A lot has changed in Atlanta since 1972.
The metro area grew by thousands of square miles and its population swelled by millions. We’ve hosted the Olympics, have the busiest airport in the world, and have out-sprawled nearly every other city in the country. But some things haven’t changed, and McKinnon’s Louisiane is one of them.
By the time I migrated from Cobb County into the city, McKinnon’s already qualified as an Atlanta Classic. So much so that in my eagerness to try out all of the newly opened bars and restaurants, I didn’t even think about stopping in. For years, I’d drive past the weathered sign in front, and images of a smoky bar filled with salty, hard-drinkin’ regulars flashed through my mind. As I discovered upon my first visit, I had it all wrong. That is, except for the part about the regulars.
It’s a time capsule of old-school Atlanta dining, with a feel that couldn’t be recreated if you tried.
Savannah native Billy McKinnon left his job as a Wall Street Stockbroker in the late 1960s and settled in Atlanta. Through some family contacts he wound up taking a three-month unpaid apprenticeship at Galatoire’s, the famed French Creole restaurant in New Orleans. There, he learned the food business and Creole and Cajun cuisine.
In 1972, McKinnon opened McKinnon’s Louisiane off Cheshire Bridge road, where the business remained until moving in 1985 to the current Buckhead location. In addition to running the restaurant and crafting the Creole recipes, McKinnon quickly endeared himself to his customers and earned a fast and loyal following. Some of those recipes, like the sautéed grouper Louisiane topped with toasted almonds, lump crab meat, and hollandaise ($22.50) remain on the menu to this day.
At age 65, McKinnon sold the restaurant in 2002 to longtime employee and general manager Aziz Mehram, who had been with the business since 1979. Mehram remains committed to maintaining the customer service and welcoming atmosphere that earned McKinnon’s such a loyal following. Rarely a day goes by when he isn’t feverishly working the front of house, greeting guests and stopping by the tables to check on customers and chat.
According to Mehram, more 70 percent of its business comes from return customers, many of whom have been with McKinnon’s for all 40 years it has been in business. “People come, and they don’t leave,” he says. There is a sense that everyone knows everyone’s name, and with a little time they’d quickly get to know yours as well.
Little has changed at McKinnon’s over the years. The décor flavor is old-school Vegas, from the wood-paneled walls of the more formal Louisiane Room to the framed photos of longtime customers lining the bar. You can still order a round of Billy’s Hot Peppered Shrimp ($19.50) and taste the same buttery spicy sauce they’ve served for decades. Friday and Saturday nights feature Fran Irwin at the piano bar, a gig she has worked 51 weeks a year for the last quarter-century.
It would be a challenge to find a more dedicated group of restaurant regulars than those in the less formal “Grill Room” for Cabaret Night every Wednesday. Each week, a clan of patrons who’ve clearly known each other many years puts on its own cabaret show with the help of pianist Bob Fountain on an old Thomas organ. The regulars take turns each week acting as the conductor for the show, picking the songs as well as the singers from the crowd.
On one recent night, after the third or fourth call for “Lovely Lou” to take the mic, a sweet-looking older woman in a fine Sunday hat treated the crowd to a rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune, “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” A few minutes later, a gentleman with an accordion performed a decidedly unique version of “Jump Jive An’ Wail.”
What was most captivating wasn’t necessarily the quality of the singing – though more than a few participants had a nice set of pipes on them – but the group’s obvious camaraderie. This is a place to leave the snark at the door and not worry if you don’t look “cool” when you’re suddenly on your feet in a conga line.
There is an authentic sense of community at McKinnon’s that can only develop organically, through years of a shared experience. And that is something Atlanta restaurants could use more of these days.McKINNON’S LOUISIANE