“Just look for the building with the huge Coca-Cola signs on both sides... you can’t miss it.”

That’s how, for years, regulars at Manuel’s Tavern have navigated out-of-towners or local first-timers to their beloved neighborhood bar on the corner of North and North Highland avenues in Atlanta.

And now, thanks to Coca-Cola, the two vintage “ghost signs” have been refreshed just in time for Manuel's 60th birthday.

Owner Brian Maloof approached Coca-Cola about restoring the wall signs to their original glory last year as the landmark watering hole prepared for an extensive interior renovation. The company agreed to fund the project, hiring a crew of lettering artists led by Jack Fralin of Roanoke, Va., who spent a week in late-July scraping, repainting and sealing the faded murals. The signs were originally painted for the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and have since been featured in The Coca-Cola Company’s annual report and as a backdrop to countless photographs featuring U.S. presidents, celebrities and local dignitaries.

“Manuel’s has been this iconic spot for Atlanta,” said Maria Saporta, a veteran columnist and reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “It’s where politicians have come together, where journalists have loved to congregate, and where police officers, literary types and just about anyone engaged in the community have come to be refreshed and for conversation.”

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Manuel's Tavern Owner Brian Maloof in front of one of two recently restored Coca-Cola wall signs flanking the beloved bar. 

Indeed, for more than six decades, Atlanta’s movers and shakers of all stripes have convened at Manuel’s over an ice-cold beer or Coke to hatch ideas, broker partnerships and more.

“The shaping of a city took place, a lot of times, in here,” Maloof said. “I’ve heard legislation discussed and worked out in here over a beer long before it was discussed on the floor of the state capitol. It’s that quintessential smoking room – or formerly smoking room – where a lot of decisions have been made and a lot of deals struck.”

Manuel Maloof, who co-founded the tavern bearing his name in 1956, behind the bar in the early days.

Manuel's Tavern

Everybody's Living Room

Brian’s father, the late Manuel Maloof, opened the tavern in 1956 with his brother, Robert. “They ran this place with a character, charm and love that has endeared this place to so many,” Brian said.

The son of a Lebanese immigrant, the tavern's namesake was the former CEO of DeKalb County and chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission who became known as the godfather of the DeKalb Democratic Party. He passed away in 2004.

“Manuel Maloof was a larger-than-life personality,” Saporta said. “He had this power-broker role… he loved to arrange things. And not only was he a leader for DeKalb County, but he had a vision for what a community could be like.”

Manuel's has hosted spirited viewing parties for presidential debates and election night coverage. “It’s a place where you knew the point of view of the owner – it was clearly a Democratic establishment,” Saporta added. “But there was a comfort level there. Even people who might not agree with Manuel and everything he stood for and believed in still felt drawn to the place.”

Manuel's Tavern

Maloof added, “I tell our employees that it’s everybody’s living room. It’s not pretentious… everyone can come here and feel comfortable. My job is to preserve that.”

He also attributes the tavern’s longevity and appeal, in part, to its prime Poncey-Highland location – equidistant to several Atlanta-area colleges and universities.

“Just a block from here is DeKalb County, which was dry many years ago,” Maloof said, pointing east. “So if you were at Emory, the closest place to have a drink was here. And if you were at Agnes Scott, the closest place to have a drink was here. So the ladies from Agnes Scott would come here to meet the future doctors from Emory, and the engineers at Georgia Tech would come here because the ladies from Agnes Scott were here. And then the professors came to hang out… it developed this feel of being an extension of the schools.”

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Manuel’s closed in December for renovations, which will retain the bar’s spirit – and most of its original footprint – with modern-day enhancements including an upgraded kitchen and new electrical and plumbing. The tavern reopened earlier this month to the delight of regulars and newcomers alike.

“This place is a big part of a lot of people’s history,” Maloof said. “It’s astonishing to me to have someone come in, sit at the bar and say ‘This is the place where I had my last stateside beer before shipping off to Vietnam. Or, ‘This is where I was sitting when I watched man walk on the moon on a black-and-white, flickering TV.

“If these walls could talk, I think they’d tell a beautiful American story… about life.”

Signs of the Times

Coca-Cola has been in the mural business for over a century. The company commissioned its first wall sign in the 1890s and, by 1910, they accounted for 25 percent of the company’s total advertising budget.

To ensure consistency and protect the integrity of its trademark, Coca-Cola distributed how-to playbooks to local bottlers with detailed instructions to pass along to contract artists starting in 1923. The manuals included style guidelines, approved scripts and paint colors, and other do’s and don’ts to ensure a seamless look across the country.

But by the 1950s, small-towners flocked to larger cities, and businesses fled downtowns for the suburbs. Billboards gradually replaced painted signs, which were costlier and more time-intensive to produce, and the vintage ads almost completely disappeared by the ‘70s.

“The wall signs went away about the same time the architecture in America began to change,” Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan said. “Towns no longer had use for them.”

Murals Make a Comeback

Main Street mounted a comeback in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, however, thanks to a renewed interest in historic preservation. For many towns, bringing back the beloved signs has been a logical way to tap into a sense of nostalgia. Charlotte, N.C.-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, the nation’s largest independent Coca-Cola bottler, has hired Fralin and other sign painters to restore dozens of murals across its distribution territory.

“We’ve seen a huge resurgence and interest in these signs,” adds Ryan, who has an overflowing folder of mural restoration requests from cities across the country. “They’re a time and a place… people identify them with great memories. Manuel’s Tavern is part of this community, and these wall signs take on some of that persona, too. So when they deteriorate, people want to see them restored, brought back and made beautiful again.”

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Maloof agrees. “It’s a stabilizing presence," he said. "It’s Coke – it’s an icon of this country. It has also become an icon of the tavern, and a big part of the Manuel’s experience. When you pull up in the parking lot, it’s the first thing you see.

“Everyone recognizes the brand Coke, and that helps recognize Manuel’s Tavern.”