By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1995 Gourmet Magazine
What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” Erby Walker bellows at a customer from behind the jam-packed counter of The Varsity restaurant and drive-in of Atlanta. “Come on up!” he barks at the reluctant man, who is standing back from the tumult in order to study the menu posted above. “Come on up and what’ll ya have?” Mr. Walker insists. When the slowpoke finally does step forward to announce that he will have a hot dog topped with extra chili; a hamburger with mustard, onions on the side; plus an order of fried onion rings, Mr. Walker whips toward the open kitchen behind the counter and sings out, “Heavyweight, Yankee steak sideways, and ring one!”
Erby Walker, who has been a star Varsity employee for fifty-two years, now wants to know what the man will have to drink with his meal. Beverage is an issue the customer apparently hasn’t even considered, but before his eyes tilt back up to read the menu Mr. Walker abruptly reels off a list of the drinks available: “Coca-Cola, diet Coke, Sprite, F.O., P.C., N.I.P.C., Joe, and Joe-ree.” He says these things impossibly fast and with a labyrinthine Georgia accent, so that even the most meticulous listener might not realize that he is actually uttering some English language words with spaces between them. Furthermore, even if you could discern his rapid fire recitation, you’d have to be a veteran Varsity customer to know the meaning of the short-order code. An F.O. is a Frosted Orange, a thick, iced orange drink so foamy it resists going up a straw; P.C. is plain chocolate milk served over ice; N.I.P.C. is a no-ice, plain chocolate milk; and Joe-ree, for reasons no Varsity employee can explain or remember, is the term for coffee with cream.
“Have your order in your mind and your money in your hand,” Erby Walker trumpets loud enough for a mob of waiting customers to hear; and this admonition, which is what Varsity counter people shout in cadence along with their “What’ll ya have?” refrain, is no hyperbole. The “heavyweight” (a double-heaped chili dog), the “Yankee steak” (a hamburger with yellow mustard) served “sideways” (onions on the side), the cardboard boat full of onion rings, and the tall frosted drink with a thick orange Kewpie-doll swirl peeking up above the rim of the cup appear on a tray at the counter faster than the man who ordered them can reach for his wallet and pull out the money to pay. The Varsity sign above the adjacent highway boasts FAST FOODS. These words are the guiding spirit of The Varsity, where speed is king and slowness is subversive. Like an encounter with a runaway locomotive, lunch or dinner in this spirited eatery is flattening. It also happens to be one of the most exhilarating meals anywhere: not just fast food, but lightning-fast food, at curb or counter, garnished with plenty of hash-slinger sass.
The food is classic drive-in fare, and nearly everything is made on the premises using recipes developed by founder Frank Gordy and now tended by his daughter, proprietor Nancy Simms. Every day, a ton of onions are sliced for rings, more than a ton of potatoes are cut for French fries, and three hundred gallons of chili are brewed to top hot dogs—more than two miles’ worth—and hamburgers.
Hot dogs are the house specialty. They aren’t fancy or deluxe frankfurters, nothing like the all beef aristocrats of Chicago or the slim Sabretts of New York City street carts; they are little pale pink tube-steaks, modest critters, served in beguiling steamy-soft buns (unless you order a “Mary Brown” dog, which is bunless on a paper plate).
Even in its nice bready pillow, though, a plain hot dog—known hereabout as naked—is a scanty foodstuff, begging to be dolled up. The prime adornment is chili. Like the hot dog it smothers, Varsity chili isn’t necessarily something you would want to eat plain as an entrée, but, somehow, when it and the dog are joined, fast-food magic happens. It is a finely pulverized brew, not too spicy but with a beefy avoirdupois that perfectly complements the frivolity of the dog. Chili dogs come with a big stripe of yellow mustard running across the top of their chili blanket: a welcome condiment with a sunny punch. “A couple of chili dogs a day keeps you young,” said the late Frank Gordy, who in 1928 named his original hotdog stand down the street The Varsity because he believed college students from nearby Georgia Tech would appreciate simple food served cheap and fast.
Another excellent hotdog variation is a slaw dog, topped with sweet, creamy coleslaw. Better yet: a chili-slaw dog, with slaw atop the mustard atop the chili atop the dog. This one is tricky to eat, but its complexity is a pleasure. It is also possible to get the “heavyweight,” with a double order of chili on top, which we feel throws the exquisite balance of the dish out of whack, overwhelming the meek wiener underneath. There are also chili-cheese dogs and chili-cheese-slaw dogs, as well as “regular C dogs” (with chili, mustard, and ketchup), and, of course, “walking dogs,” which are wrapped to go.
If there is no law requiring customers of The Varsity to order onion rings or French fries, there ought to be. The fries, called strings by the counter staff, are thin and long, with the incomparable taste of a just-cut potato. Some have bits of darkened skin along the edge or the tip, and they are cooked until each fry develops a burnished gold crust and soft white insides. Varsity strings require neither salt nor ketchup, but, if you are of the ilk that cannot eat a French fry without ketchup, each table and all the stand-up counters are equipped with gigantic squeeze bottles of it, as well as mustard and stacks of napkins. The onion rings are especially fun to eat because no two are exactly alike. Each handsome order is a motley assortment of different kinds: some crisp little squiggles that shatter at first bite, some hefty bands with a thick, slick length of warm onion within. Sliced and battered quickly, served just moments out of their hot oil bath, these are the pinnacle of onion rings.
Varsity hamburgers are like Varsity hot dogs: simple and satisfying and generally at their best when combined with chili, condiments, and/or cheese. The language of Varsity hamburgers includes the simple term “steak,” which describes one with mustard, ketchup, and pickle slices: “M.K. steak,” topped with mustard and ketchup; and “glorified steak,” meaning dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. The burgers’ buns have the same endearing tenderness of those that encase Varsity dogs. They are, culinarily, the polar opposite of the rolls that often come with upscale hamburgers. They have little character, and that’s just the way they ought to be. Like the white bread that accompanies barbecue, the innocuous tan buns were made to serve, to provide a gentle cushion for foods more assertive than they.
The truth is that we might never have appreciated the humble goodness of Varsity buns had we not decided to sample Varsity barbecue. Although the kitchen is most famous for its hot dogs and hamburgers, barbecue has been a staple for decades, available as a platter, sandwich, or “special sandwich” with sliced ham, lettuce, and tomato between two pieces of toasted white bread. It’s the regular sandwich that won our hearts. The ‘cue was, of course, pork—shredded fine and tender as pork can be, rich and succulent with a faint vinegar tang to its dressing that reminded us of North Carolina–style barbecue. The warm, absorbent, bland bun that surrounded the meat soaked up the savor of what was inside; and, although the whole affair was soon as limp as a clock in a Salvador Dali painting, it was a delight to eat every scrap and shred of that modest bread.
One of the problems that franchised fast-food restaurants have never solved is how to offer a dessert anyone wants to eat. Despite the conspicuous worldwide success of assembly-line hamburgers, chain restaurant customers have shown little interest in pie, cake, cookies, or ice cream. This is not the case at the Varsity, where approximately five thousand fried pies are sold every day. They are hot dumplings loaded with sweet peach or apple filling, with a flaky crust all around that makes them a pure pleasure to eat as the climax of a meal that requires no utensils for any course. The fruit filling inside is a far cry from the icky-sticky jelly that fills inferior fried pies sold in convenience stores; it is a homey kind of preserve, interestingly spiced and with a pleasing texture.
Such ingenuous food is all the more enjoyable because of The Varsity’s ambiance. Whether you dine in the restaurant or in your car in the parking lot, the experience is a deep immersion in Georgia soul. Many loyal customers feel strongly about The Varsity, as evidenced in the glass case in the huge vestibule, where testimonials from happy eaters are displayed alongside memorabilia from the restaurant’s long reign. Here are photographs of the drive-in years ago, including one image from the 1940s of bulbous coupes and convertibles gathered around as carhops hustle and the sun shines. Its caption boasts that more bottled Coke is consumed at The Varsity than at any other restaurant on earth. Alongside the photos are hamburger-themed cartoons, newspaper clippings that mention The Varsity, love notes from devotees, even an autographed napkin from Jon Bon Jovi: “Atlanta Rocks,” he wrote on July 20,1989.
There is something especially right about eating off one’s dashboard, in the lot designed for carhop service between the restaurant and the highway. The moment you pull in and shove the transmission into park, you are approached at the driver’s window by a red shirted “curb boy,” who assumes (rightfully) that a majority of customers know what they want to eat without having to take time to read the menus posted at the head of the parking area. The curb boys are spectacular. Not cutie pies or callow teens, they are professionals who are expert at their job, and many have been doing it for years. When we reeled off an especially large order, our curb boy rattled it right back, item for item, just to make sure we would get what we wanted; within three minutes he was back with a loaded tray to hang on our car’s window.
Erby Walker recalled that when he began working at The Varsity in the 1940s there was a squad of a hundred curb boys, several of them famous for their ability to entertain customers with jokes, dance steps, or arias that told of the delicious things on the menu. (Comedian Nipsey Russell first polished his act while working as a curb boy at The Varsity.) The last of the performing curb boys, a gent named John Raiford but known as Flossie Mae, retired a few years back after working as a carhop since 1937. Flossie Mae was an Atlanta institution, familiar to generations of fans as much for his wacky, flower-bedecked hats as for his ability to sing the menu. Today, members of the curb-boy staff no longer sing; but they will recite the menu in prose if you request it—and rhapsodize about its charms.
There is less deliberate showing off by the staff inside; nevertheless, it is totally entertaining to eat at counter or table in The Varsity. Around lunch hour, the place is a madhouse, its big vestibule jammed with people holding back before they venture toward the 150-foot-long counter for their confrontation with an order taker. At the far right an “express lane” with a pared-down menu moves along nearly as fast as you can walk, with people carrying away trays piled high with hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, and onion rings. All along the rest of the counter, there are other lines, also moving fast, and at each one a Varsity employee is calling out “What’ll ya have?” to customers, then shouting out the order—in triple-time Varsity lingo—to the huge open kitchen just behind. Back there, great vats of oil bubble, burgers fry, and hot dogs in buns are transported through the chaos on a conveyor belt.
Once you get your tray of food, you need to find a place to eat it. The Varsity has eight hundred seats in several different dining rooms, including the ESPN Room, the CNN Room, and the Channel 11 Room—each has a TV tuned to one particular channel. Most of the rooms are equipped with round tables and molded plastic chairs, as well as chest-high counters around the perimeter for stand-up dining, but two of the dining rooms have individual school desks lined up in neat rows facing their respective television sets. It is a strange experience indeed to be in a room full of people tucking into chili dogs and watching As the World Turns while seated in prim rows, like a study hall at the University of Cheap Eats. Even at crowded meal-times, it is likely you will find a seat or at least a space at one of the counters somewhere in the vast complex. The one time you are practically guaranteed not to find room, though, is any Georgia Tech football weekend. On a football Saturday, The Varsity feeds about thirty thousand customers, and even its double-deck concrete parking lot is impassable.
On slower days, when a mere ten to fifteen thousand customers come to dine, there is enough space inside to stand back and appreciate the true beauty of this stylish old establishment. It is clean and streamlined, stainless steel gleaming everywhere in silvery bands that wrap the counter and the ceiling line. The walls are painted brilliant shades of ketchup-red and mustard-yellow. For plowing into chili dogs and hamburgers with all the trimmings there isn’t a more inviting environment on earth. With emissaries from all over the world coming to Atlanta next year for the Centennial Olympics, we Americans ought to be mighty happy that there is a place like The Varsity in the heart of town. It is a genuine taste of the U.S.A.—on a bun, glorified, all the way, with rings and strings on the side.