Life of Brian
As Manuel's Tavern prepares to reopen,
owner Brian Maloof looks for ways to
bring his love of farming to the table.
Sometime in the late 1990s, Brian Maloof reached a breaking point in his career as a DeKalb County senior paramedic.
A set of little twin girls had been struck by a car as they crossed Glenwood Road with their mother. Maloof had one of the children in his ambulance while a colleague worked on her sister in a separate vehicle. He felt certain nothing could be done to save the child, and he didn’t want to leave what he considered to be a crime scene. But he was torn, because what if she could be saved?
“I’ve got her covered in a sheet, and blood is seeping through the sheet, and this little hand fell out and hit the floor,” he recalls. “I picked it up, and put it back. And it hit me so hard. All the sudden, I started going: ‘Who the [expletive] am I to make that decision? Who gave me this right?’ I’m bawling, because I have a daughter her age at home.”
Later, at Egleston Hospital, a doctor tried to reassure the sobbing paramedic that he made the right decision. She told him it would have taken “a resurrection” for the child to survive.
Although he’d witnessed death often in his line of work, he couldn’t get over the incident.
“It was horrible,” he says. “I just couldn’t let go.”
A short time later, when his father called and asked him to take over the family business, Brian did not hesitate.
“Yes,” he responded. “I’m done.”
It may seem simplistic to suggest that Brian, then in his early 30s, was trading one burden for another. Until you realize the establishment he took over was Manuel’s Tavern, his father’s namesake beer-and-hot dog joint, a place that many consider essential to the heartbeat of Atlanta.
In his 17 years as the public face of Manuel’s, Brian’s every move has been scrutinized. The glare was especially intense when the family sold the property to a developer last year and the restoration process dragged on for seven months.
But as Manuel’s plans for reopening — scheduled for Aug. 6, though that could change, depending on permits and last-minute snags — Brian has quietly undergone a personal transformation that has changed his approach to food, family and the future of the tavern.
Photo: A photograph of Brian's father and mother with his oldest brother hangs on the wall.
Becoming a man
At 49, Brian Maloof is a beefy, balding guy who resembles the actor and director Rob Reiner. Built like a bouncer, he looks like he’d be hard to intimidate.
Not the best student at Briarcliff High School, Brian’s main interests were drinking — Arby’s Jamocha shake mixed with vodka was a favorite — and driving his mother’s Mercedes around, trying to pick up girls.
Eager for escape, he often hung out at a local Army recruiter’s office, where one day he had a life-altering moment.
“I remember this so well,” he says over coffee and a chicken biscuit at Home Grown diner on Memorial Drive. He put on a laser disc, and the room started to shake. The screen was black, speakers thumped, and suddenly helicopters came roaring into the sunrise. Soldiers dangled from the choppers on ropes, firing machine guns.
Maloof ran out of the room, laser disc in hand, and screamed to his recruiter: “This is what I want! This is the job!”
His recruiter tried to talk him out of it. His dad, then chairman of the DeKalb County Commission, refused to give consent. “He was convinced Reagan was going to take us to war,” Brian says.
On the day he turned 18, Brian signed up to be a Cavalry Scout reconnaissance specialist. He stayed in the Army for two years and never saw combat. But he witnessed injuries, an experience that made him think he’d be a good nurse or medical technician.
Photo: Manuel Maloof (left) campaigns for re-election to CEO of DeKalb County in 1987. AJC file
In his father’s shadow
The opening lines of Manuel Maloof’s AJC obituary refer to him as a “profane, hot-tempered and big-hearted barkeep.”
Manuel Maloof (1924-2004) could be loud and mercurial, but his son Brian is quiet and sentimental. He hasn’t taken a drink in years and would rather sit upstairs in his office than engage in the din down below at the bar.
According to Brian, his dad suffered from elephantiasis. “One half of his body was much larger than the other half,” he said. “You could even see it in his face.”
This made it hard for him to get into the service during World War II, and he ended up in England as a mechanic and mess-hall cook. That’s where he met his wife, Dolly Green, a British native.
Back in Atlanta after the war, Manuel, the son of Lebanese immigrants, ran a general store but was apparently a poor businessman in his youth. He declared bankruptcy a couple of times, according to his son. “What ended up breaking him was his generosity,” Brian said. “He extended credit to people when he shouldn’t.”
Later, as a beer deliveryman, Manuel discovered and eventually purchased Harry’s Delicatessen on North Highland Avenue. Manuel’s Tavern opened there on Aug. 6, 1956.
Brian, the last of the Maloofs’ eight children, was born 11 years later.
The tavern served beer, hot dogs and kraut, pimento-cheese sandwiches, boiled eggs and bags of chips. As a child, Brian remembers his dad paying him in quarters to wash glasses. He’d spend his earnings playing pinball in the game room upstairs.
A block from then-dry DeKalb County, the bar caught on with students from Emory University and Agnes Scott College, and quickly became a magnet for journalists, politicians, police officers, hippies and artists.
“If you want to say there was a boss in Atlanta, Manuel was the boss,” says Tom Houck, who has frequented the Tavern since moving to Atlanta in the 1960s to work as a driver for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. If you wanted to run for office, Houck says, “you had to stop by and talk to the boss.”
In 1970, Jimmy Carter announced his second gubernatorial candidacy at the Tavern. He won and was elected president six years later. Presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, dropped by in 1992, on the path to the White House. Last year, President Obama stopped in for a game of darts.
Over time, Manuel’s has become such an institution that its customers and employees have developed an overweening sense of entitlement and ownership.
The bar — with its collection of beer cans, historic photos and urns containing the cremains of Manuel (who lived to be 80) and his brother, Robert (a Tavern co-owner and the person who kept the place going while his brother pursued politics) — is treated like a holy relic.
If Brian moves a memento, tweaks the menu or makes a personnel change, he hears about it. One influential Atlanta dining critic quit going there years ago because he switched hot dog brands.
Despite his physical stature, Brian has a tenderness and vulnerability that makes him an easy target for critics. As the son of a politician, he has an impulse to please and worries what people think.
“So many people think that place is theirs,” says Mike Klank, co-owner of Taqueria del Sol and a former Manuel’s employee. “It’s very important to Brian to keep all those people happy. “
Brian remembers the time a patron called him once in the middle of the night to chew him out because he fired someone.
His wife, Margie, a retired Grady Hospital emergency-room nurse and shift supervisor, told him: “You know he wouldn’t do that at Chili’s. That’s how much he loves this place.”
At that moment, Brian said he realized the magnitude of his responsibility.
“You have this place that has this legacy and if you screw it up, it happens on your watch. I don’t even feel like it belongs to any one person. It belongs to all the customers who make it special. I’m just the guy that makes sure that the checks clear and that it’s properly staffed and the beer is cold and the food is hot.”
A vision of chickens
The father of three college-age children, Brian was never groomed to take over Manuel’s. That was to be the role of his brother Tommy. But when the heir apparent fell ill with Crohn’s disease in the late 1990s, the job fell to Brian.
Tommy died in 2001, Robert Maloof in 2014. Brian bought the tavern brand and its contents from family members in 2006. But he did not buy the land or building, which stayed in the family until it was sold to developers last year.
“It’s a complicated family,” Angelo Fuster, a long-time family friend and confidante, said. “Manuel was not easy to get along with, particularly for (his children) ... Imagine the man that everybody knows from public life, who could be charming and could be a real [expletive], and then bring that into the family, where there are no barriers, no filters. “
Sometime after the economic downturn of 2008-2009, business at Manuel’s slowed and Brian started to worry.
“I remember being scared, really scared, and I started spending a lot of my own personal money to keep the place going,” he said. “I was terrified. I kept hoping this was going to be a three-month, four-month little blip. It went on. And on. And on.”
One night, he got down on his knees and prayed.
“I was like: ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m asking for some help. If you want this business to close, you are sure making it clear.’ ”
And then he had a revelation that to this day he cannot explain: Chickens.
“I thought: Chickens? What? Chickens? I denied it. I just denied it for a month.”
At the time, he was unaware of the backyard chicken movement happening around the country, how people all over America were re-discovering the pleasure of raising chickens and gathering eggs.
“Bill was really concerned that I had crossed some sort of line of insanity,” Brian said. “He was really worried that I was going to embarrass the tavern, and he told me as much. He said, ‘This is going to be a nightmare, and I am hoping you are joking. I am going to be embarrassed to say that I work here if you do this.’ And I had to tell him: ‘Bill, I don’t know that I have a choice. I have to do this.’ “
When Brian vetted the idea with Fulton County officials, they told him to check with the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “Not only was it legal, but when I called the Department of Agriculture, they encouraged it!” he bellows triumphantly.
In 2013, he installed 24 heat-tolerant Speckled Sussex hens in a 550-square-foot coop on the roof of Manuel’s. They were kept company by a tiny rooster named Thor.
“I had no idea what to expect,” Brian recalled. “I busted my ass for about a year before I ever saw the first egg.
“And I just happened to be up there cleaning and feeding and watering that day. I saw a hen sitting in a nesting box for the very first time, and I just sat there and I watched her. And she was so quiet. It was like the world stopped for a second. And she just sat there. And she got up and she left. Under her was our very first egg.”
A wake-up call
At that instant, Brian had an awakening.
When he saw that egg, he remembered what his mother told him about food rationing during World War II.
“She used to tell me how she and her sister would get so excited because one day a week was egg day. They would stand in line and be handed out one single egg per person per week. They would hold this thing like it was gold.”
One thing that really bothered him: “I knew all these brewers and all these distillers, but I didn’t know a single damn farmer.”
Food meant nothing to him. “I just assumed that food is always going to be there,” he said, “and I had never given any consideration to where it comes from, who puts it together and how it arrives. I used to look at a dozen eggs as $1.39 at Publix.”
With his Tavern-raised eggs, Brian began serving a special weekend brunch. He didn’t realize any profit, but the rooftop chickens earned him piles of publicity. And it made him want to know where the food he serves comes from.
In 2015, Brian bought a nine-acre Pickens County homestead and began to raise vegetables for the restaurant.
Brian and his family live in Cumming. But he loves spending time at the farm, away from it all.
“If he could convince Margie to move to the farm, they would,” Fuster says.
The house is a two-bedroom 1950s structure with a disconnected rotary phone that Brian says mystifies his kids. During the renovation of Manuel’s, he kept his dad’s cremains, the flag that was on his coffin and old family photos in the living room.
“It’s usually his happy place,” says Margie, who often helps her husband with farm chores. “This is his Disney World.”
A self-taught farmer, Brian has been serious about growing vegetables for just a little more than a year. He learned about poultry and vegetable-gardening by reading and watching YouTube videos.
He can tell you how to concoct a powerful liquid organic fertilizer by mixing chicken manure, rich soil and root beer made with real cane sugar (which speeds up fermentation). “It stinks like hell, but it sure does work,” he said.
On his three-acre vegetable plot, he grows tomatoes, squash, peppers, onions, corn, cucumbers, green beans and potatoes to use in the restaurant. There are blackberry and blueberry bushes, peaches and muscadines. And over the summer, there was one remarkably tall patch of sunflowers he said he grew from a packet of seeds from Dollar General.
In February 2015, it was announced that the 100-year-old Poncey-Highland landmark and its 1.6 acres on both sides of the streets were being sold to Green Street Properties. The developer agreed to renovate the building, rent it to Brian, and use the adjacent property for new development. Earlier this year, Selig Enterprises Inc. was added as an equity partner and co-developer.
No one knew how badly deteriorated the building was until they took it apart, Brian and others say.
“The renovation of Manuel’s had to happen so it wouldn’t fall,” Fuster said.
Earlier this month, Brian invited the public to join the Tavern family for a blessing of the building. Afterward, he and his staff started unpacking memorabilia and trying to make Manuel’s look like the dive it always was.
Manuel’s Tavern will never be Chez Panisse. But Brian is determined to use all the produce he can grow in its kitchen. He plans to build a greenhouse, and he’d like to see the farm placed on the Georgia Agritourism Association’s farm trail.
“I look at everything differently now,” he says. “It used to be what we could get that was on sale. Now it’s all about quality and where it came from. And to me it’s a helluva lot more than just some trendy catch phrase, farm to table. It actually means something.”
But best of all, the farm keeps him grounded, helps him unwind from the stress of his job, and makes him feel connected to his mother, who used to maintain a glorious, ivy-covered garden at the Maloofs’ home near Toco Hill in Decatur.
Last spring, when irises sprouted up out of nowhere and bloomed at the farm, he thought of her, and cried.
“All that happened because of my experience with these chickens.”
ABOUT THE STORY
When Manuel’s Tavern closed for renovation last year, AJC editor Suzanne Van Atten asked me to write about the pub’s classic menu items. When I interviewed owner Brian Maloof, he told me about his rooftop chicken coop and that first egg. One day I visited Brian at his farm outside Jasper, and I found him alone on his back porch, meditating or maybe praying, and watching hummingbirds. He said he was hoping a bear would pay him a visit. Once he started to tell me about his famous father and his own struggles, I felt I had tapped into some rich emotional material. I am grateful that Brian felt compelled to share with me, and I’m looking forward to the re-opening of Manuel’s. I’ll have the J.J. Special.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Wendell Brock was a staff writer, critic and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1982-2009. Today he is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the AJC. He won a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for Journalism for a profile on Christiane Lauterbach in the Bitter Southerner. His previous Personal Journey was “Rescue Me,” about the dog that changed his life. To see his photo-musings on dogs and food, follow him on Instagram (@wendelldavidbrock).