiance at Mary Mac’s Tea Room is warm but not pretentious. It is not fine dining by any means — for example, the table coverings are vinyl and not cloth — but it is definitely not a “hole-in-the-wall” either. It is a highly respectable place where you can relax and enjoy your meal comprised of southern comfort food which you will most likely enjoy, as it is all “made from scratch.” Every employee we encountered in the restaurant seemed to be friendly and welcoming, exuding genuine Southern hospitality.
The restaurant — excuse me, “tea room” — is conveniently located four blocks away from the North Avenue station of the Red or Gold subway lines of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority; and it is also only blocks away from Interstate 75 and Interstate 85 in the heart of Atlanta. Free parking is available either in the parking lot behind the restaurant or on the street nearby; and metered parking is also available. All major credit cards are accepted.
The building is accessible with wheelchairs. A menu of food choices which are gluten free is available; and the restaurant is safe for guests with peanut allergies and tree nut allergies.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room is not a place which I would rate at the top of my list only because southern cuisine is not my favorite; but I would return if someone who was with me wanted to try it. I highly recommend it just the same — especially if you are visiting for the first time. You will not be disappointed — especially if you are fortunate enough to be served by Norvell or someone like him.
- Open 11:00 in the morning to 9:00 in the evening every day of the week, 363 days per year.
- Open Thanksgiving Day we are open from 10:00 in the morning to 9:00 in the evening.
- On all other major holidays, the restaurant opens at 10:00 in the morning — except on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when the restaurant is closed.
All photographs ©2017 by Brian Cohen.