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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

ACB

November 6th, 2009
10:40 pm

Shame on all of you who attacked John Kessler. YOU should leave town, you are embarrasing and give Atlanta its bad name.

John, for good southern food, Collonade and Carvers will never disappoint. Unlike some of the rude fellow Atlantans who have attacked you here.

Tamp Wreck.

November 7th, 2009
4:03 am

Wow, this really brings back memories. My roommate and I sustained ourselves once a week and Mary Mac’s in the late 70’s while at Tech. The food then was simple, inexpensive, and pretty good. It would never come close to what my mama prepared, but was much better than the staple of fast foods and pizza we ate other nights of the hot plate tuna mac we made in our dorm room.

I went back about eight years ago before attending the Nutcracker at the Fox during the Holidays. Lie they say, you can’t go home again. It wasn’t bad, but it was still disappointing. As others have said, there are better restaurants in many small towns on the fringe of Atlanta. Unfortunately, I don’t get to them as much as I like, living in Florida, where I have yet to find good southern food.

However, don’t mess with the Varsity!! I know the rings are greasy, and the dogs are sloppy, but I love them and the greasy fried peach pies. Took my 2 daughters (3&4) there when in town last year, and they loved it too. I had to order extra pies to go!

Native Atlantan

November 7th, 2009
9:10 am

Last time I went to Mary Mac’s I was served a heaping order of food poisoning. Never been back. And as for the Varsity, can’t they serve Coke without it being watered down? Why is it that you get at Coke from Steak and Shake and it tastes great, like a Coke was meant to be served, but at the Varsity it tastes like it’s a 50/50 mix with Atlanta tap water. Just don’t get it.

Bunnie

November 7th, 2009
9:32 am

Native Atlantan here, and I can say for sure Mary Mac’s is nowhere as near as good as it was when my mother used to drag me there in the 70s. She also dragged me to the Colonnade (still good) and Bradshaw’s (gone when the building went condo). After years of pasta and sushi, I longed for real southern food, and found it at the Colonnade.

But I still think native Yankees have no business critiquing southern food. That’s as bad as Paula Deen rating Philly cheese steaks.

Wally Butts

November 7th, 2009
9:41 am

True southerner here. Family goes back before the civil war in the south. Great Grandmother was born in Savannah. Great Grandfather in Charleston. I have never lived anywhere else.

Having said all that, Mary Macs is not good. Very average across the board. It was better 35 years ago when I moved here, but went downhill a long time ago. If you like southern tourist traps, go there and PittyPat’s. Both are overpriced and very average.

Nicholas Wolaver

November 7th, 2009
10:53 am

I am totally pissed that the trees were torn down on the corner of Myrtle and Ponce de Leon. Shame on those who approved the tree removal and shame on those who cut the trees down at Mary Mac’s. The intersection is ruined.

It's True

November 7th, 2009
10:56 am

The food is terrible. I have been there a total of three times and the first time (about a decade ago), it was great. The second and third times (when friends were visiting from out of town), the food was awful. The vegetables weren’t seasoned properly, food was either overcooked or undercooked, and was served cold. I won’t be going there again. And as for Southerners to get so defensive about the criticism of a restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine, well, that’s just stupid.

Vette

November 7th, 2009
11:52 am

Right on, John, about the chicken-less dumplings. The last time I went to Mary Mac’s, I got one piece of chicken in my dumplings. I WON’T be returning.

Matt

November 7th, 2009
12:07 pm

This place is just as nasty as the Colonnade. Both should be sprayed for bugs and then burned to the ground. I just don’t understand – with all the other actually good restaruants in this City, how this place even stays open? I guess it will die out with all the gray-gays and buckhead betty’s that have no taste, teeth or sense.

thefluffyturtle`

November 7th, 2009
12:24 pm

“the waiter marks you as a newbie or a tourist”
I THINK this says it all…..I don’t live in ATL, but am a TRUE SOUTHERNER….I personally thing that after something has been featured on TV….it falls from grace. The TRUE MEAT N 3’s are the ones that the locals go to and continue to rave about.
AND I AGREE with the comment about the oil being from the tomatoes. ANYONE with ANY SENSE knows when you cook tomatoes, the oil (or grease) comes to the top….
GREASE….is a staple in the SOUTH….I was raised on it! LONG LIVE THE SOUTH….and by the way….I STILL BELIVE THAT THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN!!!!!!

Chrissy (a male)

November 7th, 2009
12:35 pm

I wouldn’t say that Mary Mac’s is my favorite Southern cooking in Atlanta, that award goes to The Colonnade, but this guy’s review is all about his attitude, not the restaurant. Where’s The Editor when you need one?

Nannytayl

November 7th, 2009
12:53 pm

I was disappointed the last time we visited. Nothing was spectacular and some of the dishes I simply did not finish – tastes like everything was cooked in the same oil. Expensive. I cook better than this.

tony

November 7th, 2009
1:03 pm

Go Back to Mass! The road north has minimal traffic

pattik2

November 7th, 2009
1:06 pm

Does anyone remember Ma Hull’s boardinghouse on Boulevard? On Sunday’s she cooked for everyone and it was awesome!

Born and Raised New Yorker

November 7th, 2009
1:21 pm

I was born and raised in New York, and although we are not the south, we have excellent soul food restaurants (Amy Ruth’s, Rack and Soul and many many more). So when I moved here, my husband and I was on a quest to find something better or just as good as the ones we are used to. Nothing quite beats Harlem’s Amy Ruth’s Restaurant, however I would have to say that Mary Mac’s Tea room is in a league of it’s own. We have been to many restaurants down here including Glady’s Knight’s Chicken and Waffles (not good at all) but I would call Mary Mac’s tea room one of the best “Southern Cooking” restaurants so far. I have only been here for a year and I have gone there 8 times. The food is much better than New York’s famed Sylvia’s Resturant. It is excellent. Everytime my husband and I go there we order something different and eat each others food. The food is delicious. Point Blank Period.

Jo

November 7th, 2009
1:28 pm

MM is very special to me. My sister, who has sinced passed away, took me there for my birthday. She always took me to Southern spots to celebrate our southern heritage. Loved the food, the hospitality, and the southern atmosphere. If you can’t appreciate the Southern Heritage then Damn Yankees go home.

Doug Willix

November 7th, 2009
2:29 pm

John…if you didn’t have an ancestor who fought in the Confederate Army during the War of Northern Aggression AND you don’t go to NASCAR races you ain’t got much claim to being a Southerner.

Sorry to have to try and disagree with an elitist yankee snob who graduated from Williams College but I could eat Mary Macs’ Tomato Pie and their Peanut Butter Pie every day and twice on Sunday.

Ed Graham

November 7th, 2009
2:52 pm

John, if you so dread living in the South, just remember: “Delta is ready when you are”.

CC

November 7th, 2009
7:46 pm

I’m a Yankee, and the only time I have ever been served cinnamon yeast rolls like my mother used to make was at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. They transport me home, and I love the fried chicken too!

John Kessler

November 8th, 2009
12:34 pm

Doug – I think graduates of Williams College everywhere will agree that while you learn many wonderful things there, eating well is not among them. No, my food snobbery was formed right here in Atlanta. I am, for the record, a big fan of the food at Matthew’s in Tucker and the Busy Bee Cafe on the West End.

To the piont.....

November 11th, 2009
3:58 pm

It truly sounds like most of you have not been to MM recently. It has definely improved in the last year. Some of you sound like your a 6 year old kid lashing out at a landmark in this city. I have been going to MM for over 10 years and I too have had some disappiont there in the past. But not latley. Whatever they are doing now they are on the right track!

Robert Coram

November 15th, 2009
8:32 am

Reasoning by analogy is fraught with peril, and nowhere is that more obvious than in your comment you can review Southern food in the same way you review Thai food. Would you be so confident of reviewing Thai food if you lived in Thailand? Mexican food if you lived in Mexico? A better answer would have been that you review Southern food because it is your job. But the real problem is that you still don’t know squat about some Southern foods, i.e., barbecue. Southerners sense this. And you would be bette served by not being flip and throwing up the Thai diversion, and, instead, saying you are in a land you will never understand. You will get some things wrong, but you will, at least, have remained honest, and readers will bend over to help you better understand.

John Kessler

November 15th, 2009
3:06 pm

Robert — you mean there’s better barbecue than Sonny’s?
::::ducks, runs for cover::::

Sociologist

November 15th, 2009
3:30 pm

Fear not, Mr. Kessler: I have done extensive research in this field and the median IQ of someone saying “Delta is ready when you are” is 93.

Judith Lupo Wold

November 23rd, 2009
10:46 am

John: SInce you have not been in Atlanta “forever”, you never had the pleasure of meeting my mother, Margaret Lupo who owned and operated Mary Macs Tearoom from the early 1960’s until her death in 1998. Mother was at the “tearoom” every morning around 6 (not home till 10 pm). She personally tasted everything on the steam table (with clean spoons of course) for quality…she was a hands on owner-operator. My father, who was in the produce business for many years in Atlanta, personally visited the farmer’s market daily, choosing vegetables from “produce row.” String beans were snapped by the bartender, at the bar, during slow hours. Mary Mac’s was a place where folks from politicians to bridge clubs (sometimes lined up outside the door) met for lunch or dinner–the food was excellent and the prices fair. Food is very personal to southerners, as shown from some of your comments on the blog. Thanks for allowing people to share their thoughts. I wish you had known Mom.

John Kessler

November 23rd, 2009
10:52 am

Hey, Judy – Thanks for writing! I wish I had known her, too. From everything I’ve heard, she sounded like an amazing person.

Mary MackDaddy

May 26th, 2010
9:34 am

Even I won’t eat the food there. Our cook goes out and gets fresh road kill every day. The freshest. We never change the grease, because we’re comfortable with it. None of us wash our hands which gives it that great just took a dump taste.MMMM good!!!!

Mary MackDaddy

May 26th, 2010
9:36 am

Oh sorry thought this was McDonald’s