As Election Day 2020 looms, the timing could not be more perfect for the re-opening of iconic Atlanta comfort food emporium, Mary Mac’s Tea Room. The legendary 75-year-old Southern restaurant known for its fried chicken, meatloaf, fried green tomatoes, collards, its custardy macaroni and cheese and those addictive yeast rolls officially re-opened Monday, Nov. 2 for online and curbside take-out orders via the restaurant’s updated website.
The dining room, in full accordance with COVID-19 public health safety guidelines, meanwhile, will re-open Monday, Nov. 9.
In order to keep guests and staff safe due to COVID, the restaurant at 224 Ponce de Leon Ave. in Midtown shuttered back in March. Some longtime regulars worried it might be for good.
During the prolonged shutdown, John Ferrell, the restaurant’s owner since 1994, opted to sell the business and rang up Harold Martin, Jr., a friend and Atlanta restaurateur who has been eating at Mary Mac’s since his days as a student at Morehouse College. Several years back, Martin, Jr. asked Ferrell to give him first crack at buying the business if Ferrell ever decided to sell. Martin, Jr. is now the CEO of the Taco Mac chain of restaurants and is also a former interim president of Morehouse.
As the new caretaker of one of the city’s most beloved restaurants, Martin has assembled an ownership group which will include Bryan Rand of Atlanta, as well as restaurant industry luminaries Michael Bodnar and John Michael Bodnar.
Day-to-day operations will be led by Chad Reynolds, who will serve as Director of Operations. Martin, Jr. (who concedes that, to this day, he struggles to decide between the fried chicken and the pork chops each time a Mary Mac’s menu is presented to him) says guests can look forward to reconnecting with the same beloved Mary Mac’s staff as the new ownership group plans to retain the entire staff of over 100 team members.
Among the welcomed changes: Customers can now order online and enjoy their favorite Mary Mac’s menu items at home.
To celebrate the rebirth of Mary Mac’s in a year when Atlantans desperately require a comforting old friend, here are eleven facts about the Atlanta institution you probably didn’t know.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room Wasn’t the Restaurant’s Original Name
The restaurant debuted in post-WWII 1945 Atlanta as Mrs. Fuller’s Tea Room. Rival Midtown tea room operator Mary McKinsey eventually bought the Ponce de Leon Avenue restaurant in 1951 but didn’t change the name to reflect its new owner until 1953. That’s when Mary Mac’s was born.
The Success of Mary Mac’s Was Built —And Financed by Women
As a business woman in 1962, the restaurant’s next transformative owner, Margaret Lupo was unable to secure a bank loan to buy her dream restaurant. Instead, the women in her family pulled together enough cash for her to buy the place. In 1972, even after serving multiple bank presidents in her dining room daily for a decade, Lupo was still unable to get a bank loan as she slowly bought up the block of businesses to expand her 75-seat place. Lupo again relied on family funds and borrowing on her home and car.
Mary Mac’s Was One of Atlanta’s First Integrated Restaurants
At the height of the civil rights movement in 1962, Margaret Lupo made it clear everyone was welcome in her dining room, making Mary Mac’s one of the first integrated restaurants in the city. Recalls daughter Marie Lupo Nygren: “From the start, mother made it clear that ‘everyone’s money is the same color and if you don’t understand that, then you don’t need to work in my restaurant.’” Down the street, the Fox Theatre also voluntarily integrated (under a bit of pressure from New York’s integrated Metropolitan Opera, who played annually at the Fox), two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mary Mac’s – By the Numbers
At its busiest, Mary Mac’s was serving 2,000 people a day and ordering truck loads full of fresh vegetables, including 25 bushels of corn, 25 bushels of green beans and 25 bushels of collards and turnip greens per week. Today, that commitment to freshness continues with all vegetables being shucked, washed and snapped daily. Before the COVID shutdown, the 13,000-square-foot restaurant, was making nearly $10 million in annual sales, making it one of the city’s largest restaurants.
Margaret Lupo’s Husband Harvey Had a $1 annual Salary — And One Nice Bonus
In 1972, Lupo’s husband Harvey quit his day job to become the restaurant’s host and buyer. Harvey’s annual salary? $1. Oh, and a brand-new Cadillac.
Mary Mac’s Has Served A Lot of Celebrities Over the Years
Among the famous folks Mary Mac’s has served through the decades: Beyonce, James Brown, Alan Jackson, “Carol Burnett Show” icons Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, Esther Rolle, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Hillary Clinton, Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama.
A Dessert Fit for a Governor — And Then a President
President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter have eaten at Mary Mac’s so often through the decades, the president has a dessert named after him. The peanut custard, first introduced during Carter’s gubernatorial campaign, was initially called Jimmy Carter Custard, rebranded as Presidential Pudding during Carter’s White House years and is now simply, Carter Custard.
The Origins of the Restaurant’s Famed Pencil Ordering System Revealed!
The pencils on each table where guests fill out their own orders and turn in their cards to their server was a practice first developed by Mary McKinsey. Mary Mac’s theory? If an order was incorrect, it would not be the server’s fault.
The Legend of the Naked Lunch Customer
A lunchtime customer once proceeded to walk into a dining room, strip off his clothes and lie on the floor, refusing to talk. Lupo gingerly covered him with an apron and hustled him out the door. Back inside the dining room, a woman customer immediately called Lupo over to her table to complain: “Margaret, if you ever do this again, please get a man who’s, well, let’s just say if that floor show had been an entrée, I would have complained about the meager portions.”
Even Zoo Atlanta VIPs Loved the Cracklin’ Cornbread
The late, great Zoo Atlanta gorilla Willie B. loved Mary Mac’s cornbread so much trainers used to order dozens of loaves at a time for the zoo’s most famous resident.
Mary Mac’s Famous Mac & Cheese is Decidedly Not Diet Food
In order to whip up a 13” by 9” pan of Mary Mac’s rich, almost soufflé-like macaroni and cheese (the same recipe used for nearly half a century now), you’ll need six eggs and four cups of evaporated milk. Cutting through all that richness? Two teaspoons of hot sauce.
Located at 224 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE in Atlanta, beginning Monday, Nov. 2, Mary Mac’s Tea Room is back for take-out orders and will re-open its dining room — following all COVID-19 safety protocols — starting Monday, Nov. 9. Visit the restaurant’s website at marymacs.com.
Sources: “Mary Mac’s Tea Room: 65 Years of Recipes from Atlanta’s Favorite Dining Room” by John Ferrell and the website MaryMacs.com
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.