Ascending the staircase outside of Georgia Beer Garden and through a towering pink casket aglow in ultraviolet light, walking into cocktail bar Mambo Zombi on Edgewood Avenue is like entering into another realm. It’s maximalism everywhere you look — a hodgepodge design sporting decor inspired by global celebrations of life, the honoring of ancestors, and the afterlife threaded throughout festival holidays like Día de los Muertos, All Souls Day, and Qingming.
For Georgia Beer Garden and Joystick Gamebar owners Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley and partner Kysha Cyrus, Mambo Zombi is more than just a bar with a seemingly macabre theme. It’s reconnecting the trio to their roots, both familial and within Atlanta’s restaurant community as it reemerges from two years of pandemic-related chaos.
“Everyone lost someone or something during the pandemic, whether people, pets, or for us in the industry, many lost livelihoods,” Martinez says. “Coming out of all that has given us a new perspective and woke us up. We want to celebrate it all here: life, death, and rebirth. This bar oozes exuberance in every way.”
Mambo Zombi takes its name from a song by the Spanish band Eskorzo. Martinez describes Eskorzo as a global band of international citizens hailing from Spain, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Songs are often morbidly humorous or tackle social issues, with the band taking its musical cues from reggae, ska, funk, Latin rock, and punk.
Cyrus, whose 20-year career includes stints working with celebrated bartenders Greg Best of Ticonderoga Club and Andy Minchow of Dead End Drinks (formerly Ration and Dram,) admits that before the pandemic she had become too comfortable in her supporting role behind the bar. Mambo Zombi is a challenge she readily accepted coming out of the heaviest days of the health crisis, where she leans into her Afro-Caribbean and Jamaican heritage by creating cocktails with house-made mango shrub or juicing fresh sugar cane for the cachaça-based Madam Gorgeous or infusing rum with spiced bananas used in the Monkey Screwed
“We serve classics like the Mai Tai, flips, and Singapore Sling, and even a Harvey Wallbanger, but the originals are where I get to play with ingredients, light drinks on fire, and infuse spirits,” says Cyrus. “It’s meant to be fun and not overcomplicated, so ingredients and flavors in the drinks are always familiar.”
Ley is quick to point out that despite her modesty, Cyrus is an “effortless cocktail wizard” who is constantly testing and tweaking the drinks before anything lands on the menu at Mambo Zombi. This bar, he says, is where Cyrus finally gets a starring role.
Non-alcoholic drinks receive the same care and thoughtfulness from Cyrus as those containing booze, including the tepache, a fermented pineapple drink from Mexico, and the Chica Morada, a pre-Incan drink found in the Andes made from purple corn and pineapple husk.
In the coming weeks, Cyrus, Martinez, and Ley plan to introduce a small snacks menu that could feature chapulines (dried crickets) Chex mix, spiced fruit cups, and onigiri filled with al pastor.
“I love the early evening light at Mambo Zombi, when the sun is setting. It’s just so beautiful and relaxing in here,” Ley says. “When the sun goes down and the lights kick in, it feels timeless and even more cozy, like you’re locked in and don’t want to leave. We want people to linger because those spaces where people reconnect and just hang out are so few and far between in Atlanta right now.”
While Martinez doesn’t describe the vibe or design aesthetic of the bar as horror, Mambo Zombi does provide a bit of that fright in one of the bathrooms upstairs. He declines to provide further details on what’s in store for folks headed to this particular restroom at Mambo Zombi, only saying people should prepare themselves to be transported to a creepy dimension that might be unsettling and reminiscent of the Island of the Dolls in Mexico City.
“I think a lot about the people and places and pets we’ve lost since the start of the pandemic,” Martinez says. “This bar celebrates those lives and all the living we still have left to do on Earth. It’s a place to reconnect. We’re not looking to be all things to all people, and that’s totally fine, but we can guarantee you’ll be welcome here and offer you a really great cocktail.”
Check out the menu for Mambo Zombi below:
Mambo Zombi, 420 Edgewood Avenue, Atlanta. Enter via the staircase outside on the side of Georgia Beer Garden. Seating capacity 50 people.
Open Thursday - Saturday, 6 p.m. to close; Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.