By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2016
ATLANTA—Amid the massive dust-covered wooden bar and workers in hardhats and an uncooperative air conditioner, Manuel’s Tavern was blessed. Scores of people, including employees and longtime supporters, crowded into the Poncey-Highland neighborhood pub on July 25 with its floor still protected by paper.
Brian Maloof, who now runs the tavern begun by his late father, Manuel, said reopening after the renovation without first blessing the establishment was not going to happen. While no longer a member of his parents’ church, Maloof said he wanted the blessing from the parish priest to honor them and his extended family. He attends a Protestant church.
“The blessing is a tribute to God, to Manuel and Robert Maloof, to my grandparents, to my entire family, to the employees, to our customers and to the city that we call home. The blessing is a public display and acknowledgement of my understanding where all blessings flow from,” he said in a Facebook post.
The building was closed in late 2015 for renovations to the century-old structure. It is slated to begin serving food and drink again in August.
Father John Azar admitted to the crowd of more than 50 people it may strike some as odd to bless a bar. But he said Jesus went everywhere people were during his public life.
“He touched them where they were. The love of God is not limited to any one special group. The love of God is open to everyone,” said Father Azar, pastor of St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church.
The tavern on North Highland Avenue holds a special place in Atlanta among politicians, journalists and writers. Opened in 1956 by Manuel Maloof, the Atlanta-born son of a Lebanese immigrant, he rose to serve as a storied political leader in DeKalb County. He and his wife were Catholic, of the Melkite tradition. They worshiped at the Melkite church on nearby Ponce de Leon Avenue. The Melkite Church is an Eastern Catholic church in union with the pope.
Welcomed Theology on Tap
Manuel’s Tavern became known as a watering hole for Democrats, with a portrait of John F. Kennedy gazing down as bartenders served beer. The last three Democrats who have been in the White House have added a stop at Manuel’s Tavern to their Atlanta itineraries. Manuel Maloof, who served as DeKalb County chief executive officer and commission chairman, passed away in 2004.
While named for Manuel, the tavern was managed for decades by his brother, Robert, who died in 2013.
When Theology on Tap began in Atlanta by the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Ministry in the fall of 1997, the first speaker series held on 12 Wednesday nights alternated between Manuel’s Tavern and local Catholic churches. Over 150 young adults attended each week. Theology on Tap had some sessions at Manuel’s in 2010 and 2011.
Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, longtime friend of Manuel Maloof, is credited with the addition of the “clergy only” parking spaces in Manuel’s lot after he reportedly came on a hot afternoon with Archbishop John F. Donoghue and they couldn’t find a close spot.
In prayer, Father Azar recalled how Jesus was “visible in the marketplaces of (his) day for the salvation of all.”
“Bring your presence to the meeting places of your creation, the marketplaces of today,” he prayed.
“Establish this business on a firm foundation for the proper enjoyment and at the same time, for the safety and protection of all.”
Father Azar asked God to keep safe the workers and patrons and “preserve their lives against all danger.”
Maloof led Father Azar past exposed ductwork and heavy equipment as the priest, wearing a stole, sprinkled holy water.
The owner said the unexpectedly large crowd brought him near to tears. He said the gathering in the sweltering July heat reminded him what makes the tavern community special.
Marc Merlin has been a Manuel’s regular for eight years, after organizing the Atlanta Science Tavern, which draws together folks interested in hearing from scientists. Manuel’s Tavern has been its home since the group began eight years ago, meeting there monthly.
“Manuel’s is not only a neighborhood pub,” said Merlin, “It’s a community center.”