Mouth-watering memories of an old-fashioned ’cue joint

May 10, 2021, 13:35 PM by NAIT

We’re headlong into May. Four-plus months into 2021 – already. While life continues to roll along, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to things seen along the way. Some of it hasn’t been pretty; a lot of it has been more than expected.

Among the surprises have been hole-in-the-wall eat joints that have remained mouth-watering memories. In Atlanta, the go-to stop was Harold’s Barbecue, hallowed be its name; sadly, it closed about 10 years ago. The ’cue left your tongue slapping your lips for more, and the cracklin’ cornbread and Brunswick stew were Lord-have-mercy tasty. It was an old-fashioned family business that harkened to a time when word-of-mouth trumped the wokeness of Yelp’ers and Google foodies’ reviews.

The first time I pulled up a chair at Harold’s was in the early 1990s. Compared to today’s glass and metal mini cathedrals to fast food, this fired-brick-and-mortar box was not concerned with ambiance. The wood walls were soaked with the smoke of countless plates of pulled pork and racks of ribs. For the most part, the tables sat four; there were no “power lunches” where corporate “teams” had “ideation” outings. (Really, how many Corporate America suits are lunching at a place that offered Buttermilk among its drink choices?)

No, Harold’s purpose was simple: quality barbecue at a reasonable price. Come in, grab a seat, graze on damn good food, move along. Often, I wonder if restaurant life will ever be that simple again …

Ten years to the day after Margaret Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Gone with the Wind, Harold’s opened, on May 3, 1947. It was Derby Day at Churchill Downs; Jet Pilot won the Run for the Roses that Saturday. Harold Hembree Jr. swung open the doors at 171 McDonough Blvd. SE and began serving a community of workers that served nearby businesses and blue-collar plants. (The Hembrees opened and shuttered two satellite locations through the years, but the original location carried on until 2012.)

For more than 65 years, Harold’s did its thing – pork and beef barbecue. Orders were taken with pencil-on-pad and hand-delivered to a table covered with a red-and-white check tablecloth. All the while, the world watched the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the arrival of the Braves, Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the launch of CNN by Ted Turner, the ballyhooed New Coke debacle, the 1995 Braves World Series championship, the ’96 Olympics spectacle, the we-hardly-knew-ye Thrashers, the turn of the millennium, and Metro ATL surpassing 5 million in population.

Ultimately, the southeast area of town was an afterthought for movers and shakers, who answered the call into northern suburbs as Hotlanta became a thing, especially for metrosexuals with sleek rides and a Blackberry. Eventually, even the Braves moved north, lured by a shiny new ballpark (and the promise of uncalculatable riches from an area developed around the field of dreams).

Each time I drive along I-85 in Atlanta, thoughts of Harold’s flood my memories. The University Avenue sign still makes my mouth water. And now, more than 30 years after that first experience, I shed a tear for what I miss most about Atlanta.

Much like life, Harold’s wasn’t pretty, but it was a lot more than expected. I’m curious which forgotten restaurants still resonate with you?

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