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Designing Women S5 E5 Extra Sugar - Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood: Brief History of ATL Tea Rooms

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Welcome to the segment that left both of us a little hungry after recording. In honor of the hot and bothered crowd of ladies all hopped up on two-for-1 daiquiris from the Ruffles and Bows tea room, hootin’ and hollerin’ for our boy Anthony during the bachelor auction, let’s talk all things “Atlanta tea rooms.”


Ruffles and Bows may not have been a real tea room in Atlanta, but Mary Macs - a true Atlanta staple - IS a real Atlanta tea room. And there are a few other ATL spots where folks can get their “tea room” fix today - but in the 1940s Atlanta sense of the term “tea room.” We’ll get into it…


Here’s are a few of the references we used for this segment, in case you want to dig around a bit more:



Come on y’all, let’s get into it!




 

Transcript

Hi, Salina.

Hey, Nikki.

And hey, everybody.

Welcome to this week's edition of Extra Sugar.

So this week we're going to talk about all things Atlanta Tea Rooms.

This is honor in honor of the hot and bothered crowd of ladies all hopped up on two for one daiquiris from the Ruffles and Bow Tea Room.

Hooting and hollering for our boy Anthony during the bachelor auction.

Speaker B: I mean, I'm ready.

So you mentioned in the main episode that Ruffles and Bows came up in season four, episode 21, tough Enough.

I don't know if I got that episode number right.

Tough enough, close enough.

But I think we discussed this at the time, and then I validated it again this time that to the best of my knowledge, that wasn't an actual tea room in Atlanta.

But as long time listeners might remember, we did talk about Mary Mac's tea room.

We've talked about it, I think, a couple of times.

Probably we talked about Ruffles and Bows, but most specifically in season three, episode 19 the Women of Atlanta, we covered it briefly in references, but again, it was really brief.

So I thought maybe in today's segment we could talk more about Mary Max, which is really and truly a true Atlanta staple.

It has an incredible history all its own.

And then also, I can share a list of places where folks can get their tea room fix in Atlanta today, but in the 1940s Atlanta sense of the room, of the term tea room, which is not what I think you think of when you think of tea room.

That's right, we'll talk about it.

So I'm calling this segment eating good in the neighborhood atlanta Tea Rooms.

So first up, Mary Max.

Thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs sideways on where you sit with Mary Max.

Speaker B: Oh, boy.

Speaker B: I've never eaten there.

You've never eaten at Max?

You've never been to Max?

That's so fascinating.

Speaker B: I know, huh?

Yeah, we have to sit with that for a second.

I was not prepared for that.

Maybe you can change that really far away.

It's like, really far away.

So that's so interesting.

I'll have to sit with that for a minute.

So I like Mary Max.

I think it's good.

It opened in 1945 as Mrs.

Fuller's Tea House near Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue.

So Mary Mackenzie bought the restaurant in 1951, but she didn't change the name until 1953.

We talked about this in that season three episode.

I mentioned that Mary Max was one of 16 tea rooms in Atlanta.

It is the only tea room, the only original tea room that remains today from that time.

So when it opened in 1945, the restaurant had one dining room.

Today it has six.

It occupies 13,000.

It's one of the city's five largest restaurants.

I think it's important to talk here about the historical context around the founding of the tea room in 1945.

So Salina touched on this when we chatted about it in season three.

But if you missed that, it's important for you to know that Mary Max may not be a tea room in the sense that you think of one.

It's not like high society afternoon teas and finger foods.

It's actually more commonly known as a meat and three.

So a meat and three sides, generally at one fixed price, kind of like a cafeteria of sorts for a long time, maybe like the 1940s to the 1980s.

These were really popular across the southern United States.

Apparently, they have their roots in Nashville, Tennessee.

Oh, I didn't know that.

But at the time, Mrs.

Fuller's tea room opened and then later, Mary Max.

Speaker B: It wasn't exactly tea rooms or meet and threes.

Meet and threes.

Okay.

It wasn't super cool for women to be in business, but it was necessary.

So this would have been post World War II, and people needed money in a bad way, especially widows of soldiers.

So some women went into the restaurant business but called their business a tea room to make it seem more appropriate to be run by a woman.

There was some sense that calling it a tea room sort of elevated it to the appropriateness of a lady.

I was really disappointed I couldn't find much more about Mary Mackenzie in my research.

I Googled a lot, but I really couldn't find much.

There's a lot more about Margaret Lupo, who was Mary Mackenzie's successor successor who took over in 1962 and ran the restaurant until 1994, according to a nice tribute I found written by her daughter Salina.

You'd like to know that her daughter is a co founder of the community.

Speaker B: Oh, okay.

Speaker B: So hopefully that means something for everyone else.

Yeah, sorry.

It's like a planned community in I probably should have written a description about it.

This was really just a note to you because I know that you hold Sarah and B in high esteem.

Speaker B: Oh, you know, I'm not good with directions, but it's like outside of Atlanta, and they're very focused on community, but they're also very focused on they were doing farm to table before.

Speaker B: Farm to table was cool.

Speaker B: They're doing all the composting, and they're kind of insulated, but they're kind of woo woo.

I think it's kind of elevated too.

Like, it's fancy and expensive.

Speaker B: That's correct.

So her daughter wrote a really nice tribute.

Her daughter, who is a co founder of Saranby.

So according to that tribute, margaret started out with her own restaurant in the early 60s in downtown Atlanta, called Margaret's Tray Shop, but apparently the IRS building was nearby, and that comprised most of her clientele.

Like, she did really well selling them lunch, but then the IRS building moved, so she had to close the restaurant.

As a result, she went to work at Mary Maxx, and shortly after she got there, mary Mackenzie announced she was getting married and moving to Florida.

So she sold the restaurant to Margaret.

I found a really great article with some lesser known facts about Mary Max, which of course I'll link in the show notes.

But one of the things I found said that Margaret was unable to get a bank loan in 1961 to buy the restaurant from Mary Mackenzie, so she had to scrounge together cash from family and friends to buy the restaurant.

It specifically says that a decade later.

Obviously, she was a force in the Atlanta business scene.

She had probably served a lot of the bankers in Atlanta at that point, but they still refused to give her a loan to expand the business.

So once again, she had to look to family and friends for cash to pay for the expansion of the restaurant.

One other point about the early days of Mary Max that I think is important to talk about is Margaret's decision to desegregate the dining hall in 1962, at the height of the civil Rights movement.

Margaret desegregated it.

Her daughter said, quote, from the start, mother made it clear that everybody's money is the same color, and if you don't understand that, then you don't need to work in my restaurant.

Over the years, Mary Max has hosted a number of famous guests, including the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton, president Jimmy Carter, and wait for it, Beyonce.

In 2011, the State of Georgia and the House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating Mary Max as Atlanta's dining room.

So it's really sort of an incredible history built on the shoulders of who must have really been incredible women.

So I wanted to share that first, but then I think we have to talk about the food.

I feel like that's kind of the most important part.

If you've never had it, then this might be informative for you or maybe you're familiar enough with it.

Speaker B: Oh, yeah.

Speaker B: Well, I love to browse a menu, so there's a good chance I've seen the menu before, and I don't know why I feel like I need to address it, because it is like the aside from Varsity Quintessential Atlanta restaurant.

Speaker B: I think I've said this on the podcast before, that I am a Southerner who is a bad Southerner.

Speaker B: So I have not traditionally the older I get, the more I'm enjoying Southern food.

Speaker B: There was large times in my life where I'm like, I'd really rather just have sushi won't fried chicken.

Speaker B: I don't want turnip green.

Speaker B: Like, it's fine, but it's fine.

Speaker B: I've gotten a much deeper appreciation for it and love for it, so I was just never really interested.

Speaker B: Also, this might stem from the fact that my family would find a restaurant and then they'd want to go there all the time, and it just turns out that it usually wound up being some kind of home cooking restaurant.

Speaker B: And so I got that food a lot, and I was just, eh, do I need it again?

Speaker B: Yeah.

Speaker B: And now I really regret my decisions.

So I'll say, for what it's worth, before we start talking about it, I mean, Mary Max is, in my opinion, similar to the varsity.

It's a place like, it's just so common in just everybody says the Varsity, and it's fine food.

It's fine.

It's fine.

Mary Maxx is really more of an experience.

It's more about having an Atlanta experience, which is why I think so many famous people have been there.

The food is fine.

In my opinion, the food is fine.

But I think growing up on that food, I've had really good fried, really, really good in, like, a lot of really my grandmother made the best biscuits in the entire world, as far as I'm concerned.

So Mary Max gives you a biscuit basket.

It's fine.

But Cracker Barrel has good biscuits too.

You know what?

Think it's I don't think you've missed some culinary experience.

I think you've missed a cultural experience.

But I wouldn't tell you, like, drop everything tonight and get there.

I think the food's fine.

It's consistent.

We know Nikki.

Speaker B: It's a long way away.

It's a long way away.

I can give you some homegrown food right here.

But I also grew up, like, my parents love a good cafeteria.

So I've been to SNS.

I've been to R J, or whatever it is.

I've been to all the cafeterias.

I think of this food as sort of in that vein, but if you're not used to Southern food, it is good Southern food.

So that's where I was going to go next, is that they're really well known for their Southern cuisine.

The Mary Max website says that today the kitchen still handshucks the corn, snaps the green beans, and bakes the breads and desserts just as they did in the 1940s.

I found a few references that if you're a new Mary Max visitor, you get a complimentary bowl of pot liquor and a slice of crackling cornbread.

So pot liquor is a super flavorful broth left behind after you boil together collard greens and beans and then crackling.

Cornbread is cornbread made with pork skins baked into it.

But I have to tell you, I've never gotten that at Mary Max.

Speaker B: Did you let them know you're a first timer?

They didn't ask.

I didn't know you needed to tell them.

Speaker B: They didn't want to give you their pot liquor.

They didn't want to give it to you.

Lots of people say if you go and tell them, it's your first time.

I'm sharing this for other people, because my experience well, I'm taking it for myself.

I've missed items, telling you.

So again, I'm not sure I've ever actually had pot liquor, but it's a Southern staple, and several Mary Max reviews raved about Mary Max pot liquor.

My favorite part of Mary Max is the complimentary bread baskets.

Like I said, it's got a lot of rolls.

I think there's some yeast rolls.

I think there's some biscuits in there.

And they have cornbread.

If you come in after 04:00 p.m., they put in cinnamon rolls, too.

That's what I like.

I like their cinnamon rolls.

Speaker B: Not to like there's no way you haven't had pot liquor, but you wouldn't have ever just had pot liquor.

It's like what people mix in with the right?

But I think you strain that out and give it as like a broth.

And I've never just had the broth by itself, so I've certainly had the greens that are cooked, but no one's ever served it to me as pot liquor as far as I can remember.

Speaker B: Yeah, I would think that the point would be to take it home and use it for cooking.

To take it home from where?

Speaker B: From the restaurant?

No, you eat it.

It's a delicacy.

Oh, it's delightful.

According to people.

Several things I read name the fried chicken as a must have along with pot roast and meatloaf.

I'm not sure there was any consistency on which sides outrank others.

So, like, I read several things, but I didn't see anybody say, you have to try this.

I will say I loved the cream corn, the collard greens, and the fried green tomatoes.

And I think everyone loves their mac and cheese.

They also have tomato pie if you're looking for that real Southern experience.

If you can make it to dessert, I don't think I ever have.

But they do have banana pudding, key lime pie, peach cobbler, all the things.

So before you get in the car and head down, hold up.

I wanted to share a couple other tea rooms that still exist around Atlanta.

And I do mean this in the sense of the original tea room definition.

So a meet and three somewhere you can go today.

That's not Mary Max, but you can still get Mary Max like food.

So I found an eater.com article that suggested 16 locations.

I'll link to it in the show notes, but here are five that stuck out to me.

One thing you'll notice distance.

They're much closer to us than Mary Max.

So Hannah's kitchen.

They're off Breckenridge Road in Duluth.

According to the article, I found it's open for both breakfast and lunch, but quote it's during the latter meal where the homestyle cooking of meat and three really shines.

Simply choose your protein, like baked chicken, fried fish, country fried steak or meatloaf.

Then your two sides, including black eyed peas, mac and cheese, fried okra and turnip greens.

The lunch plate also comes with cornbread or a dinner roll and costs just under $10.

Speaker B: Wow.

Next up is the Magnolia room off Hugh Howell Road in Tucker.

Thateater.com article says Tucker's Magnolia Room has a good hold on Southern classics, but expands its reach with seasonal offerings like shrimp creole and sweet potato balls.

They've got enough pies to fill a bake shop coconut custard, lemon meringue, sweet potato.

So go ahead and grab a slice.

And then Matthews Cafeteria off Main Street.

And Tucker.

Apparently they've been run by the same family since 1955.

And all the things I said before about meat and threes sound like they apply to that one.

And then the last two, I'm going to take it to Atlanta proper, since Tucker and Duluth can be hard to get to if you're just like visiting the city.

I'd like to try the colonod just off Cheshire Bridge Road.

Apparently this is another Atlanta classic that opened in 1927.

Theeater.com article indicates that their clientele errs a little on the older side, but I'd be willing to try to bring the dining room age down.

Speaker B: That means they know what they're talking about, right?

So apparently fried chicken and stewed corn are big hits on their menu.

And then last but not least is the Busy Bee Cafe.

First, I think their name is Cute as a button.

They've been in business since they were established by Lucy Jackson in 1947.

They're open Monday through Sunday off Martin Luther King Jr.

Drive in downtown.

Their fried chicken and key lime pie are named as must haves there.

I'm so hungry, so I also am good and hungry, so I'm going to call it right there.

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Go get some delicious food and thank you for listening to this week's Extra Sugar you SA.




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