The Varsity

Atlanta’s Premier Restaurant Map
The Varsity Drive In
From The Varsity

I’ve been wanting to expand into writing about restaurants and shops around Atlanta but have been putting it off because there seems to be a lot of that kind of thing going around. My contention is that you would have to be an idiot or a complete snob not to be able to find a good meal in this great and diverse city. But an anonymous poster on my picture index page reminded me that restaurants can be more than restaurants, they can be events, they can be special places, and, in certain cases, they can be icons of Atlanta Culture. I always said to my foodie friends that no matter how good the food gets in this metropolis, the two most recognizable restaurants in Atlanta will always be “The Big Chicken“ and the subject of this post, The Varsity . With this gentle reminder, plus the PBS special about the place airing on September 6, 2008 at 8 pm (view trailer ), I decided the time has come.

The Varsity from the Parking Lot

The Varsity, bills itself as the world’s largest drive-in, can serve up to 30,000 folks on a given day, and has been serving our fair city since 1928. To my friends who attended Georgia Tech, they speak wistfully about the fast food joint as if it was holy ground, the way I might talk about my visit to St. Peter’s in Rome. To have that effect it must be something special. I must admit that I had never eaten at its downtown location since moving here, and based on the performance at its satellite stores, I was never in a hurry to go.

Counter Service 'What'll ya have'

But, a few friends of mine were headed downtown, a little late after church one June morning. We were hungry and we needed something quick. And the Varsity sounded so much more interesting than other fast foods. We pulled in as an added excursion to our day.

Varsity Fries, Rings, Burgers and Dogs

My First Impression was the enormity of the place. The lines were 3-5 deep and at a dozen different registers. And each and every patron was greeted with a chorus of “What’ll ya have?” just like I was told. My absent Tech friends always swore by the Chili Slaw dog, but I wanted to understand the place in full, so I had a chili cheese hamburger and chili cheese hotdog combo (the #2), with fries and rings to share, and the other two recommendations for a true varsity experience, a frozen Orange and a fried peach pie. I paid for three people in our group and the bill didn’t exceed thirty dollars, and it could be much cheaper (menu & prices ), if you ordered less (We wanted to embrace the experience in full), so I would gauge this a fairly cheap place to eat. We moved to sit in the expansive atrium, which hit me with the next great impression of the downtown location, a terrific view of the city of Atlanta. The Olympic Torch blazed to the North, the west overlooked the 75/85 corridor, and the South gave a really nice view of the Atlanta Skyline. I thought it a great starting point for a foray into the city.

Fried Peach Pie

Back to the food, and I must be honest about this, the Hamburger was nothing special, so I would echo the Techies, and say you ought to go with the dogs at this place. Not that the hotdogs are earth shattering, but they are solid. Where the dining gets good at the Varsity are in the extras. The French Fries and Onion Rings are handmade and fantastic. The Frozen Orange was to me, a Native of somewhere else reminiscent on a childhood favorite the Orange Push-Up and refreshing on a Georgia Summer day . I am not a huge fan of desserts, but the Varsity pies were a clear notch above other fried pies I’ve had in my life. The experience certainly wasn’t healthy (we knew that going in), but was enjoyable. Even the one Chef friend of mine remarked, “it was fine.” A high compliment from a critical palate. His children were in heaven as I believe it may have been the first time in their lives their father took them out for fast food (and they are in their early teens). They let us put on the classic Varsity hats and we acted like goof balls for half an hour.

The Classic Frozen Orange

This place does what it sets out to do. It serves Atlantans quality fast food, at fair prices quickly. Just as it did for your father and his father, and will for your son and daughters and there sons and daughters.

The World's Largest Drive In

The place has a gift shop, ample parking, and a lots of drive up carhop style serving areas. In the 1940’s comedian Nipsey Russell worked there and honed his comedy while working as a bell hop. They have there own Lingo in calling out the orders, that gives it an old diner feel. There is a great Coffee table book about the store that could fit properly in any Atlanta Living room. They do have several satellite locations, but the true experience is at the corner of North and Spring Street. And Like I said, this is Atlanta’s First Restaurant, and in that role, I’ll echo my culinary compadre’s words: It does a fine job.

the Varsity and Georgia Tech

Restaurant Fundamentals
Address: 61 North Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia (Fulton County)
Phone: 404.881.1706
Website: www.the

Cultural Significance: A
Food Quality: B+
Healthiness: D
Price: A
Value: A

Overall Rating: A-

Recommendations: Stick with the dogs, Frozen Orange, Fries and Onion Rings, and the Fried Peach Pie
Significance: An Atlanta Institution for 80 years

Tallulah Gorge

No Pain No Gain Map

Tallulah River Falls
From Tallulah Gorge

About an hour and 45 minutes Northeast of the city, in the County of Habersham , there is a 1000 foot gorge which has been a tourist attraction here in North Georgia since the early 1800’s. It has been named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia and is a place that if you haven’t gone, you are sincerely missing something. Of course you probably already know that I am talking about the Tallulah Gorge .

View from the Rim Trail

This 1000 ft deep crevice in the Tallaluh River has seen travelers coming from all around by buggy, train and car. It has been used in the film Deliverance and the late great Karl Wallenda crossed it as a stunt on tight rope (Professor Leon did it first in 1886). It is home to a waterfall greater than 600 feet in height (though portions are named separately as Six distinct waterfalls ).

base of the falls

It also has six different hiking trails . When I first saw the sign that announced the canyon floor trail, marking it at 1 mile and telling me that it would take two hours, I chuckled. But to get to the canyon floor you have to descend 1009 steps (which must be climbed again upward to get out) the time question was solved. The climb out is probably the most rigorous 1 mile in the state. It dwarfs the stair climb at Amicalola Falls . I consider myself in average shape, but an reasonably experienced hiker, and I took four breaks coming out of the gorge. There is no dishonor in resting, the only dishonor is not attempting. I overheard a handful who stopped on the way down say they would go no further because of fear of the difficult upward climb. The extra 4 or 5 hundred steps are well worth it. At the bottom is a place of extraordinary beauty. As they say no pain, no gain. There is also an easy additional 1 mile trail along Lake Tallulah Falls, making 6 miles in all.

Rocks at the viewing platform

The floor trails, known as Hurricane Falls, and Sliding Rock, are of limited access. You must be one of the first 100 to get a permit (no fee). The traffic is limited to protect the pristine nature of the area. As for me, not being an early riser, I failed to get permission to explore those areas. Reports, I have read state they are beautiful, about 2.5 miles, moderate to strenuous, and worth the early wake up call. There’s even a place you are allowed to swim in the River. If you wish this extra adventure, I suggest an early start (The Center opens at 8 am) or you try a Tuesday or Thursday Run.

the power of the falls at the bottom

Near the bottom of the rim trails is a bridge crossing the falls, excellent views are afforded here, and it allows one to descend on the one side and ascend the other (the difficulty is pretty equal each side). Along the rim trail there are several viewing platform affording magnificent views of the gorge and the falls. At the very start of the trail you can see Georgia Power’s dam which creates Lake Tallulah Falls that has a presence in its own right, although not a natural beauty. There are also several benches, picnic areas, and places to camp.

atthe beginning of the restricted use trails

It’s a little hard for me to say that a two mile walk up and down wooden stair cases is an excellent hike, but I will. The athleticism required to complete mirrors any hike I have taken. And the scenic payoff makes it well worth the effort. I don’t want to discourage anyone from not visiting the site either. The limited in mobility can enjoy the views along the rim. And the staircase make ascending and descending much easier than if they weren’t there. Simply go at your own pace, break as often as you like, and enjoy this marvel tucked into our NE Georgia Mountains.

the Stairs (many, many stairs)

Trail Essentials
(parentheses refers to additional limited access trails)
Approximate Time: 2 hours (3.5 hours)
Approximate Distance: 2.5 miles (5 miles)
Trail Surface: compact soil, lots and lots of stairs, rocks/tree roots, (wet foot crossing)
Features: Canyon/gorge views, waterfalls, riverside walks
Overall Rating: A
Scenic Quality: A+
Athleticism: A+
Solitude: B-
Value: A
Parking: $4 day use fee (Wednesday’s Free)
Hours of Operation: 100 daily permits to floor, interpretive center 8am-5pm, park sunlight hours
Facilities: at Interpretive center
Maps: at Center, or here . well marked trail before restricted areas.
County: Habersham

Rock Eagle Effigy Mound

Eatonton’s Enigmatic Eagle map

The Bird's Head
From Rock Eagle Ef...

One aspect of our Georgia History I find fascinating is the Indian Culture that once resided here. An intriguing aspect of that is the penchant for the local Native Americans to build perplexing structures. We’ve seen the mounds they built at Etowah (there are others). We’ve seen rock structures like the one at Fort Mountain . But I think the most curious of the bunch is the Rock Eagle Effigy Mound located outside of Eatonton, Georgia, a little over an hour East of Atlanta.

Bird in Entirety

While its relatively easy to understand why a towering mound or a rock wall would serve a purpose as either a town centerpiece or a defense structure, the Eagle Effigy is more ornamental, its significance is more in its actual design. Which begs the questions: why a huge bird? And why here? And why do they insist on calling it an eagle when it seems to be more like a buzzard or vulture? The local, modern-day Indians offer that it was some sort of ceremonial center, which I will defer to their expertise, but the unanswered questions leave this place more enigmatic, more romantic, and greater fuel for our imaginations.

the Height of Rocks at the Breast

In a 1950’s archeological excavation of the site by A. R. Kelly with the backing of the University of Georgia, a single set of cremated remains was found (along with a single arrowhead, though the more accurate term projectile point is used in the literature) inside the breast of the creature. Despite this finding, its is not considered to be an Indian Burial Ground, but we know for sure someone was once buried here.

Tower in Background

The bird measures 120 feet in wingspan, and 102 feet from head to tail. The quartz stones are piled some 8 feet high at its highest point at the breast, but at the extremities of the bird are much smaller rising no more than a couple of feet. There is evidence of non-indigenous rocks being part of the mound, which may explain the eye of the eagle which has a reddish coloration. Because of the size of this Indian Artifact, a 3-story tower was built to make viewing its entirety easier (I found this video of someone climbing the tower, if you‘d like to see).

Closer view of Rocks at neck and head

The site is currently controlled by the University of Georgia as a 4-H Center. Though parking and the tower are free, they have some programs there that charge fees. If you stay for a while, you might see some interesting native wildlife, like doves, owls, and maybe a tortoise.

peering out the base of the tower

As I’ve always said there is much more to our history than the Civil War and the local Indian Culture here is captivating. The Rock Eagle Effigy Mound is one of the more beguiling sites and one of the more memorable ones I have seen. It’s certainly worth a side trip if you find yourself in the Eatonton Area.


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