Busy Bee Café: The Buzzy Civil Rights Meeting Spot You Can Eat At Today

In the world of soul food, the Busy Bee Café in Atlanta has been buzzing for decades, stirring up the societal nest while dishing out down-home fare to everyday folks. Never mind that it took 75 years to get an award coveted by just about every restaurant in the world. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation recognized Busy Bee Café for its timeless appeal and community character, earning one of six American Classics awards.

James Beard Awards – considered the "Oscars of Food" - was most certainly not on the mind of Lucy Jackson in 1947 when she flung open the doors of her new café. The original owner was too busy welcoming her fellow Atlantans with traditional Southern cooking, perhaps a version of today's down-home "meat 'n' three" plates piled high with daily specials.

And she may or may not have known that her little eating spot would play a big role in America's brewing Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For many, the current-day prestige of a James Beard culinary award pales in comparison to the honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and the now-iconic Civil Rights leaders breaking bread in Jackson's humble kitchen.

More than full bellies

Like many diners dotted across the South, the Busy Bee Café became a natural gathering spot for Civil Rights advocates. Not only were Black-owned cafes situated in the heart of African American communities, but they were also among the only Southern eating establishments that allowed Black people to enter.

By the time ownership passed to the Gates family in 1981, helmed by Lucy Gates, much had changed, thanks to the efforts of Civil Rights workers and the subsequent Civil Right Acts of 1964. But three traditions continued and stand strong at the Busy Bee today: community support, Black and American historical significance, and really good comfort food.

Fried chicken, a staple in many country and soul food diners, is like culinary royalty at the Busy Bee, reigning as its signature dish for decades. Available daily, it earns its crowning spot on plates but will also share the limelight in a chicken and waffle duo. The menu changes slightly based on the daily special, but diners can probably count on several sides, meats, and desserts – such as the four C's depicted on a café t-shirt: chicken, collards, cornbread, and cobbler.

The menu continues with a culinary parade: fried catfish and shrimp, BBQ ribs, pork chops, and regional veggies such as fried okra, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, and candied yams. The sweet spot gets a tickle from ol' fashioned sweet potato pie and "nana" pudding, and cobblers bubbling over with fresh blackberries and peaches.

South in the mouth

Sharing meals and conversation, a well-known unifier of people from all walks of life, and the Busy Bee has long served as an opportunity to do that. The ambiance is casual. You could find yourself standing in the chow line with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and politicians or with the local Baptist preacher, grade-school teacher, or farmer.

The Busy Bee earned the 2022 James Beard America's Classic Award, which has gone to historic or culturally significant eateries across the country since its debut in 1998. The only other Southern diner to receive the Classics award that year was Florence's Restaurant in Oklahoma. It too honors the resilience of the Black community as well as its owner, Florence Jones Kemp, who opened the café 70 years ago with "two chickens and a Prayer," notes the James Beard Foundation. Her daughter now calls it "good country food for the soul."

Whether the adage of putting the "south in your mouth" refers to actual food, the well-known Southern twang, or speaking out for civic responsibility in its many forms, there's a chance the Busy Bee Café and others like it will be dishing for decades to come.