The Old Hickory House


This will be, in part, a trip down memory lane. As a native Atlantan (my capitalist maternal great-grandparents reside in Oakland and my socialist paternal grandparents reside in the Workers’ Circle at Greenlawn) I have observed the evolution of the Atlanta restaurant scene first hand. I remember when, if you wanted a pizza, your choices were Gigi’s or Biuso’s. If you wanted Chinese there was Eng’s Gourmet (and I use the term “gourmet” only because it was their name) or the walk-up Ding Ho’s, where the Cain Tower of Peachtree Center now sits. I remember the first Chinese restaurant to open on the Buford Highway, mostly for the anomaly that the owner was Jewish. 

If you wanted a good steak you went to Johnny Escoe’s or Camelia Gardens. For seafood there was Catfish King.Another good standby for steaks and fried chicken was Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, but it was located so far out of town (near what is now Spring Road and I285) that it was not a spur of the moment dining choice but one which, because of the great distance to be travelled, required much advance planning. Fine dining came to Atlanta in the 60’s in the form of Fan and Bills, The Coach and Six and The Chateau Fleur de Lis. All of the aforementioned restaurants, in the words of Eddie Dressler, are of blessed memory. There are now in Atlanta more restaurants devoted to barbecue than the total number of restaurants that existed when I was a child in the 50’s and early 60’s. The choices for barbecue in the Atlanta area, and I am omitting those outside of Atlanta such as Fresh Air in Jackson or Melear’s in Fairburn, were Harold’s and The Old Hickory House.Harold’s and Melear’s are, sadly, also of blessed memory. The Old Hickory House had a variety of locations, all of which were owned by the Black family, one of whom was instrumental in the founding of NASCAR, and his racing trophies could be seen at the various locations. The family, tiring of the restaurant business, sold all of their locations, but apparently financed the sale, subsequently taking the restaurants back after the purchaser defaulted. Of all the locations they once had, *Stewart Avenue, Scott Boulevard, Northside Drive, Pharr Road, Piedmont Road and Northlake Parkway, only the Northlake Parkway location now remains and I don’t know if the Black family is still involved. 

Looking for a new spot to have lunch with one of my frequent luncheon dining companions, a Buckhead Boy five years my senior whose family was in the institutional food business, we were calling up the places we dined in our youth, and we realized neither of us had been to The Old Hickory House in well over thirty years, and it was time for a re-visit to test if our memory of their food matched their current offering. Each of us had visions and fond memories of their outside pork sandwich, with the crunchy bark, as well as their Brunswick stew, and that was our order, although I had the sliced pork plate with slaw and stew. The bark was not as crunchy as I had remembered, and the sliced pork was not as smoky or tender as I had expected, but in order to slice the pork, it can’t be cooked as long and at a high enough temperature as would be required to break down the collagens and achieve the tender, fall apart quality of pulled pork.

The stew was exactly as I remembered it, vinegary, a bit heavy on the tomatoes with all of the separate ingredients discernable, as opposed to Harold’s mush version, where if there was a yellow speck in it, it may have been corn but there was no guarantee. As an aside, Harold’s was one of the few places whose cornbread had a higher fat content than the barbecue due to the added cracklins. The slaw at the Hickory House tasted institutional but was quite good nevertheless. Service was great, and we were addressed alternately as hon or darling by our waitress who constantly made the rounds with tea refills and to ask if everything was satisfactory. 

Is there better barbecue to be had in Atlanta? Given the fact that barbecue is the one genre of food that has such a variety of personal, subjective factors governing its perceived quality, I think the fair answer is that there is other barbecue more to my taste, but the lunch crowd I witnessed showed that their style was indeed popular and I have to add that the sight of all of the hams and ribs slowly smoking above the grill was quite attractive. I will return to see if the ribs have the confluence of expectation and satisfaction, but I will do so knowing that perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right. 

*Memory failed me on all of the locations, but with the able assistance of my proofreaders, fellow Atlanta natives Dicky Morgan (a/k/a the Buckhead boy) and Richard Rose, Stewart Avenue did not go unmentioned.* 

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