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On April 9, 1968, Martin Luther King’s funeral procession detoured to pass the then-site of the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack, a favorite for King and his associates where they often discussed matters at hand with ribs in their hands.
More recently, before stints as a masonry building and a gas station, the site at 302 Auburn Ave. NE was home to Thelma’s Kitchen & Rib Shack before it was abandoned in 2014. Now, Apache Cafe owner Asa Fain has undertaken the substantial project of restoring the building, a current eyesore that catches the eyes of drivers entering the historic Martin Luther King District from I-75/85.
Fain told What Now Atlanta that the building in Sweet Auburn would reopen to diners after seven vacant years in the Spring of 2021, and that it will be named “Auburn Angel” — “The angel is really just an energy that is needed in that area in that space in our time.”
However, Fain said that he is keeping the type of food that will be served at the upcoming restaurant “close to the vest.”
The tiny 2,000 square-foot building’s space will be doubled during renovations, which are presently underway, and will seat about 125 diners, according to a neighborhood planning unit presentation regarding the project. Atlanta-based Wright Gardner Architect, LLC. is listed as the licensed architect on the building permit for the property, and Lillburn-based Porter Steel Inc. is in the process of fabricating steel for the project. A concrete pad to the side of the building will be incorporated into the new structure, serving as a covered patio. The restaurant’s kitchen will be moved to the back of the building and a walk-in cooler will be added, but the building’s grill pit will be retained.
“I didn’t purchase the building because it made a good real estate decision, which one could argue it doesn’t. That’s part of the reason it’s sat so long,” said Fain of the renovation. “I bought it because I love what I do and I love Atlanta — I see this project reflecting that.”
With the exception of one that was too dilapidated, the brick walls of the original structure and the shape and height of its windows will also be refurbished rather than replaced (although additional windows of the same style will be added for improved lighting) — Fain is currently seeking a $200,000 grant from Invest Atlanta specifically to improve the building’s facade. Because the building is deemed historically significant by the Georgia Department of Historic Designation, Fain said, the existing structure and the changes made to it must be documented thoroughly as the construction process trudges onward.
So, when the historic rib shack is renovated and reopened, will barbecue ribs be on the menu?
“I don’t want to say yes or no,” said Fain, coyly. “If we were to do ribs, would they ever be as good as the ribs that the old-timers remember? Even if they were great, they wouldn’t be. There’s no way to repeat that history… I think it’s a disservice to the history to try, I think that history is unique and important and those memories should stay intact — it’s hard to compete with people’s nostalgia and memories.”
Fain did tell What Now Atlanta that he “may try to do some things with that pit” when Auburn Angel opens its doors.
“There’s a lot of soul and a lot of history in that pit,” he said. “We’re foodies, we’re restaurant people. Let’s just see what happens — that’s hallowed ground.”