After 14 years of owning and operating one of Atlanta’s most iconic watering holes, Molly Gunn and Nick Rutherford are moving on from the Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points (L5P). Faced with a lease renewal, the couple are instead selling the Porter to Atlanta restaurateur Manny Maloof and chef E.J. Hodgkinson (Ladybird, Muchacho, JCT Kitchen and Bar, King and Duke).
With the sale tentatively scheduled to close in early April, Gunn and Rutherford will hand over the keys to the Porter, a space filled with nearly 15 years of memories for them, their employees, and for many of the bar’s regulars.
“I’ve always felt like restaurants are like sharks. You’re either moving forward or you’re dying,” Gunn tells Eater of why she and Rutherford are selling. “I didn’t want the Porter to die, but neither of us had the energy to keep pushing the ball forward, and we needed to recognize that.”
Gunn acknowledges the pandemic took a toll on them and that turning over the bar to Maloof and Hodgkinson will be a surreal moment, but they’ve found the right people to carry on the business. Maloof, in particular, knows the neighborhood well, Gunn says, and her staff respects and likes him.
Maloof comes to the Porter with his own restaurant pedigree, too. He’s the grandson of the late Manuel Maloof, founder of the legendary Manuel’s Tavern in Virginia-Highland, and he owns Manny’s restaurant in Grant Park and took over ownership of neighboring L5P dive bar and restaurant Euclid Avenue Yacht Club in 2021, a few doors down from the Porter.
Other than to give the bar a fresh coat of paint and install some new beer lines, there are no plans to change the Porter’s name or the concept surrounding it. But these minor improvements might require the bar to close temporarily for a few weeks. Maloof and Hodgkinson also plan to retain the current staff.
“The Porter has a great history. We don’t plan on changing much. Our goal is to bring it back to full service post-pandemic, to continue what Molly and Nick built,” Maloof says. “It’s always tricky coming in as an outsider, especially with a staff as good as this one. I’ve known most of them personally for some time now. Hopefully we can earn their trust and we can all guide the place into another 14 years together.”
Hodgkinson, who will lead the kitchen at the Porter, joins Maloof as a partner in the bar and says they’ve talked about working together on several potential restaurant projects in the past. But it wasn’t until the opportunity with the Porter presented itself that it finally all clicked.
“[It’s] a special place, and without a doubt an institution in Atlanta,” says Hodgkinson. “Our focus will be to ingratiate ourselves to the team at the Porter, and the community of friends and supporters who have helped make it such a success over the years.”
Hodgkinson feels similarly about trading places with Rutherford in the kitchen. He wants to channel Rutherford’s creativity on the menu and in the beer-friendly food served at the Porter.
Gunn says she and Rutherford have been pretty lucky running the Porter all these years and always thought of it as an asset. COVID-19 made the couple realize it could also be a liability.
“The pandemic took a lot out of us. The Porter works most of the time in normal circumstances, but I don’t know what normal circumstances are anymore,” Gunn says. “It felt like we’ve taken it as far as we can take it.”
Rutherford developed an interest in woodworking during the health crisis, a hobby he hopes to pursue further. He and Gunn co-manage some rental properties, which will help keep them busy. Those are the only certainties on what the future holds next for the couple, who don’t plan on being involved in the Atlanta restaurant scene following the sale of the Porter, other than as patrons.
As for regulars like Orpheus Brewing CEO and brewmaster Jason Pellett, the sale of the Porter is bittersweet. It’s been an integral part of his life since the bar opened in 2008. The idea for his Midtown brewery was born from late-night discussions with Rutherford. Gunn introduced him to his original partners and investors there. He even met his wedding officiant at the Porter.
“It was a magical place for us. [It’s] a place we could always count on running into friends or [making] new ones,” says Pellett. “Molly and Nick deserve a break and I hope the new owners are able to carry on with the distinct choices and commitment to quality that always set the Porter apart. I’m looking forward to seeing what some new energy will bring.”
Gunn also seems to be looking forward to that “new energy.” As she prepares to let go of the business she spent 14 years building, Gunn still has high hopes for its future.
“They say every seven years you become a new person, so I guess, 14 years, we’ve become the kind of people who don’t own a restaurant anymore,” says Gunn.
“I’m putting this place in the absolute best hands that I could find, that I think could carry it forward. I would be thrilled if E.J. won a James Beard award cooking at the Porter Beer Bar. What could be better praise for the place and how far he took it?”