One of the most famous restaurants in Atlanta - or throughout the South, for that matter - is the hallowed Varsity which has been in business for over 80 years. The original location near Georgia Tech University (see map) has been called the "World's Largest Drive-In" and has served world leaders, celebrities, and average Joe's the most Americana of Americana foods - hot dogs and cheeseburgers. I've wanted to go to The Varsity for years and while I was in Atlanta recently I was able to corral a couple of my colleagues for a visit.
The history of The Varsity began in 1928 when Frank Gordy opened the restaurant with his savings of nearly $2000 dollars that he'd accrued from profits from his Yellow Jacket restaurant that was situated at the corner of Luckie and Hemphill near what is now the world headquarters for Coca-Cola and Georgia Tech. Gordy bought a plot of land just to the east of Georgia Tech and built The Varsity, complete with a white picket fence out front. Almost from Day One, The Varsity offered curbside service to people who drove up in cars.
At one point, The Varsity was open to men only. If you brought your wife or girlfriend to The Varsity for something to eat, the women would have to stand outside while the men went in and ordered. The men would bring the food out to the women and they'd eat outside. I've found during trips to Atlanta and Savannah over the past couple of years that sexual segregation in restaurants was a common practice for years in the South.
Gordy updated the restaurant in the 1940's and added more drive-in services to the place. His car hops were part waiters, part performers. His most famous car hop, John Raiford - a.k.a. "Flossie Mae" - sang the menu to customers for 50 years. Actor/comedian Nipsey Russell was the 46th car hop employed by Gordy.
Over the years, The Varsity has grown with six different expansions. It was the first drive-in with a covered roof and the first with a parking garage. Today, it's situated on two acres and has two levels of parking and dining. Gordy died in 1983, but his daughter, Nancy Simms, and her son, Gordon Muir, run The Varsity today.
The original Varsity has spawned other restaurants around Atlanta and Georgia. The second Varsity opened in 1932 in Athens, GA, near the University of Georgia. Today, there are six Varsity locations, but the original location remains near and dear to the hearts of thousands who have enjoyed hot dogs and hamburgers over the years.
Now, it helps to know that The Varsity has their own ordering language to help the process of getting hundreds of people in and out at any point of the day. (The Varsity claims that on home football dates for Georgia Tech they serve up to 30,000 people.) So an order of a "heavy weight all the way, a glorified steak sideways, ring one and strings with a squirt one and a joe-ree" will garner you a hot dog with extra chili and onions, a cheeseburger with tomatoes, lettuce and mayo with onions on the side, an order of onion rings, an order of fries with a Varsity orange drink and a cup of coffee with cream. But you can easily order either a hot dog with onions and a cheeseburger with tomatoes, lettuce and mayo and they'll understand you just fine.
It was a rainy afternoon when we pulled into The Varsity. My colleague Chris had been talking about going to The Varsity since our visit to Atlanta for CEDIA last year. Most of the guys in our company turn up their nose when it comes to experiencing such culinary elegance such as hot dogs, but we were able to convince our other colleague Jon to come with us. We had hoped to have car hop service, but I actually wanted to go inside to have a look around. We parked in the upper lot on the north side of the restaurant and went in.
It was later in the afternoon - after 4 p.m. - when we were there, so the lines were not very bad. The stainless steal counter was very long - about 125 feet by my estimation. The menu at The Varsity is located on the wall above the counter. When a counter clerk is ready to take your order they'll yell out an old traditional greeting, "What'll ya have, what'll ya have, what'll ya have?!!" It's best to know what you want before you get up to the front of the line. They really want to keep the line moving.
I knew we were going out for a large dinner later in the evening, but I wanted to try at least a couple hot dogs. They didn't appear to be big, so I didn't think I'd have any problem downing a couple without spoiling my appetite later on. I ordered a chili dog and a plain dog. Chris also ordered a couple of hot dogs while Jon broke ranks and got a "glorified steak and a ring one". He didn't order it that way, but he did get the cheeseburger with the veggies and a side of onion rings.
We didn't wait long before our order was brought out to us on a tray and we found a place in one of the dining rooms that are part of The Varsity. Quite honestly, the hot dogs were pretty basic. I didn't find the chili on the chili dog to be all that remarkable and the hot dogs, themselves, were sort of dull and lacked the plumpness and "snap" I've come to love from Chicago-style Vienna Beef hot dogs. But we were at The Varsity and that's really all that mattered.
Jon said that his cheeseburger was "good, surprisingly good". He said it was one of the better cheeseburgers he'd had in quite sometime. He did offer both Chris and I an onion ring and they, too, were just OK. I couldn't really tell if they were homemade - I'm guessing they were. But like the hot dogs, the onion rings were pretty average.
It's obvious it's not the hot dogs that keeps bringing people back to The Varsity. It's the history, heritage and traditions that gives The Varsity the charm and staying power. While I probably wouldn't go out of my way to try The Varsity again - except, maybe, to try a burger. But I'm really glad I went. But with CEDIA moving to Indianapolis for the next couple of years, I doubt if I'll be back anytime soon. The Varsity is one of the most famous restaurants in the South and is one of those places you should at least try when you go to Atlanta.