Prepare to wait for a table. Mary Mac's Tea Room don't much like reservations. It's a first come, first serve-type situation where your whole party must be there before you check in. They aren't going to seat you if your party isn't all there and you're all streaming in all willy-nilly. Pay attention! They'll call your name once or twice but if you don't come running to get seated, they'll pass you by. There's a buzzy anticipation there, as you wait, that something good is happening. It's because something good is happening. Also, and this is key, come hungry. It's not called "Atlanta's Dining Room," by way of a 2011 resolution filed in the Georgia House of Representatives, for nothing. No, Mary Mac's Tea Room is an institution. It's been a Southern restaurant staple virtually unchanged in atmosphere and ambience since 1945.
At Mary Mac's, It's All About Tradition
While you're waiting for a table, know this: many others have waited to eat the vittles and fixings prepared in Mary Mac's kitchen. Some of those who have eaten there have been photographed and are framed on the walls. Congressman John Lewis ate there; President Jimmy Carter, too. The Dalai Lama ate there. So has Beyonce. From James Brown to Hillary Clinton, folks from all walks of life have walked through Mary Mac's front door to be treated like family in this family-owned restaurant.
Like family, they'll tell you how it is. Did I mention they don't seat incomplete parties? Don't you try to fool them with that. You'll come in, finally (yes, it's a long wait but you can look at all the photos and memorabilia on the wall, or, perhaps, thumb through the cookbook they have for sale), and take a seat in one of their dining rooms. They'll give you a little slip of paper to write down your order for the waiter. They'll give you a little Mary Mac's pencil to fill it out with. Don't think about pocketing that pencil! Don't be a scalawag. The waiters are on to your funny business and will collect them after taking your orders.
The menu is as southern as the southern can get. It hasn't changed much in the decades since Mary herself was working hard in the kitchen. From the kitchen comes Brunswick stew and pot likker, fried green tomatoes and fried okra, ribs and cube steak, fried chicken and meatloaf, grits and butter peas, hoppin' john and pickled beets. Did I mention the tomato pie? The banana pudding? The endless refills of sweet tea (the "table wine of the South")? The peach martinis? The cobbler? Like I said, come hungry.
The History of Mary Mac's Tea Room
It's what Mary would have wanted. Mary Mac was Mary MacKenzie. It was the end of World War II and enterprising women were in search of a living. Many women, after the war, were widowed. Many needed to find ways to become breadwinners. Women began opening up restaurants in Atlanta. But, with misogyny and women's rights as they were back then, women had a hard time finding ways to own and operate full scale restaurants. So, enterprising indeed, MacKenzie opened a "tea room" instead. Tea rooms were refined, cozy little establishments of Southern charm— perfect for a woman. Soon, there were 16 tea rooms throughout Atlanta. Mary Mac's original tea room could seat 75 guests (it's since been expanded many times over). Today, Mary Mac's is the only original tea room that remains.
The food is done in much the way MacKenzie did it, and her predecessor, Margaret Lupo, did it. They still shuck the corn every morning. They still wash the greens by hand. They snap the green beans with their fingers and bake the breads and desserts in-house. They still put the attention deserved to the food and their guests.
The Atlanta Community Dines Together
All types come to Atlanta's dining room. An upstart rapper and his crew might be seated next to Georgia's Attorney General. A man in a MAGA hat might be sipping tea next to a Biden campaign manager. A couple on a first date might be sitting behind a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. A pharmacist might be chowing down near Alan Jackson. Alan Jackson might be trying to pocket one of the pencils. Don't do it, Alan! They're for sale in the front for pocket change.
This is Atlanta. Have a seat. Sip some tea. Stay awhile. Chat with the neighboring table. It's a community. It's a loving community spread wide over a big table of a Southern spread. Don't wait any longer. Get yourself to Mary Mac's Tea Room. Just know you'll wait.
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