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This Popular Atlanta Hotel Played a Major Role in Supporting the Civil Rights Movement
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This Popular Atlanta Hotel Played a Major Role in Supporting the Civil Rights Movement

Samantha Facciolo
almost 4 years ago

When the Hyatt House Regency , as it was known then, opened its doors in May 1967, it made a big splash on Atlanta ’s skyline. Architect John Portman designed the atrium-style hotel and the Polaris, a rotating bar and restaurant that rose 24 stories in the air. The famed blue dome became a fixture on souvenirs, murals, and even on a montage for a local news station. Patrons flocked to take the dizzying elevator ride to the restaurant in the sky where they dined on prime riblobsters, and cocktails. Little did they know, they might also be brushing elbows with some of the most revered civil rights leaders of the time.

From the beginning, the Hyatt House took a historic stance in supporting civil rights. When many hotels in Atlanta were saying no to integration, the Hyatt said yes. Three months after opening, it hosted the 10th anniversary convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an event that brought together 1,400 men and women, including celebrities like Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier, and Jesse Jackson. Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton reflected that the Polaris was integrated and welcoming, so much so that she deemed it “A Hotel of Hope.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his keynote address in the Regency Ballroom, urging listeners to support Operation Breadbasket, a program that encouraged social change through conscious consumerism, and expounded that “love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.”

Dr. King was assassinated less than eight months later, but at the Hyatt, his legacy lives on. The hotel recently held its Salute to Greatness Dinner, continuing Coretta Scott King’s tradition of honoring individuals committed to her late husband’s principles, and the 16th annual Heritage Awards, which celebrates leaders within the African-American community. Executive Chef Thomas McKeown explains, “We’re proud of our history at the hotel. We just turned 51-years-old and we continue to give back to the community in Atlanta.”

Hyatt completed a $60 million renovation in 2014, bringing new life to the hotel and reaffirming its commitment to the local community. The hotel supports over 75 food and beverage small businesses in Georgia, ranging from jams, meat, and bakery items procured from the Peachtree Road Farmers Market to the partnership established with White Oak Pastures, which supplies the hotel with eggs. Over 65% of the seafood used by the hotel is MSC or ASC certified, and during the summer, guests can enjoy peaches right off the hotel’s very own peach tree.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the Hyatt’s commitment to local food is the urban garden it has cultivated on the rooftop of its International Tower. From the dining room of the Polaris, guests can view the rescued bee colonies that produce honey for the hotel’s use, as well as trees, flowers, an herb garden, and a mural designed by students at nearby Georgia State University.

The 2014 renovations reflected a need to keep up with changing consumer demands, but the hotel pays tribute to its iconic past as well. The menu in the Polaris rotates seasonally and includes traditional favorites like deep-fried oysters, peach daiquiris, Bee’s Knees cocktails (made using honey from the hotel’s own hives), and the perennial favorite, Steak Oscar. Chef McKeown says the entrée has been a feature since the 1960s but has its own Polaris flair, combining filet with a sautéed crab and asparagus mixture, hollandaise, mashed potatoes, and a rosemary demi-glace. “This is a secret,” he says, “but we’re working with this wonderful company, Beautiful Briny Sea, to develop a Polaris salt!” It will, of course, be blue in honor of the famous dome.

Whether a twist of fate or something more prophetic, Dr. King’s speech in the ballroom so many years ago highlighted the responsibility individuals have toward conscious consumption. It is a message the Hyatt has taken to heart. Today, Hyatt spearheads the movement toward sustainable and ethical food choices. Guests dining at Polaris can look out the windows and see CalyRoad Creamery in one direction, and Decimal Place Farm in another. Both supply cheeses for the restaurant. After their meal, diners might sample honeycomb from the hotel’s hives. “Polaris was so eye-catching when it opened,” says Sara Hernandez, the hotel’s marketing manager. “People came here for engagements, and high school proms, and anniversary dinners. Now they come back for a walk down memory lane. In addition, they come because they want to visit a new, trendy spot.” The Hyatt has re-committed itself as a destination for tourists and locals alike, and as a leader in the community. Polaris, once a beacon of integration and civil rights, continues to light the skyline, this time leading the way toward a healthier, more sustainable, and delicious-tasting future.

Make Brunch Musical at These Atlanta Restaurants

Atlanta is teeming with finger-licking brunch options, often accompanied by bottomless Bloody Marys or mimosas, but several restaurants take the bar a notch higher by offering live music during Sunday brunch. Could anything be better than a full brunch menu, a cocktail or two, and the sweet sounds of local blues or jazz? Read on for more.

Two Urban Licks

820 Ralph McGill Blvd. Atlanta, GA 30306

Two Urban Licks has been an Atlanta hot spot since its opening in 2004. It offers a Sunday Badass Blues & Brunch, combining menu offerings of fish & grits, salmon chips, eggs, doughnuts, and a slew of cocktails with a live blues band.


1820 Peachtree Road NW Atlanta, GA 30309

The Watershed Restaurant offers guests the chance to dine on chicken and dumplings, smoked salmon scramble, fried chicken and biscuits, and apple tarts while listening to the soulful sounds of live jazz music.


740 Ralph McGill Blvd. Atlanta, GA 30312

Venkman’s is a restaurant and music venue that offers a bottomless mimosa brunch with a rotating lineup of musicians. The menu includes poutine, blueberry ricotta doughnuts, huevos rancheros, and duck egg hash, as well as a full beer and wine list, champagne, and rose on draft.

Lips Atlanta

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3011 Buford Highway Atlanta, GA 30329

Lips Atlanta is a drag show-brunch combo, entertaining guests with a gospel brunch featuring the Sisters of Sequins along with staples like eggs benedict, chicken sandwiches, steak and eggs, and an apt-named Lips Omelet.

Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint

200 Peachtree Street Atlanta, GA 30303

Sweet Georgia’s is known for its “boogie-woogie” music, offering three separate musical groups on Sundays with a diner-wide brunch menu. Food and drink choices include seafood gumbo, fried green tomato BLTs, pulled pork sandwiches, and half a dozen moonshine cocktails.

TWO urban licks
Lips Drag Queen Show Palace, Restaurant & Bar
Sweet Georgia's Juke Joint

About the Author

Samantha Facciolo is a freelance writer who has contributed to The Rumpus, TimeOut New York, The Culture-ist, Living Well magazine and others. She writes mostly on themes related to culture and cuisine, travel and wellness, education and people affecting social change. She teaching writing to English language learners through Teachers & Writers Collaborative and contributes frequently to the Library Journal Review. Samantha comes from a long line of chefs and bakers and is always happy to explore new food, especially in the name of a good story. @seesamwrite