Nothing stays the same in Atlanta for very long. That house you thought was in a quiet, affordable neighborhood last year? It’s probably a towering, traffic-packed mixed-use development today. Your favorite fine dining chef from a few years back? He owns a cheeseburger chain now. That scrappy company your friends started? It’s become a 700-person corporation. That quiet dude you knew from down the street? His latest rap track has a million views on YouTube.
But it isn’t true that everything changes. As far as I can tell, there are three facts of life in Atlanta: Traffic is bad, Waffle House never closes and the line at Busy Bee Café will always be out the door.
Atlanta was a different place when Lucy Jackson opened Busy Bee Café in 1947, just a few blocks from Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse and Spelman colleges. If you want a glimpse of how different the world is, simply consider the street names: Busy Bee opened on Hunter Street, which is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Down the block, Houston Street is now Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard. As the world has transformed around it, the soul food served at Busy Bee has stayed thankfully, beautifully, satisfyingly the same.
Of course, I didn’t eat at Busy Bee Café when it opened 70 years ago. The first time I went, not long after moving here a decade ago, a friend and I could barely squeeze in the front door because so many people were waiting. When we sat down about 45 minutes later, our table was soon covered with a spread of cornbread muffins and crisp, salty fried chicken, dark greens seasoned with smoked turkey and a touch of vinegar, creamy mac and cheese, and glasses full of very sweet tea. We ate ourselves silly that afternoon, hungry after the long wait and thirsting for soul-satisfying flavors.
About once a year since, I’ve gone to Busy Bee and had almost the exact same experience. The door is always crowded. The wait is always long. The fried chicken is always crisp.
Of course, you don’t have to order the fried chicken at Busy Bee. There are other things on the menu. I’ve even had a few of them. The pork neck bones served on Tuesdays are fall-apart tender. The thin pork chops aren’t bad. The gravy-smothered chicken is as rich as it sounds. But I can’t even think the words Busy Bee without salivating for the crisp crunch that accompanies its fried chicken.
As far as I’m concerned, the best way to switch up your order at Busy Bee is not to order something other than fried chicken, but to order a lot of things with your fried chicken. The list of sides, though it changes some depending on the day of the week, ranges from tasty to coma-inducing.
I always want the collards, which must be cooked for an awfully long time before arriving at your plate, as tender as they are. Only sometimes can I sign up for the cornbread dressing, which arrives like a giant scoop of ice cream in a small bowl: soft and moist, dripping with decadent gravy, and spiked with a spoonful of ultra-sweet cranberry sauce. I can’t have a bite without falling into the sort of satisfied slumber that usually follows Thanksgiving dinner.
The lima beans are cooked to a tender bite. The broccoli cheddar casserole is a lovely way to eat cheese and pretend to be ordering a vegetable. The green beans are falling apart and deeply savory, just asking to be spiked with hot pepper vinegar on the table.
The most recent meal I had at Busy Bee was a lot like the meals I’ve had there before. After about a 30-minute wait on a Tuesday for lunch, we got a table and plates of fried chicken and neck bones. Because the two sides that came with each plate just weren’t enough, we ordered an extra veggie plate packed with sides: mac and cheese, rice and gravy, cornbread dressing, lima beans.
I ate with a friend who works in the music industry here, and he talked excitedly about his plans for the night: going to a special dinner for Grammy Award nominees. Big Boi would be there, he said, probably Ludacris, too.
It was going to be at a nice hotel in Midtown, a place that wasn’t here only a few years ago, and they were going to serve a big spread of fancy, white-tablecloth Southern food. When I heard from him the next day, he said it was as cool as he hoped it might be, rubbing shoulders with the musicians who make Atlanta known the world over, the city that keeps growing and changing.
But that gussied-up spread of Southern food? He said it just couldn’t compete with lunch at Busy Bee.
BUSY BEE CAFÉ
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; noon-7 p.m. Sundays; closed Saturdays. 810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Atlanta. 404-525-9212, thebusybeecafe.com.
Recommended dishes: Fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread dressing, mac and cheese.