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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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30 Restaurants in 30 Days: Mary Mac’s Tea Room

marymacsignBefore we even get to the vegetables (fruited Jell-o, pickled beets, chicken-less dumplings) at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, may we stop and admire the cocktails?

It’s such a perfect pick-your-poison list: Mint Julep, Hurricane, Martini, Bloody Mary, White Russian, Mimosa, “Georgia Peach.” Or, if you’re a teetotaler, you can get a cool glass of buttermilk. Not me. One of these days I will go to Mary Mac’s, get tanked on White Russians and wander the dining room reciting lines from “The Big Lebowski.” Until that day comes, I will eat my, um, vegetables.

I have to admit that during the 12 years I’ve lived in Atlanta, I have only been to this 62-year-old classic once. Why? I don’t know. There’s something about feeling like a tourist in your own town that’s a turnoff, and for whatever reason, Mary Mac’s has always seemed just a teensy bit like an Epcot Center restaurant.

marymacmenuMaybe it’s the carpeting, or the antique-ish sideboards, or the endless mullions, or the gift case, or the loudspeaker that calls guests to the front desk, or the way you actually have to write out your own order on a chit with a pencil and show a preference for yeast rolls or cornbread.

But we are all guilty of being blind to interesting things in plain view, and Mary Mac’s is a very interesting thing, indeed. We could just stop with the White Russian, the buttermilk and the Jell-O, throw in a fried chicken leg or two and have a meal of indisputable character.

But before we get to any of that, we must sample the potlikker. “Have you not had it?” the waiter will ask as soon as he approaches the table. It’s our specialty, he persists as he brings you a complimentary cup.

marymacpotlikkerThe potlikker — salty, oily and cloudy with mysteries of flavor, with a stray collard leaf floating within — comes alongside a miniature cracklin’ corn muffin.

Crumble it into the cup, the waiter instructs, and release your inner Rhett. But first, try a bite of the muffin by itself and appreciate the porky goodness imparted by the sticky bits of rendered fat and skin. This is a soulful starter.

But now you must turn your attention to your chit, your pencil, and the bodaciously long menu, with its “Tearoom Favorites,” “Grill Menu,” and side dishes to leave you wringing your hands with indecision.

If the waiter marks you as a newbie or a tourist, he will pull out his decision-making semaphores and direct you to the inviolate menu of bad-for-you stuff that everyone surely craves here: fried chicken, sweet potato soufflé and mac and cheese.

Ordering at Mary Mac’s can remind you of the Chinese restaurant where you want to explore the menu but the waiter seems bent on making sure you get the meal he has planned.

Mary Mac chopsAfter many questions, I end up with these tasty fried pork chops — slices of loin, actually, that fry up so crisp the coating actually puffs away from the meat like it would for a properly made wienerschnitzel. I loved the simple preparation, though in an ideal world the frying oil would have tasted fresher.

The side of collard greens was excellent — the greens soft and velvety in that fine potlikker.

The other side — tomato pie — was the single scariest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. With its Ritz cracker crust and cream cheese filling, I knew it was up to no good. I just wasn’t expecting it to be swimming in grease.

You think I’m exaggerating? You want proof? Watch this video, if you dare:

My friend orders the smothered chicken, and I’ve got to say this dish isn’t a looker. Again, proof:

marymacchickenYet this fried and then gravy-glooped bird tastes just right — the meat damp and firm, and somehow all the more chickeny for it. On the side are fried green tomatoes (mostly breading with very little tomato tang for counterbalance) and the famous green beans that the menu boasts are hand snapped in the kitchen. Alas, they seem to have gone through a flavor-stripping machine soon thereafter.

We finish with a slice of peanut butter pie, which seems on the verge of morphing into peanut butter cheesecake. I think I may have cottoned to it better had not the tomato pie scared me off of cream cheese for the foreseeable future.

Be that as it may, I am happy to have rediscovered Mary Mac’s Tea Room. The next time I have out-of-town guests, I’m going to bring them here for smothered chicken, potlikker and White Russians.

marymacpieSomehow, I can think of few meals that would say “Atlanta” better.

Did I miss anything good on the menu? What should I order next time? And can anyone step forward and defend the tomato pie?

178 comments Add your comment

TJB

November 3rd, 2009
6:12 pm

John, I bet your collard greens are great. You should have a contest and have a few readers over for some of your favorite dishes. You think this blog is lively, that would be the talk of the town.

John Kessler

November 3rd, 2009
9:18 pm

“Real good soul food went to heaven with my grandmother.” That’s beautiful, Cold Sassy Knee. I bet it did. Also, I think you totally called it when you said, “The place has character and that special something that touches people.” Y’all come back…

Shhhhh

November 3rd, 2009
9:56 pm

JK’s columns are by far the best thing in the AJC. Looking forward to this series (and the comments) over the next month.

Nichole

November 4th, 2009
9:07 am

Mary Macs food is best enjoyed by people who grew up eating overcooked veggies and heavily sauced or fried mains. Many of us did and find this kind of food comforting on occasion. It represents a certain type of Southern cooking, not the best or a broad representation but a very specific kind. It also has an atmosphere and charm that appeals to people who can look past the somewhat touristy veneer (or who enjoy it). In other words, the place ain’t for everyone but there is a certain clientele who will enjoy it for perfectly valid reasons. Same can be said of The Varsity.

Bill

November 4th, 2009
10:54 am

Yes, you are a Yankee if you’re from Maryland. But I lived in Bawlamer for a couple of years and Maryland has some excellent food/restaurants.
Mary Mac’s is just okay, but I will take the suggestion about trying the fried oysters one day soon.

Beans

November 4th, 2009
11:47 am

I wasn’t raised on Southern food, but get to Mary Macs about once a month and have had great experiences every time. The atmosphere is great (much improved in recent years) and the food is just downright comforting to me. Can’t say as I’ve tried everything (there’s so much to choose from and when I land on a favorite I stick with it); fried oysters, fried chicken or pork chops – John, I agree they are tasty and the best I’ve had anywhere – fried okra, greens, mac & cheese, yeast rolls, pecan pie…). And, their Mint Julep is quite tasty, too.

I love writing down my order and the friendly wait staff – some of which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing there for 15 years or better. Ever been when the piano player is there? A real treat.

If you’ve not been there in a while, I suggest you do like John and give it a whirl. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

To the piont.....

November 4th, 2009
12:24 pm

John apparently you DO NOT know southern food. Mary Mac’s by far is the best southern food you can get in Georgia. Your comment referring to the “loud speaker” does not exist. Get your facts straight before you even attempt to write such a negative article about a landmark in this city. If the food and the service were not great in this restaurant it would fold as many have here in Atlanta. I’ve had the tomato pie at least 20 times and it was excellent.
Question: How are the southern restaurants where you come from? I bet no where near as good Mary Mac’s…

Peggy

November 4th, 2009
12:53 pm

Agree on the “place that touches people” comment being good. And the last re
“landmark” is the key. Atlanta, having none but the dome and it obfuscated behind that ugly never touch hot asphalt bridge. Is the varsity (the one on north, even it had to try to chain) the oldest continuous on it’s site? I go from time to time just to be sure it’s still there (And I find the carpet sag underfoot reassuringly noticed before and forgotten) when in the mood for meatloaf, and end up with fried chicken

Louis

November 4th, 2009
1:31 pm

There’s something about Mary Mac’s, and it may in fact just be the ambiance and that fact that it’s a tried and true Atlanta born and bred restaurant. Granted, the food there is sometimes like a crap shoot… sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s cold. No one mentioned those wonderful cinnamon rolls there but the meat loaf, fried okra, and creamed corn are my favorites. Someone did mention Greenwoods on Green St and JK that should be one of the places on your list. This man is from Maryland with crab cakes you should love. All in all , I think Mary Macs is most loved by us native Atlantans because it’s stood the test of time. As for the back rubs..I don’t want anyone I don’t know coming up behind me and rubbing my back… keep those hands to yourself lady !

Tom Turner

November 4th, 2009
1:56 pm

I’ve never been to Mary Mac’s but some of these comments have shown me the error of my ways. Mr. Kessler, I’m glad you’re doing this hog blog exercise. Just remember, when you hit somewhere Polynesian, do NOT fall asleep with an apple in your mouth!

Rebecca Abbott

November 4th, 2009
2:55 pm

John,

Maryland is a border state.
It was not part of the Confederacy, so it is not Southern to those of who were born in the Deep South. And we were raised that anyone not born in the Confederacy is a Yankee. It doesn’t even matter if you moved here as an infant. Born in or Yankee.

Sorry, dude!

John Kessler

November 4th, 2009
3:37 pm

Rebecca: Can I apply for a Southern passport if my Atlantan children sponsor me?
Tom: Trader Vic’s!!! Time to rearrange the schedule.

Clemfan

November 4th, 2009
4:00 pm

please go to Bobby and Junes off 14th street if you want good southern food and no chinese menu. Fried chicken okra and mac and cheese take a picture of your belly after your done clown

Steve

November 4th, 2009
4:06 pm

Are you kidding me? I’ve eaten their several times and was always underwhelmed. I’ve even tried their fried chicken recipe – bland.

So many better places to eat this kind of food. Trust me. This one is blah.

Tech Guy

November 4th, 2009
4:07 pm

It’s Obama’s fault their quality has fallen!

grillinchef

November 4th, 2009
4:12 pm

God bless him, Lewis Grizzard said it best – “Delta is ready when you are!”

Tyree

November 4th, 2009
4:15 pm

Like you, I’ve eaten at Mary Mac’s a couple of times in the last few years. It’s fine but unremarkable. Nothing stands out to pull me back. No craving for a signature dish.
Just like another old timer Colonnade, it seems to ride on it’s reputation from it’s defenders rather than the actual quality of the cooking.

Tucker

November 4th, 2009
4:16 pm

When we arrived in Atlanta, there were at least four places of this sort, which were very pleasing. They were in no particular order: Mary Mac’s, Evan’s Fine Food, Colonnade, and OK Cafe. I believe OK Cafe is the winner in terms of retention of quality over the long haul. I must say Mary Mac’s under the management of the now deceased Mrs. Lupo was the shining star at the outset.

SuwaneeDawg

November 4th, 2009
4:19 pm

We’ll drive from Suwanee to Mary Mac’s to eat any time. The food and hospitality are always great. I love the creamed corn, sweet potato souffle, fried okra and black-eyed peas. We also can’t get enough corn bread and cinnamon rolls. I’ll admit the tomato pie you were served doesn’t look too appetizing, but I’d be surprised if it simply wasn’t just a bad day for whoever made/served that one. As far as the back rubs, I could do without them, although I personally like the lady who gives them and find her entertaining to talk to. In my opinion it’s worth the drive to Mary Mac’s any day of the week and suggest you keep an open mind about this Atlanta landmark and make a return visit.

snort

November 4th, 2009
4:20 pm

I doubt you’re getting the usual group of epicureans commenting here. As a native Southerner whose family has likely been in Georgia and the deep South longer than most of you (I can visit MY deceased family members in Oakland…can you?) I can firmly attest that a LOT of what passes for good Southern cooking is not. Overcooked vegetables that turn to mush and lose all flavor are NOT good Southern cooking,

You want to eat good Southern cooking today? Try Watershed. You want to COOK good Southern food? Try Mrs. Dull’s, or Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s book. THAT is good Southern cooking – not the Gone-with-the-Wind-sold-to-the-tourists-so-long-that-y’all-have-started-to-believe-it-yourself crap that passes these days.

Fred

November 4th, 2009
4:25 pm

I’ve eaten several times at Mary Mac’s in the past few years. It’s fine. However, nothing remarkable draws me back. I can’t recall a signature dish that would make me drive out of my way to the restaurant.
Like another old timer Colonnade, Mary Mac’s seems to ride on it’s reputation from defenders rather the actual quality of the cooking.

Jennifer

November 4th, 2009
4:28 pm

Mary Macs Tea Room USED to be the best place. You really want to sample some good home cooking – go to Gabriel’s Desserts In Marietta. It is a bakery but also serves some great food…mostly veggies, sandwiches and salads. But the desserts are amazing. The owner is Johnnie Gabriel (the cake lady) who is also Paula Deen’s cousin.

Sorka

November 4th, 2009
4:40 pm

Maryland is a border state and their brand of fried chicken is rather different from truly Southern chicken. I have not been to Mary Mac’s in many years as I used to find its food uninspiring, although the atmosphere was pleasant. I will check it out again. I have frequented the Silver Skillet more often in recent years, although their food is an acquired taste (they also make you write out your order on chits). I will definitely meet you at the Varsity anytime, Mr. Kessler! I went there with my date on senior prom night, 1986. We ate at the drive-in. I will always love the Varsity.

Sorka

November 4th, 2009
4:41 pm

I am also a native Atlantan and have deceased relatives buried in Oakland, so I think I have a few solidly Southern credentials!

suki and fritz

November 4th, 2009
4:42 pm

I went to Mary Mac’s a couple years ago and it was okay, but I am not racing to get back. I have to be honest- when the lady came up behind me unannounced and tried to rub my back- I screamed. I don’t think even Southerners get that cozy normally. And the food was pretty good in that comfort food way, but I don’t see the point of paying a fair amount of money that I can get visiting my Grandmother’s for free (and of course, far superior, Gran). It is church function food- the only thing I liked about having to go to church functions as a child- (mmm, mystery casseroles). having said that, if you are an out-of-towner with a Gran who doesn’t do southern mac-’n'cheese- you can go here and pretend (for a price of course).

Smitty

November 4th, 2009
4:44 pm

Try the Shrimp and Grits, a true southern favorite!

atlantanative

November 4th, 2009
4:45 pm

only here 12 yrs.you are a still tourist.please leave

ziza

November 4th, 2009
4:56 pm

i’m a transplanted yankee. there i said it lol. and i like mm’s. i know it’s not the best food, but yes i love the arnold palmers and the yeast rolls are to live for. one thing i REALLY like is the sheer array of food that’s on the menu!! i do like the atmosphere. and any restaurant that has fried chicken livers is ok with me. i do love ok cafe and will definitely try carvers. have been wanting to try colonnade for a long time and just haven’t gotten there. great responses even the mean ones lol are entertaining. i like jk and am happy he’s back to commentating on restaurants. and making collards for his daughter. love that. :-)

KC

November 4th, 2009
5:00 pm

When I first moved to Atlanta (from TN) over 20 years ago, I really enjoyed the place. The last few times I went, the food was cold, greasy, and abso-fricking-lutely god-awful. I’ll never go back again, and when friends come to visit and want to go there, I take them to OK Cafe instead.

It's Very Simple

November 4th, 2009
5:09 pm

Just because I can make make a plate of spaghetti doesn’t mean that I’m Italian.

If you like MaryMac’s, you are not a born and bred Southerner. This is not an opinion, it’s just a fact. Any place can call its food ’southern’. It doesn’t make it so. It takes a bonafide Southerner to identify bonafide Southern food.

Atlanta Native

November 4th, 2009
5:17 pm

The real one, by the way.

The review was very good based on my trips there as of late. I loved it as a kid, but maybe it is the fact that I have broadened my palate over the years. The potlikker remains one of my favorite things ever and I agree on leaving the cornbread on the side. Each is great by itself.

However, I choose other places when I want to eat the heart attacks on a plate I grew up with.

John, remember, these are the same people who recommended QuickTrip or a specific Subway for best sandwich in Atlanta.

Oh, and real Atlanta Natives are courteous and glad to have you here. JK, without you I would never have tried so many different types of food while out and about. (Though your story years ago of taking the kid’s team for Korean BBQ seems a bit apocryphal to me)

Please have a “dine with Kessler” contest sometime!

Voice of Reason #1

November 4th, 2009
5:32 pm

I went to Mary Mac’s once. HATED IT! For real soul food, go to “Bob the Chef’s” in Boston.

Gary

November 4th, 2009
6:12 pm

I am not going to attempt in any way to be mean. Really, I’m not. I’m just gonna give what I think is the very best possible response to anyone that takes upon himself to come to our beautiful city and have the audacity to have anything negative to say about anything in this wonderful place that we call home.

And I’m not even going to be original either. I’m going to call upon the memory of someone that grew up in the south, loved the south and everything about it. I’m going to “paraphrase” from someone that I followed for many years in the AJC and in his numerous books. Our dear friend Lewis Grizzard.

“……….If you folks want to come down here, by all means come on. Come down here, eat our food, breathe our air, drink our water, marry our women. But know this, we don’t care how you use to do it in Cleveland. This is how we do it here. Anytime you aren’t happy with how we do it here, well my yankee friend, Delta is ready when you are……………”

Momma said it best. If you ain’t got something good to say, then just keep your mouth shut.

Mr. Kessler, I suggest that you jsut keep your mouth shut.

And as far as the tomato pie and Mary Macs’ goes. It is the best of the best of the best. If you don’t like it, it’s because you aren’t smart enough to understand it. And how dare you call it scary? You don’t know scary. Yeah, I recommend that you just keep your mouth shut.

Do you need the number for Delta?

T.R.

November 4th, 2009
6:42 pm

Has anybody mentioned the cinnamon rolls? Definitely tasty! Mary Mac’s will always have a loyal fan base. But for an overall memorable meat n’ three experience, the Colonnade is consistently better.

Nichole

November 4th, 2009
7:50 pm

Good grief people. It’s possible for two people to have two differing opinions about one thing and for neither to be an ignoramus who needs to get out of town. Sheesh.

Laverne

November 4th, 2009
9:02 pm

Mr. John , I apologize, you are not a Yankee if you can provide us with an authentic Maryland Crab Cake recipe.

Piso Mojado

November 4th, 2009
9:32 pm

JK,

As you know by now, Southerners in general, and Georgians in particular, are very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of ANYTHING. Most can’t deal with a difference of opinion and, when it does come, they immediately get personal. Good honest debate of anything – be it food, politics, sports, lifestyle – doesn’t seem to be on many of these people’s menu (pun intended).

Hang in there, buddy. You MAY get used to it after being here for 20 or 30 years.

Tragedy

November 4th, 2009
9:40 pm

Son’s Place being closed is a tragedy. Come back Son’s Place.

Ga Peach

November 4th, 2009
9:41 pm

I’m another Atlanta Native who gets dragged to Mary Mac’s by visitors all the time. And every time I regret it.

I’m sorry that many of my townspeople are blinded by allegiance to an institution rather than to what constitutes a decent meal. There’s great soul food in Atlanta- The Busy Bee is my favorite, but The Colonnade and Matthew’s are also very good.

Keep at it John!

chris

November 4th, 2009
9:43 pm

Mary Mac’s, overall, is a pretty good southern food establishment, but not even close to the best. The fried chicken needs more seasoning and the mac and cheese was bland to me. The collards were good along with the Peach Cobbler. I have only been once, and I will go again, maybe try the cornbread dressing this time.

Pdiddy

November 4th, 2009
9:51 pm

Give ‘em hell John. Good review. I kind of think it’s been like this since I was a student at GT in the 80’s. I liked it, and the aging quirkiness, but the food is hit or miss. Would be fun to hit the cocktails, rather than sweet tea….

Traci

November 4th, 2009
10:03 pm

Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle GA puts Mary Mac to shame on any day!

necie hams

November 4th, 2009
10:10 pm

BlUE WILLOW IS THE PLACE TO BE!!!!

SharonH

November 4th, 2009
10:10 pm

Well I’m glad somebody said it! MM’s is one of those overrated Atlanta phenomenoms like chili dogs from the Varsity or UGA football. None of them are worthy of the publicity they receive.

signed,
a native Southerner

John Kessler

November 4th, 2009
10:11 pm

Laverne, I’ve made a blood oath not to share the recipe for crabcakes with anyone who cannot provide their Old Line State bona fides. I will say it involves Old Bay Seasoning, crushed saltines and (here, I duck for cover) Hellman’s mayonnaise.

Native Southerner

November 4th, 2009
10:13 pm

KC, it really wasn’t any better 20 years ago, was it? I tried Mary Mac’s for the first time 22 years ago. It was just as disappointing the next time, 15 years ago. I’ve never returned.

Villa Rica DAWG

November 4th, 2009
10:44 pm

I thought it was just me… I LOVE southern cooking. Merry Mac’s? Not so much…

Edward

November 4th, 2009
11:01 pm

Native southerner here and I can attest that Mary Mac’s is just awful. And yes, I’ve been several times and it is awful every time. Seriously, if that is your idea of “great Southern food” I pity your meager experiences. My parents wanted to go there when they visited because they’d heard about it. I warned them, but we went anyway. It was awful. I found absolutely nothing redeeming, I’ve had better food from a Swanson frozen dinner.

There are far better choices for good Southern food in Atlanta. Mary Mac’s has some mystified reputation, much like The Varsity (another seriously overrated experience that I just don’t understand). Evidently one must not have ever had actual good food in order to adore these vaunted places. I’m just thankful that my grandmother and mother knew how to cook real food so I could tell the difference and know that Mary Mac’s is just awful.

east cobber

November 4th, 2009
11:03 pm

sorry, but mary macs doesn’t hold a candle to many of the local meat and three’s (carver’s for example)…over-priced and underwhelming…after my last visit, i said that’s it for me.

Native Southerner

November 4th, 2009
11:04 pm

Someone mentioned Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles. John’s Creek location closed abruptly a few weeks ago.