|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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Address: 61 North Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia (Fulton County)
Website: www.the varsity.com
Cultural Significance: A
Food Quality: B+
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