A September 30 post on the Facebook feed of Manuel’s Tavern shows two photos of the parking lot outside the six-decade-old Atlanta bar and restaurant, taken four years apart. In the first photo, taken on election night of 2016, hundreds are on their feet, covering every possible inch of the pavement, except that occupied by tables to be set with drinks or food, and a smoking, outdoor grill. The second, taken hours before it was posted, shows about two dozen people sitting, some slouching, before a 75-inch screen, watching one of the Trump-Biden debates.
The post reads, “If you want to see the impact on Atlanta Business caused by COVID…”
Two months later, in early December, after losing about $25,000 a month since the summer, owner Brian Maloof was planning on telling his staff, already cut in half to 26 part-time employees, that he was ready to shut the tavern’s doors. Georgia was at the center of the political universe, after supporting a Democrat for president for the first time in decades. But the center of Georgia’s own political universe—especially for the Democratic Party—was on its last legs. The place where thousands of Atlantans and visitors alike have shared everything from a man’s landing on the moon to the election of the nation’s first Black president was trying to get by on reduced hours, limited inside seating, and to-go orders—and failing.
“I went into a panic,” recalls Angelo Fuster, a regular for decades who served on the staffs of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, and Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who replaced Jackson. Not having Manuel’s open at full capacity during this past year has been particularly hard for Georgia Democrats. Every Democratic candidate for president—McGovern, Carter, Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton—has made Manuel’s a stop on the campaign trail, Fuster said. A photo of John F. Kennedy hangs above the bar.
When Representative-elect Nikema Williams came to Atlanta from Alabama in August 2002, the 24-year-old “wanted to get involved” in Democratic politics. “I literally knew nobody,” she recalled. Two months later, she found herself at a Young Democrats of Fulton County meeting—at Manuel’s. “It absolutely became the place I went to,” she said.
Recently, as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris have visited Atlanta, “we would have taken them to Manuel’s Tavern,” said Williams, who is also chair of the state Democratic Party.
With so much at stake, and after spending decades at his “second home,” Fuster decided to set up a GoFundMe. He set a goal of $75,000, after talking with Maloof about how much was needed to pay for 2021 liquor licenses and insurance, plus payroll and food for several months. The goal was met within 24 hours. Fuster left the post online; it now approaches $185,000.
“It’s really remarkable, that people are donating to a business,” Fuster said in a recent call. “It bespeaks the affection people have for this place.”
The dozens of comments on the GoFundMe attest to the decades of important political and personal moments spent at Manuel’s—from founding movements to meetings spouses. There are former students, political organizers, Shakespearean actors, firefighters.
The tavern is named after Manuel Maloof, a son of Lebanese immigrants who opened the bar and restaurant in 1956. The Maloof family already had been in the bar business, and a vital part of Georgia’s political and social life, for four decades, as his father, Gibran, ran the Tip Top Billiard Parlor in the early 20th century only blocks from the state capitol. The wooden bar from the Tip Top is now at the center of the main room of Manuel’s.
That bar isn’t the only bit of history in the tavern. When Manuel’s took on a renovation in late 2015, present and former customers from around the world called to let Brian know their concerns about the hundreds of photos, posters, and other objects lining the walls and shelves of the bar. Those objects included plaques with names, birthdates, and dates of death, hung above the places where “regulars” used to sit—even an urn with one regular’s ashes. A group of three universities—Georgia State, Emory, and the Savannah College of Art and Design—created a digital archive of the tavern’s interior.
But even the most faithful document can’t recreate the sense of being at the actual tavern, and that has been absent during one of the most urgent political seasons in living memory. “We would have seen firsthand a level of excitement that we’ve missed,” said Maloof. “There’s not a whole bunch of photos that show you were there” when Biden was elected president, he said. “As eventful as it’s been, it’s like it’s been erased.”
There’s also the loss of a “sense of community, a sense of structure” with the tavern’s not being open to capacity, he said. Manuel’s has been a meeting place not just for politicians but also political reporters. It was a well-traveled site for one of the vocation’s most powerful assets: word of mouth. If it had been open at capacity this past year, reporters parachuting from all over the country to sort out the chaos would have found their way to Manuel’s, said Jim Galloway, who recently announced his retirement from being a political columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after four decades. “Our God is a cruel and jealous one,” said Galloway. “He gives us all this trouble and no place to put out the fire.”
For Maloof, it’s also been frustrating being a restaurant and bar owner in this pandemic and not receiving adequate support from the federal government. “We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do,” he said—closing altogether for three weeks when required, filing for unemployment benefits on behalf of his employees, raising their hourly wages to compensate for a lack of tips, using his savings to fill holes. He hasn’t paid himself since March. He applied for PPP and received it, but it didn’t last very long. Now he’s working with the Small Business Administration to determine if he needs to repay part of the loan, which would be an additional burden. “I’ve been abandoned by the federal government,” he said—and many other restaurant owners he knows are in the same situation, or worse.
“These have been the most miserable nine months of my life,” said Maloof, who is 53.
Fuster sees symbolic meaning in the success to date of the GoFundMe. “It is reassuring and has some extra meaning that a bar and restaurant that is closely identified with the Democratic Party suffering from the malfeasance of Trump is being rescued by the people,” he said.