By Lola Carlisle –
with support from Karri Hobson-Pape, Jack White and Judy Potter
When I first met Warren Bruno in 2001, I was young (sort of) and full of myself. I think Warren recognized a potential future neighborhood advocate and wanted to bring me into the fold. We worked on a project together for a Morningside Elementary School Auction that did not go the way I wanted, and I was a bit annoyed… at Warren. What did Warren do? Took me out to lunch at Atkins Park Restaurant, never told me I was full of myself, and showed me what real patience and leadership look like.
A decade later I appreciate even more what a person like Warren Bruno offers a community. He loved life – and he made sure that those around him had the opportunity to do the same. He was confident and positive which made him great at envisioning, launching and supporting not just his successful businesses, but also community events and groups – Summerfest (now the Virginia-Highland Business Association’s biggest fundraiser), the VH Business Association and several professional restaurant organizations, cycling groups, charity events, hot air balloon groups – and I understand this list goes on. I can only imagine the sort of trouble and fun he might be starting on his next adventure.
In the midst of all this energy lived a real goof. I remember watching him and the rest of “The Morningside Dads” up for auction at one of the many fundraisers at Morningside. They just made up this list of crazy tasks that a group of local dads would do and auctioned themselves off. The list of activities sounded more like chaos to the fifth power, but you know, I wanted to bid on it. Those guys were fun, and I’d clean up the mess in their wake any day just for the adventure.
When Karri Hobson-Pape and I talked to Warren about his experiences in Virginia-Highland and at Atkins Park Restaurant for our neighborhood history, he produced a bunch of stories prefaced by instructions to “put our pencils down.” His passion for Virginia-Highland was obvious. His parents moved to Atlanta from upstate NY in 1969, when Warren was in college. He spent some time in Atlanta working at a club on Luckie Street and on road crews until, as I understand it, he was drafted for the Vietnam War and was based in Korea. After his discharge and finishing college in RI, he returned here, with the goal of opening a bar. He bought Aunt Charlie’s in Buckhead, changed the concept a bit, and created a very successful restaurant. Warren owned several restaurants in Buckhead, but in ’83 he bought Atkins Park Restaurant, and that’s where our good luck began.
Warren was able to tell us a bit of the history of Atkins Park Restaurant, which was actually built as a home in 1910. In 1922, the owners (the Cohens, per Warren’s recollection) lifted the house up and built a bar on the new first floor; they lived upstairs and ran the deli and store below. Atkins Park Restaurant holds the longest continuously operating liquor license in Atlanta. From many accounts, it appears that Atkins Park Restaurant had a questionable reputation at times – so much so that some parents insisted their children cross to the other side of the street when walking down North Highland. In the 50’s, Atkins Park Restaurant and Manuel’s Tavern were the #1 and 2 draft accounts in the city. In the 60’s, the alley behind Atkins Park Restaurant was backed up in the mornings with winos and workers – painters were common – buying pints of liquor, which they’d drink right away and then toss the glass bottles in the alley. The owner had so much trash from that morning business that he had to make special arrangements for its disposal. When Warren bought Atkins Park Restaurant, the guy next door was a part-time bootlegger, selling moonshine. The previous owner of Atkins Park Restaurant had done a great deal to improve the look of the restaurant – stripping all the wood down and staining it – but the clientele had not improved to match the look. He recalls that there was a de facto segregation between the liquor drinkers at one end of the bar and the winos at the opposite end. When we spoke to Warren in early 2011, he was very content with the progress in the area and optimistic about development plans for Ponce de Leon. He believed that he and fellow business owners in that commercial node could work together to continue to enhance the community.
Warren talked a little about the area back in ’85 when he bought Atkins Park Restaurant. He inherited some very interesting customers. One was Nass Almeleh, a Jewish merchant born in 1885 in Greece. Nass moved to Atlanta in 1928 and operated Nass Shoe and Repair near Atkins Park Restaurant for 55 years. He lived on Rosedale and walked to work every day. He spoke very little English. He would eat lunch at Atkins Park Restaurant every day but it was his own lunch he brought in – in an old rusty lunch pail. He even brought his own glass and had one Budweiser every day, which he paid 25 cents for. No matter how much Warren wanted to charge for a glass of Budweiser, Nass Almeleh paid 25 cents. Warren also rattled off names of the eclectic mix of businesses in the area, Walter Mitty’s, the Blue Note, the Texas Oil Drilling Company, Alfred’s Furniture Refinishing, and RJ’s Wine Bar (where I got engaged), Bill Hallman and more. It was an interesting and vibrant area.
The central focus of his life was Sandra Spoon and his family. Sandra started working at Atkins Park Restaurant in 1985; she had come down for the summer between undergraduate school and whatever would come next. She worked at nearly every position in the restaurant, married Warren, became an integral part in the success of Atkins Park Restaurant and a great supporter of Virginia-Highland as well. She and Warren have two children together that have grown up in Virginia-Highland – Alec Bruno and Grayton Bruno. And Warren has two children from his first marriage – Christopher Derek Bruno and Madison Bruno. It’s a close-knit and special family.
Given what I’ve read and heard from others about Warren, I know that I only know a very small bit about him. On May 15, 2012, we lost a great soul and a great leader. But Warren has certainly left us with so much – fine memories, a sterling example of how to live a good life, lessons on how to be a positive part of a community, what a loving father and husband look like – and how to measure out a good enough 5K with a bag of flower, an old pick-up truck, a few beers, and good friends!