Ann Saxon has been telling stories to everyone at the bar of The National since the day it opened over 8 years ago.
“I’ve been here forever,” she says matter-of-factly in her sweet and sassy Southern accent that can’t be called a drawl because it happens too fast.
Back then, The National was still one of the few fine dining restaurants in the college town of Athens, Ga. But it was imagined differently. It was going to have a bar that was treated like a bar, and it was going to have a staff that dressed how they liked to dress, and it would play music that was current but not necessarily heard on the pop stations or in other restaurants.
“We looked for our church forever in this town—our bar and our church,” Ann says. “This was my first bar-restaurant, right around when I quit going to dance parties. This is adult swim down here.”
To say that Ann Saxon is the only regular at The National would be wildly untrue. This is a restaurant that operates on regulars—business lunch regulars, Saturday morning regulars, bar regulars, Wednesday night date night regulars, midday coffee drinking regulars. But Ann gravitated to the bar from day one.
“I’ll still see everyone in [the dining room] if I’m sitting in here,” she says confidently just as she says everything. “Everyone” refers not only to the servers, it refers to the host who pauses from work to give a smile on her way in, but never holds the door because it may take too long, as Ann banters with whoever can be found outside; it refers to even the grumpiest cooks who hold a tender spot for Ann and will hand-deliver her food just because. When Ann is in the house everybody knows it, and everybody wants to stop by to say hello, to see photos of her latest owl painting or to hear a live rendition of the karaoke song she has in store for the week.
Ann notices the effort her presence in the bar warrants, and she doesn’t take it lightly. “Don’t take anything for granted, not even your bar or your bartenders,” says Ann. It’s this mentality that has shifted her role from a customer to a friend for so many staff members over the years.
Whenever Ann says goodnight, she declares to everyone in parting “call me if I need you,” and in her reverse joking way, you know she means it. They say that it’s the people you surround yourself with that shows your character. Luckily, Ann wants to be surrounded by The National staff.
“Well the bar candy is not bad! Those aren’t bad jelly beans, and they’re so attentive to me,” she admits when pressed for the real reason she finds herself a barfly. “You know all I’ve got left is a little attention, even if it’s just cutting my straw.”
The Ann. Pour a double shot of Stoli into an old-fashioned glass over ice. Add a splash of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and another splash of cranberry juice for color. Never give a cocktail straw and never put it in a tall glass.
“I didn’t quit cigarettes to wrinkle my lips by sucking on a cocktail straw,” she’ll tell anyone who will listen. The first couple of times, not wanting to be a pain, Ann pulled out her own pocket knife to trim a “fat straw” to her preference. Now, her straw is cut when she walks in. That’s the stuff that means something.
And she will nurse that drink for the rest of the night, a professional slow drinker, just adding more ice and more ice and more ice.
“It’s one thing to go into a bar like Cheer’s where everybody knows your name, but it’s another to walk in and have your drink made with a fat straw,” says Ann.
Ann sits in her favorite chair at The National bar in Athens, Ga.
At this point, Ann halts the conversation to ask directly, “Do want to know more gangsta stuff or more business?” That’s right, Ann is a self-described “gangsta.” And you really never know what she is going to say next.
“I don’t want anybody to say I was crazy or cute. Just call me gangsta Ann! Just try to say gangsta as if you could say it without smiling,” she dares with her toothy grin.
Most often, Ann is joined at the bar by her husband, Tim– they’ve been together for 28 years. She worked at the Granite City Bank prior to their marriage and would cash his paycheck every week. She’ll tell you that she liked what she read on those checks so much that one day when she saw him on the side of the road broken down with his red truck, she pulled a U-turn and the rest is history.
On Wednesday nights, they rendezvous at The National’s bar after he finishes up choir practice at the Methodist church just down the street. From there they head down Prince Avenue to Normaltown for karaoke night at HiLo—it would be impossible to say who is better at belting a tune.
Together they run a retirement home business called Magnolia Estates, just like the one Ann and her mother started in 1984 in northeast Georgia. She knew in starting her own business that you have to get to know the doctors, the lawyers and the preachers, and not in that order. So it suits that she never shies away from an introduction.
“Well most of my contacts are right here at this bar,” Ann jokes with a snort. “Personally professional or professionally personal.” There is no place for social media or an online presence in her world. If you want to know if Claudia Ann Rampey Saxon is alive, you’ll have to come to the bar at The National.
“I’ve got a good parking place in heaven, even if I’m a regular at a bar.”