It was Thanksgiving week when sisters Michelle and Helen May opened Sixth at Watkins.
The two had run The Alley Fill’n Station for a decade before issues arose with their landlord. So the two decided to purchase a building of their own.
That was 20 years ago.
Over that time, Sixth at Watkins has built a reputation and a family that is stronger than when it began.
“We don’t advertise a whole lot anymore. I don’t think we have to,” laughed Helen.
The easygoing but professional ladies spent more than a decade serving lunch and dinner to hungry crowds who came for their comfortable but classy décor, handmade recipes and friendly service.
“For the first 10 or 12 years we did lunch and dinner, so we did the 16-hour days. That wasn’t counting the weddings and such off premises,” Helen said.
Michelle had a daughter, and the sisters lived next door to each other at the time.
But they weren’t able to attend the youngster’s school performances and sports matches.
Though they made more money on the dinner shift, late hours made it hard. During the Futurity, for example, they might not get home until 4 a.m.
Michelle’s daughter was raised in the kitchen, first in a swing and then toddling around cooking her own concoctions — “her version of soup or whatever,” Helen laughed.
“Most people would be concerned about letting a 3-year-old handle a pairing knife; but when they’ve been raised around it…” she shrugs her shoulders. Megan was a natural from the beginning.
Now the young girl is a 19-year-old student at Georgia Southern who helps in the restaurant on weekends and in summers, but those early years were tough, and the sisters decided to cut back the restaurant’s hours so they could have more family time.
“We just decided that we liked the hours of lunch,” Helen said. So they cut back to the midday meal and hosting parties of 50 or more at night. They continued to cater special events.
“In the old days, whenever we had something for work at home, we had a duplicate here. But now we don’t quite live here,” Helen said. “We have a wedding reception next weekend at Sacred Heart, and that will be a long day; but it’s one long day instead of many long days. I used to feel like we’d go to work when it was dark and we’d get off when it was dark.”
While some restaurants might have struggled after cutting back to half-time, it just seemed to make their hungry patrons even hungrier.
“We get to pick and choose, but it took us a long time to get here,” Helen said.
One aspect that helped them to build client loyalty is their ability to be flexible. Each restaurateur seems to search for ways to make their place stand out, and, as Helen said, the name Sixth at Watkins implies only a location, not a cuisine.
So they’re free to try things other restaurants might not attempt, such as combining French, Italian, Southern and Mexican influences on their menu.
But besides the quality of the food and service — Michelle makes all of the desserts herself — it’s the unique touches on the menu that seem to keep their regulars coming back.
They don’t have carrot cake, for example; they make a Carrot Pineapple Pecan Cake. Their pea soup is Tarragon Pea. The fruit and cheese plate comes with a poppy seed dip spiked with Amaretto. The pimento cheese includes bacon.
They offer a side item called a “fruit kabob,” and the salads come with a muffin of the day, which have their own cult following.
“Some people won’t order the salad if it doesn’t come with the right muffin that day,” Helen laughed.
The sisters do have their challenges. They’re having a new roof put on the restaurant, a building that Helen has traced through courthouse records back to the 1880s.
She suspects it goes back further. But the age of the building — and the fact that they own it — means that “something happens every day.”
And yet, it also means that they have the opportunity to fill it with the antiques they love, such as the old armoire that serves as a linen closet and the sideboards that hold menus and silverware.
And built into the dining room is a lovely old fireplace they’ve converted to gas logs. When it’s cold, patrons love to nestle in for a long, cozy meal.
And no one will hurry you here. Michelle and Helen love their clientele of hospital employees, lawyers and other downtown folks, a crowd of regulars who consider Sixth at Watkins theirs as much as the Mays’ — so much so, that the Mays might just have to add an item called “The Usual” to their menu.
It’s what most of their customers order.
Sixth at Watkins
559 Watkins St.
Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Parties of 50 or more upon reservation