It was a few minutes before 11 a.m. and Bill Adams had two things on his mind: Brunswick stew and cracklin cornbread.
To satisfy his craving for meat stew and fried pig skin, this lifelong Georgia boy made the hour-long drive Tuesday from his home in Griffin to Harold’s Barbecue in south Atlanta. When he and his friends learned this was to be Harold’s last week in business, they made plans for a final pilgrimage.
“Just wanted to stop by for one last meal,” the longtime patron said as he waited in the restaurant’s dusty parking lot for doors to open. He wasn't alone; there were about a dozen others, including a pair of Georgia State Troopers.
“It’s inevitable. Everything changes. Nothing lasts forever,” he said. “We don’t like it but we can’t stop it.”
CNN Radio's Emma Lacey-Bordeaux spoke with Harold's patrons about their longtime love of the place. Click to listen to the CNN Radio podcast.
The barbecue joint has been an Atlanta mainstay since it was opened by Harold Hembree Sr. in 1947. It's earned spots on “best-of” lists nationwide, as well as in the hearts of natives, many of whom remember when the run-down two-room establishment was still a one-room curbside spot where teens brought dates and families came for lunch.
Adams recalls a time when a nearby General Motors plant guaranteed a steady stream of lunchtime customers and patrons had to come early for a parking spot. A short ride from the State Capitol, Harold’s became a favored lunch spot for Georgia politicos in the days before Atlanta’s legendary traffic snarled the city.
The plant closed in the 1990s. Residents of nearby Lakewood Heights moved on and decamped to the suburbs, draining the customer base to the point where Harold’s staff was trimmed down to one waitress (Hembree’s granddaughter, Toni) and the phone line was dropped because they couldn’t afford the bill.
One week ago, general manager Billy Branyon announced that Harold’s would be closing its doors forever this week, coinciding with the 65th anniversary of its opening. But, thanks to a boost in business in the past week, Harold’s has earned a temporary reprieve.
“We’re going to try to stick it out,” said Billy Branyon, who is the great-grandson of Harold Sr. “A lot of people thought we were closed but now they know we’re still open for business.”
As restaurants like Harold’s fade from the landscape they often become rallying points for the community.
"At barbecue gatherings in by-gone eras, people probably didn’t need a reason to be reminded to get together and share each other’s time. That’s just not the case anymore,” pitmaster Drew Robinson said in a previous Eatocracy column.
“People look for reasons to maintain community and their sense of place in it," Robinson continued. "Fortunately, we have barbecue as a sort of communal elixir. Barbecue is both primal and elemental which is why it has great power to equalize people. It grounds people and roots them to their place. There’s something magical in that smoky meat that helps us find our common ground, our place at the table and our place in the community."
David Smith has been cutting meat at Harold's BBQ for 35 years.
While the threat of Harold’s demise might have earned the business a temporary reprieve - despite mixed complaints in recent years about the quality of the food and service - what the future holds remains to be seen.
Whatever the outcome, Tuesday’s attendance echoed a bygone era when factory workers, politicians and members of the community queued outside for a chance to get in. Customers streamed into the wood-paneled dining rooms and by 11:30, nearly all tables were occupied. Toni Hembree’s daughter and sister were called in to help her wait tables.
“It’s better than usual,” she said as she rolled plastic utensils and straws into paper napkins with lightning speed behind the counter. “We stopped getting business about a year ago. Everyone retired or moved away or passed away.”
By noon, the counter was full and people stood around waiting for tables. They browsed pictures on the wall of famous visitors like Jeff Foxworthy and Georgia governor Nathan Deal, who used to dine at Harold’s several times a week when he was a state senator, Branyon said.
Most visitors were long familiar with Harold’s legendary stew and vinegary barbecue. Sisters Sharon Hooks and Martha Williams used to visit Harold’s with their parents and friends as students at Fulton High School. Even after they moved, they still made the 50-mile drive at least once a year to pick up food for their families.
On Tuesday, they left with four sliced pork sandwiches, four stews and one pound of barbecue.
“It’s an icon,” Williams said as she waited at the counter surrounded by brown bags of food. “It’s the best stew anywhere.”
By 12:30, there was no more Brunswick stew and cornbread was on backorder.
In the rear dining room, Phil Parks and Jim Segars lamented the restaurant’s impending demise and what its loss meant to Southern dining.
“It’s sad, very sad,” Segars said as he named other lost monuments, such as Hickory House and Seven Steers.
Parks agreed, “These are the ways Southern people used to eat and it's a shame to lose that connection.”
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I ate there a couple years ago and was not impressed. Course you also have to remember the abundance of good bbq joints in the Atlanta area. Not surprised they are closing.
Sorry for the folks at Harolds, but the food and service is not what it once was and the neighborhood has gone to the dogs and the dangerous and time moves on. People will drive a ways for good bbq. It hasn't been that good there for a while.
The GM plant was not there on the Southside. It was the Ford plant. The GM plant was on the Northside.
you should be quiet. There were two GM plants and Ford in this town at one time. Lakewood was a big plant.
Little bit of (useless) trivia: REM recorded an attempt at a commercial jingle for Harold's BBQ – it is a short track on the "Dead Letter Office" release.
Wrong one. There was another BBQ place in Athens that they used to eat at with the same name.
Thank You for writing an excellent article concerning " small town America ". Every Small Town in the U.S.A has a Harold's...they just don't know it until it is gone.
And YES I know....Atlanta WAS a Small Town Once.
Yes, ATL was a small town not so long ago. Talking to the folks there you got the sense that in many ways it still is!
what up DAKK
Damn! That photo looks wonderful. Too bad I never had a chance to eat there.
Grew up eating Harold's BBQ. Best BBQ ever! It will be missed.
Charlie, you've got more time to swing by if you can!
Place was awesome. Hit the place every time I was in Hotlanta...along w Varsity, a certain industrial diner known for it's brisket and couple others that will go unmentioned to save their reputations from witless commentators. What compels people to comment on a place they've never even seen or in this case, sampled the food?
If I was less than 500 miles away, I would come down and try it. Too many of these local staples are going under. We are so used to dyed, processed lumps of bland that we don't know the look of real food. Close your eyes and take a bite, let your taste buds decide.
Brunswick stew? What the heck is that? These people should try a McRib sandwich when they are available next time. Now that's barbecue!!
To call the McDonald's McRib Barbecue is a profane, blasphemous, heinous sacrilege.
Amen. Although I enjoy the McRib, it is not even close to BBQ
Close to BBQ ??? It's not even meat !
I live in Phoenix, Arizona. How is this relevant to me?
I live in Pittsburgh, and it's relevant to me. It's not relevant to me because I live where this place is, but because enjoyed the article.
Glad you enjoyed it! Spending time with folks chatting about good food and old memories made for a nice afternoon.
You live in Arizona. Your entire state is irrelevant.
If it isn't relevant to you, maybe it is to someone else. Just because you can comment here, doesn't mean you have to. Until it dawns on you that the world does not revolve around you, STFU.
reopen as a mexican or chinese buffet
i love southern food never been to this place but did go too the thunderbird in south carolina i wish someone would come up north (ct) and open up a southern food rest. we need it bad people from up here try but fail the 1st year..
Obama won't eat there because he might have to eat at the rear of the diner
This, and the culture this represents is why I will never go to the south. You so eloquently stated Obama would have to eat at the rear: he is president; I ask others who have similar moronic prejudice and severe bouts of stupidity: what have you accomplished? Really?
Well Hew – I don't think anyone here in the South has any desire to entertain such an ignorant and self-centered pompus ass as yourself! Please stay wherever you are! THANK YOU for NOT coming here with your "better than thou" B.S.!
The POTUS will dine wherever he fr**kin wants to.
it doesn't look very tasty.
No, no it doesn't. It looks very bland. Looks like something you would find in a school cafeteria.
It's obama's fault.
Obama at it agian.
I can't beleive that OBAMA closed down Harolds...he also is responsible for the war in afhgnaistam, coke zero and the lack of a good burger in atlanta....
I like Coke Zero...
GO TO BURGER KING. IT'S CHEAPER
How DARE YOU!!!! RESPECT OUR OWN FOOD AND CULTURE!
Burger King and McDonalds are not serving food, that is processed something or other. It is places like this that create and serve the best of the best. It is to bad this country is sinking into an abis of blan, be it food or political bs.
db, go snack on some fiber and blow it out your azz.
Harold's is closing because of the neighborhood surrounding it...it is a MUCH different place than it was 20 years ago. Many factories, mills, etc. have been closed for years now that used to keep Harold's busy. They just don't have the customer base anymore.
They stated that clearly in the article
CPT Obvious strikes again
It was really interesting hearing locals talk about their memories growing up in that community. The neighborhood has indeed gone through many changes. The amount of history being shared over the tables was incredible.
Good Southern BBQ joints don't "go out of business" Sounds like they aren't doing like grandpa used to? Lots of the best BBQ places in the South are in terrible locations. If people aren't coming – theres a reason
My thoughts exactly. I remember as a kid my dad driving us two hours outside of New Orleans to eat at a sea food shack out in shrimp boat country. The fact of the matter is: If its actually good people will find you.
Not true...most want convenience...and will opt out of finding good food. McDonalds, BK, Wendy's and a lot more mega chains are the most obvious examples.
I'll drive for hours, often flying to other towns, and on occasion, other countries for good food. Most won't go a mile out of their way for good food.
Correction: most have no CLUE what good food is. McGarbage is the cuisine of the era.
You hit the nail on the head Pat. The very best bbq places in the south have always kept consistent with the main thing and that is the meat. Harold's made it more on it's location and the plants than it ever did just on very good bbq. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't that good. Politicians just went there to chat up the crowd. They'll express love for a cowpie if enough people congregate in a pasture.
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