In 67 years, not much has changed at Moe’s & Joe’s Tavern in Virginia Highland.
The well-elbowed formica-topped bar, 1927 vintage brass cash registers, rows of worn comfy booths and walls covered in layers of smoke stains, graffiti and Pabst Blue Ribbon signs all bear witness to the character of a place that offers customers rare moments of timeless comfort and joy.
And there are the memories of Moe’s & Joe’s colorful icon, Horace McKennie, who for more than 50 years dressed in a white shirt and red bow tie and acted as the bar’s maitre d’ — serving pitchers of Pabst as if it were the finest champagne.
But in the first months of 2014, Moe’s & Joe’s newest partner, Scott Drake, debuted a transformation that could prove to be almost as historic as that day in 1947 when two brothers back from WWII, Moe and Joe Krinsky, turned the former Virginia Highland Delicatessen into a drinking establishment.
On Fat Tuesday, as regulars stopped in to order $3.25 pitchers, sample the gumbo special and collect neon-bright strings of Mardi Gras beads, Drake sat down at a table in the new bar area, where, notably, not one person was smoking.
Now doubled in size, Moe’s & Joe’s was expanded by knocking a hole through a wall to create an archway into what was once a bar next door called The Cavern.
Now Drake, former manager and owner Tracy Crowley and new manager Mike Keating are showing off the renovations, while insisting they will always honor Moe’s & Joe’s legacy.
“The Moe’s and Joe’s side needed to stay original,” said Drake. “We did not want to leave our fingerprints on that in any way. But we figured we had an opportunity to do something a little different over here, and we incorporated a lot of ideas that people in the community brought up over the years.”
Among the changes, a full bar with liquor and cocktails, more craft beer, and more seating inside and out on the popular sidewalk patio. But the bar food menu has remained unchanged, except for a few additions. The MoJo Burger, which as been around since 1947 and sells for $2.75, and the jumbo wings tossed in Buffalo sauce and declared “Atlanta’s Best,” are still among the favorites.
The no smoking policy follows what’s been going on at other historic Atlanta bars, including nearby Manuel’s Tavern, which has been smoke-free since New Year’s Day.
Drake, who works in advertising and lives in Decatur with his wife and two children, sees it as a sign of the times.
“When we started the no smoking policy we suddenly realized we needed highchairs,” Drake said with a laugh. “I’ve been coming here since the ’90s, but now I have two little girls and things are different.
“I don’t think we lost any of the smokers. They all still come. What I notice now, though, is that at noon on a Wednesday, two moms with jogging strollers will come by and have lunch. Two months ago, that wouldn’t have happened. More families come in for lunch on Saturdays now, too.”
Crowley, who plays the role of curator, historian and curmudgeon, started working at Moe’s and Joe’s in 1984, shortly after college. Since then, he’s helped open a string of Atlanta bars, including the Flatiron in East Atlanta, 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown and Universal Joint and Steinbeck’s in Oakhurst. But like so many regulars, Crowley considers Moe’s and Joe’s special.
Asked what he thought when he first heard of the plan to add to the bar, Crowley grunted and said, “I fought to keep it the same. Preserve history.” Then he proudly led a tour of some of Moe’s and Joe’s most famous artifacts.
Of particular interest, a photo documenting the Krinsky brothers handing over hundreds of certificates good for pitchers of beer to a regular customer in exchange for a 1947 Rolls Royce.
McKennie, who retired in 2001 and passed away in 2004, is the smiling star of several photos and drawings. And it’s clear Crowley was very fond of the man most simply called Horace.
“Horace McKennie had always worked banquet rooms at hotels before he came in one night in 1949 and met Moe and Joe Krinsky,” Crowley said. “Some 53 years later he retired. He was a character and a saint to be able wait tables in a bar for 50 years. I don’t know how he did it.
“He’s the one who coined the phrase ‘the finest’ for PBR. You knew people had been waited on by Horace when they’d come in and say, ‘I need a pitcher of the finest.’ Horace always wanted to consider this a very formal, classy place. Men and women didn’t kiss here. You didn’t play cards here. But Horace was a card player and big time gambler.”
Alexis Leifermann, an eighth grade Georgia history teacher who lives in the neighborhood, worked at Moe’s and Joe’s off and on in the early ’90s, when McKennie was still around.
“Horace always said that Moe’s and Joe’s was the best place to meet your future husband or wife,” Leifermann said. “And I know many couples and personal friends of mine who met here and are happily married now.”
Invited to critique the changes at the bar from a regular’s point of view, Leifermann struggled for a second.
“It’s weird, I have to be honest,” she said. “When I walk in, there’s that flash of light over to the left and it’s like, ‘What’s that hole in the wall?” I call it the Joe side. The original is the Moe side to me.
“But I’ve seen a lot of people from the neighborhood that I used to wait on come back because of the nonsmoking. And I like the fact that you can get a drink if you want one and that they’ve expanded the beer list.”
John Webster, another neighborhood regular who works as a real estate investment adviser, often meets friends and business partners at the bar.
“I’ve been going to Moe’s and Joe’s for 27 years,” Webster said. “I went there when I was single with my single friends. I went there with my wife when she was my girlfriend. We would take our kids there, but not after dark. Now my kids are in college so we’re back full circle as a family.”
Webster said he wondered if expanding Moe’s and Joe’s might ruin the atmosphere. But so far he’s happy with the transformation.
Besides, he allowed, there was a time when he made a few alterations of his own.
“As my kids got older and they were able to read, I worried when they would go to the bathroom,” Webster said. “Because, let’s face it, the stuff on the wall in there can be a little foul.
“So one afternoon, I got a big black Magic Marker and I went into the bathroom and I drew bikinis on the naked ladies. Then I changed the letters around in the bad words. But I still remember being really, really nervous about changing anything.”
More historic Highland bars
Atkins Park. The Virginia Highland bar and restaurant claims to be Atlanta’s oldest continuously licensed tavern. It opened as a deli in 1922 and celebrated its 92nd anniversary in February 2014. The current incarnation was founded by the late Warren Bruno, who took over in 1983 and created a place where you can kick back with a pint and a snack at the bar or enjoy a meal in the dining room next door. 749 N. Highland Ave. 404-876-7249, atkinspark.com.
George’s Bar & Restaurant. In 1961, George Najour, a former baseball player and WWII vet, opened George’s Delicatessen, with a Middle Eastern grocery in the Virginia Highland storefront, and a bar with beer and sandwiches in back. In 1983, a new kitchen and a new menu that included the beloved George’s burger ushered in a new era and a new name. Najour passed away in 2002, but his son G.G. still owns and runs the 53-year-old bar. 1041 N. Highland Ave., 404-892-3648, georgesbarandrestaurant.com.
Manuel’s Tavern. Politicos, journalists and sports fans have called the sprawling Poncey Highland neighborhood spot a home-away-from-home for generations. In 1956, Manuel Maloof bought Harry’s Delicatessen and turned it into his eponymous bar. Maloof died in August 2004, but his son Brian Maloof carries on the 58-year-old tradition with a cast of loyal employees, many of whom have been there more than 30 years. 602 N. Highland Ave., 404-525-3447, manuelstavern.com.
Moe’s and Joe’s Tavern. 1033 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-6090, www.moesandjoes.com.