Ye Olde Herren’s was originally opened in 1934 by Charlie Herren. When it was remodeled for the second time in 1963 it became simply Herren’s Restaurant at 84 Luckie St., downtown Atlanta, and was owned and operated by members of the Negri family from 1938, when it was purchased by my grandfather, Guido, until it closed in 1987. Most of those years, beginning in 1947, my dad, Ed Negri, was at the helm.
Here you’ll find a few photos of the restaurant over the years, and some of the people and fare that made it the well known restaurant that it became, especially in the sixties. Through my childhood, and up until I left home for the Navy in 1963, it housed about 120 dining seats on the main floor, and a small banquet room that would accommodate around fifty people downstairs. The floors at that time were linoleum, and, early on, there was an open kitchen with a steam table from which waitresses served a menu comprised of world class southern cuisine during lunch, and steaks and seafood at dinner. In that form it was more like modern restaurants which have once again opened their kitchens to view and often have bare floors and no ceiling tiles. But Herren’s was going to morph several times over it’s fifty four year history as a restaurant.
Around 1952 the first of two major remodels included enclosing the kitchen
and steam table, and adding stairs to a banquet space. Service was from the rear part of the dining room. Herren’s always had two kitchens, one up and one down. The upstairs kitchen was principally a short order kitchen, broilers, fryers, salads, deserts, assembling the food that was prepared in the downstairs kitchen where all the heavy cooking was done. The bakery, where Herren’s famous sweet rolls and other fine bread and deserts were made from scratch every day, was also downstairs.
There were many long term employees at Herren’s, a testament to both excellent management, and my dad’s warm heart during the many years it operated. Among the old timers was Johnny Dunn, the upstairs principal line cook.
Some might call him a chef, but that term is much misused in the industry. Johnny’s job was to fry, broil, and grill the portions that came to him from the downstairs kitchen. He also made several sauces. To my knowledge, he was the only employee to ever retire and be paid weekly thereafter until his death, early in the 70’s, with over 30 years on the payroll. Not even my father, the owner, Ed Negri, had that arrangement. Johnny had been a railroad chef and was accustomed to pumping a lot of high quality food out of a very small space. He also loved to chase the salad girls who worked next to him serving salads and deserts. We had a helluva time keeping the salad station manned, or womanned as the case usually was.
Next to the cooks and the salad station was a glass washing station. That’s where I first worked in the business. It was hot and steamy with just a large fan facing an alley in the rear to make the air flow. I was paid one dollar a day, and I was getting rich! Hahaha.
Across from the food line was a bread warmer full of delicious bread which was delivered in a steady stream from downstairs on an elevator that was installed during the ’63 remodel. Before that there was a rope operated elevator used to deliver prepped foods from downstairs to upstairs. The elevator was then used to deliver bus tubs full of dirty dishes to the dish “kitchen” downstairs where there was a monster flight line style dishwasher manned by two, one scraping and loading and the other stacking and delivering dishes to the kitchens. During the lunch hour (11:30 to 1:00) we would serve 300 lunches (later increased to 500 with records of around 700 lunches served while I was there as a manager in the early 70s).
In the fifties the service bar was stocked with beer, wine, and liquor, though the liquor had not yet been licensed by the drink. I was a “bar back”, not a bartender, by the time I was in my teens. It was not until I joined the restaurant as a manager that I learned the bar tending trade from Sam Memory. Back in the fifties the only time things were dicey was on election day, when all liquor sales were illegal until after the polls closed. Our clientele were the power brokers of the city, and, back then, the two martini lunch was an acceptable practice. So, on election day, we served their drinks in coffee cups. ssshhhhhh!
The main kitchen, along with the bakery and all of the food and beverage storage was downstairs. Our principal chef, Robert McGee, was in charge, and was responsible for all of that phenomenal southern cooked food, as well as a variety of soups. He was also a butcher, and, along with his second in command, Fletcher Hunter, he would carve primal cuts, loins and ribs, into steaks, and put on the famous slow cooked Prime Rib early in the afternoon.
The first baker I was aware of was named Betty. She made fantastic deserts, as well as the bread that went in our famous bread basket. Somewhere in the mid-fifties Betty was lured away by the Fulton National Bank who operated a restaurant in the then tallest building in Atlanta (20 stories). She was followed by Tecora Avery, a very fine baker but not real reliable.
So, all of the Negri family got to know how to make sweet rolls, all the way into the generation after mine. We could be out of anything but sweet rolls and nobody would be disturbed. But on the rare occasion when we had none, manager’s ass was on the menu.
In 1958 dad bought and installed the first Lobster Tank ever displayed in Atlanta. It contained 100 gallons of saltwater with a filtering system underneath. The salt water was checked daily for salinity. Lobsters were flown in packed 30 per box from vendors in Boston. Pricing was done by weight in three categories 1 1/4 lbs., 1 1/2, and over 2, and the lobsters were tagged in different colors. Patrons would select their own, or, if they were squeamish and choose not to, we would select for them.
There were promotions during which we would sell two for price of one. I wasn’t working there at the time, but was later told that we would boil or broil 150 lobsters on one of those evenings. Johnny Dunn, the chef, told me he had nightmares about lobsters. They make that little squeaky noise when you drop them in the boiling water, and if they’re broiled the chef has to chop them in half while still they’re still alive. The lobster tank was in the front window, this before another remodel in 1963. Nose-prints on the window were plentiful from folks wanting to get a closer look from the sidewalk, so we had to clean the window every morning.
The offices were in the back dining room, next to a small room with four booths (favored seats and always full). My grandmother, Amalia, was the bookkeeper up until shortly before she passed in 1968, aged 72. She taught me how to sort and set checks, a tiresome task, and then, the most tedious of all tasks prior to electronic system, audit the checks for accuracy. The penmanship was atrocious, and one had to make sure all the checks that each waitress had been given were present; that all items written were included and priced properly; and that the check was accurately totaled. As stated, this tedious process has been replaced in most modern restaurants with point of sale systems that do all of that work for you. All you have to do then is count the money when the cashiers or wait people check out.
The waitresses at Herren’s made good money, and we had some real pros. When Blanch Matthews was laid to rest around 1985 she had been working at Herren’s more than thirty years, and had served lunch the week before she passed. Many of our customers would wait long periods of time for a table on her station, and gave her lavish Christmas presents. Of course, Mama Blanch took good care of them, and made a fuss over their children as well.
Edna Neely, a beautiful red head, and perhaps the best waitress I ever knew, worked a shift no-one else wanted which included the after lunch hours. So, she worked through lunch and left around 4 in the afternoon. I know that she was there at least twenty years before a smart contractor swept her away to parts unknown as his wife. She was the master of the up-sell. “Now you know a piece of our delicious apple pie with vanilla ice cream would be be great”. She had the highest check average of any waitress at the time for lunch.
Then there was Blanch Latham (sorry, no picture available) who worked the downstairs dining room after the ’63 model. It was said you better sit down chewing if you were seated on her station. She was an infamous order thief. If it was up in the window in the kitchen and she had an order for it, she had no qualms about taking it, whether it was hers or someone else’s. She had a lot of call parties comprised of young office workers that didn’t have long lunches. To be sure, there were others who played the same game, but generally there was nothing said.
1963, the year I joined the Navy, was a truly momentous year at Herren’s. Dad had put everything on the line for a major remodel. After all, the lines were always out the door waiting for lunch, and occasionally, the same at diner. Time to expand. So, without closing even one day, over a six month period the restaurant morphed into 150 seats upstairs, and another 150 downstairs, doubling the seating capacity.
There was a grand stairwell added in front of the now famous lobster tank window, and the tank was moved inside the lobby. The rest rooms, which had been upstairs, were moved downstairs off of the downstairs lobby. The offices were moved upstairs to a mezzanine above the main floor, and all of the space where the office and the booths had been was added to the back dining room. The entrance to the kitchen, along with a service bar, liquor storage and a dumb waiter for serving drinks to downstairs replaced the area where the restrooms had been. Downstairs was completely restructured, and now had a real dining room of 150 seats.
The now famous lobster tank was moved to the lobby inside since the new stairwell was now in front of the window facing the street. No more nose prints.
A couple of years after the remodel, well known Atlanta artist Lonnie Leonard and his wife Shirley were hired to run an art gallery downstairs. h on Every other month fifteen to twenty artists would converge on Herren’s, submitting two or three pieces of art a piece, and picking up the art that had not sold (most of it). The artists who are most memorable to me are Lonnie Leonard, Forest Jacobs, Dale and Mamie Rayburn, Coral Paul, Helen Schneeberger and Finley Rupertsburg. We were able to exhibit some really beautiful art, and they all got the exposure, and even sold a few paintings now and then.
The major overhaul of the restaurant was all done with a $250,000 SBA loan. About the time it was to be complete, Dad accepted the responsibility of being the first restaurant to integrate in Atlanta, the details of which can be found in his most excellent book, “Herren’s, an Atlanta Landmark”. As soon as the restaurant was integrated the hate mail started, and many southern red necks attired in coats and ties, with their pseudo-Christian church going exteriors swore to never set foot in Herren’s again. The result was a huge loss that year of $50,000 plus. That in the face of the substantial new debt for the remodeling. I’m getting tears in my eyes just thinking of what my dad had to go through at that time in his life. I’m sure there were many sleepless nights spent in the Negri household.
But, it wasn’t nearly the end for Herren’s. 1965 was a year of strife and turmoil in our nation evidenced by the Watt’s riots, and others of nearly equal magnitude. Thankfully, Atlanta never had a riot, in part because of Ed Negri, and other like-minded businessmen’s efforts in the integration movement, and partially because Atlanta really is the jewel of South and steeped in gracious Southern hospitality. But that didn’t stop the urban flight, which, together with the opening of the first regional mall in the south, Lenox Square, were the death nell of downtown Atlanta. All of the theaters closed as well as many small businesses on Peachtree below the intersection of Forsyth.
Everything below Marietta Street became a no-man’s-land. The dinner trade was severely impacted, and, eventually, as the offices moved out of downtown to the perimeter, so was lunch. Downtown hotels such as the Regency Hyatt were known to tell their patrons it was dangerous to walk on the streets of downtown, a statement which was very self-serving in that they wished to keep their patrons in the hotels spending dollars. So along with the local trade, our convention business was impacted as well.
I joined my dad at Herren’s in June of 1970, taking over the bookkeeping responsibilities from my mom, Beautiful Jane, who was not happy with the daily commute. Along with the bookkeeping I became a manager, and, in 1973 was given the title of Vice President, Operations. I’m sure that thrilled Taylor Wise who had been a manager there for at least fifteen years before I joined the restaurant. Nepotism runs amok in the family restaurant business.
Nevertheless, the two of us covered the hours of 7AM when we began preparation for lunch to 10:30PM which was when we were through with cleaning up after the day’s business. I had been a student majoring in accounting at Georgia State University, and dropped out as a first quarter senior – dumbest damn thing I ever did in my entire life, bar none – to work in the family business. After all, we were going to open at least one, and probably more, additional restaurants and my future was secure, or so I thought.
We decided that we needed to expand outside of the downtown area. Move North young man, move North. We selected a site next to Cate’s Center on East Andrews Drive in Buckhead. The building had originally been designed to house six boutiques. When we leased it there was a beauty salon on the far end away from the street. We leased 3,600 sq. ft. and began designing a restaurant that came to be called e.j.’s (small letters part of logo) after my dad’s initials, or, if you prefer as I did, excellent jazz supperclub. That’s a story for another time, but it’s opening in October of 1975 officially marked my exit from Herren’s.
The rest of the Herren’s story was both bad and good. There was a resurgence for a while of the dinner business, mostly fed by downtown convention attendees. The liquor store as well as a laundry in two small spaces comprising about 1,000 sq. ft. on the west end of the building away from Herren’s entrance had been vacant for some years, so Herren’s leased that space and developed a bar called Guido’s, my grandfather’s name.
The name seemed fitting, as Guido had originally purchased Herren’s from a red headed prize fighter named Charlie Herren in 1938. The Negri family glorified that scoundrel’s name until Herren’s Restaurant closed forever in 1987, after auctioning all of the assets for a pittance. Many of the pictures exhibited in this piece were taken just prior to that auction, and one may observe how run down the facility had become. Herren’s had ceased to exist in any real sense months, perhaps even years, prior to the auction.
In it’s prime Herren’s served thousands upon thousands of happy customers, many of whom were celebrating multiple anniversaries in the restaurant in which they became engaged. Others remember Herren’s as the place to go for lunch. We were serving power lunches before that became a popular term. Many of Atlanta’s leading citizens ate with us regularly. I for one wish I could sit down to a meal of Planked Seafood, ala Herren’s or Shrimp Arnaud (no picture dangit) accompanied with soft rolls to die for as well as Sweet Rolls. I bet the tonnage we put on Atlantans with those little morsels was in the hundreds of thousands. Afterward, if I wasn’t completely stuffed, I would want Hot Apple Pie, ala mode. I’m getting hungry just writing about it.
Bon Appetit to you all.