Even if you’ve never stepped foot in Atlanta, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of The Varsity. Dubbed “The World’s Largest Drive-In,” the iconic Georgia landmark takes up two city blocks in the heart of downtown Atlanta and overlooks the permanently packed I-75/85 Downtown Connector from its perch across the interstate from the Georgia Tech campus.
It served 300 patrons on opening day in 1928, but present-day big game Saturdays can see the count exceed 30,000 hungry fans. It has survived the mad rush of three Super Bowls, five World Series, an MLS Cup championship, and the 1996 Summer Olympics. It has served the likes of Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, and presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Even after celebrating its 90th birthday last year—no small feat for a family-owned, drive-in restaurant that still operates on essentially the same menu it opened with—The Varsity’s longstanding success may seem a bit of a mystery. But if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the secret of The Varsity is in the chili dog.
“I don’t know what they put in that chili, but it’s one of the main reasons people visit The Varsity and it’s a big part of the overall lore,” says Wendell Brock, the food and culture critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The meat is ground super fine and there are no beans in it. I don’t know exactly how they season it, but it has this particular flavor that I could pick out of a line-up.”
Along with its trademarked-by-the-tastebuds flavor, part of the appeal of The Varsity’s chili is its versatility as an accessory to almost anything on the menu. “It’s not a thick, hearty chili that you would expect to get at a restaurant, but more like a sauce or a gravy. I wouldn’t necessarily eat a bowl of it by itself,” Brock says. To his point, it’s important to note that The Varsity doesn’t offer a standalone bowl of its savory chili on the menu, but you can buy a 15 oz. can of it for just under $5 from the gift shop and online store. “My aunt turned 89 years old this year and when I told her they are canning their chili now she said ‘Oh, I’d like to try a can of that’ and I was thinking ‘Oh, I would not like to try a can’,” Brock says with a laugh, adding, “But it might be delicious by itself, who knows.”
Alongside their famous chili dogs, The Varsity’s menu is a model of classic American drive-in fare. It’s all hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and onion rings, with add-on variations involving cheese, slaw, bacon, ketchup, mustard, onions, and of course, chili. Everything can be washed down with your choice of soda, tea, chocolate milk (always with ice), or a house-made Varsity Orange. In the mood for dessert? The Varsity has you covered with 16 flavors of ice cream, chocolate and vanilla shakes, house-made fried pies (apple and peach), and their iconic Frosted Orange, a Creamsicle-esque concoction that blends vanilla ice cream with a Varsity Orange.
Ordering at The Varsity can be an experience all its own thanks to the restaurant’s easily-picked-up lingo. You can order a “glorified steak and strings” (hamburger with added lettuce, tomato, mayo and a side of fries), a “naked dog all the way” (plain hot dog with onions), or ask the cashier to “walk a heavyweight with a bag of rags and a F.O.,” (chili dog with extra chili, a side of potato chips, and a Frosted Orange, to go). Of course, none of that will occur until you’ve been summoned to order by the magical mantra “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”—a phrase that single-handedly wraps up all of the charm and legacy of The Varsity in just six words. Though, according to Brock, it can either be a greeting or a scolding, depending on whether or not you are ready to order. (This sentiment is present in another favorite variation often employed during a rush: “Have your order in your mind and your money in your hand!”)
It’s easy to see why The Varsity would be deeply invested in ordering efficiencies when you look at the sheer volume of food and people it moves on a daily basis. The parking lot can hold about 600 cars and the inside dining spaces can seat over 800 people. It sells more single servings of Coca-Cola every day than any other restaurant in the world. It’s been reported that the daily average for some of their most coveted menu items (all made in-house) hovers around two miles of hot dogs, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, 5,000 fried pies, and 300 gallons of that made-from-scratch chili.
The question of what makes The Varsity so popular is pretty apparent to anyone who has enjoyed a meal there in the last 91 years. However, as Brock tells it, “The history of The Varsity is just as important as the food.” Frank Gordy opened The Varsity in 1928 as a 14-by-35-foot building with a six-stooled counter and a walk-up window. Four years later, Gordy opened a second location for The Varsity in Athens, Georgia, right across the street from the University of Georgia. By the end of the decade, the two locations had earned Gordy his first million dollars and the Atlanta location underwent a major makeover that was emblematic of the polished chrome and bright color palettes of the hot-rod era.
Through the years, eccentric carhops have enlivened The Varsity’s parking lot, with some going on to famous careers—comedian Nipsey Russell honed his skills as a Varsity carhop for a few years after World War II—and some going on to become bonafide local legends. Flossie Mae was known for his outlandish hats and could sing the whole menu; Erby Walker worked for 50 years, retired for a few months, and then came back to work another seven years until his death; and Frank “Car Hop No. 1” Jones has been working at The Varsity for almost 70 years. Still a family-owned operation, The Varsity is on its third-generation president (Gordon Muir is Frank Gordy’s grandson) and the fourth generation is coming right behind, as Ashley Weiser (Gordy’s great-granddaughter) serves as the marketing director. Along the way, The Varsity has also extended its reach throughout Georgia by building additional locations (currently seven in total), including two inside of Atlanta’s sprawling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
When looking at The Varsity’s rise to becoming one of Atlanta’s most beloved institutions, its decades-long pairing with the city’s fervent sports culture (both collegiate and professional) cannot be overstated. Its Atlanta and Athens locations have both been integral elements of the college football season, not only for Georgia Tech and The University of Georgia, but also for the NCAA’s Peach Bowl that has been played in Atlanta every year since 1968. In the mid-‘60s, the Atlanta location became a de facto pre- and post-game hot spot thanks to its quick-drive proximity to Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium), which was the combined home field for both the Braves baseball team and the Falcons football team for 26 years. After the Falcons moved just a few minutes down the road to the Georgia Dome in 1992, the Braves stayed in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for another five years and then moved less than a block away to Turner Field, where they played until 2016. Starting in the 1970s, Atlanta’s basketball, hockey, and soccer teams all played their homes games at The Omni just a mile south from The Varsity. Across 91 years, hundreds of games, and millions of fans, The Varsity has profoundly ingratiated itself to Atlanta’s sports enthusiasts with its promise of delicious game day grub in a less-than-10-minute drive.
When Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996, The Varsity served as an unofficial ambassador in a variety of ways. Not only did the establishment serve global visitors looking for a taste of Atlanta’s culture, but it was involved in a couple interesting bookends as well. During the lead-up to the opening ceremonies, beloved carhop Erby Walker was chosen to participate in a leg of the Olympic Torch Relay. During the night of the closing ceremonies, The Varsity experienced one of its few ingredient shortages. So many chili dogs had been ordered that day that they ran out of hot dog buns. Instead of taking the celebrated food item off the menu—the kitchen still had hot dogs and the chili, after all—The Varsity served them on hamburger buns for the rest of the night. For a few hundred folks on that muggy August night, a one-of-a-kind item was temporarily served in a one-of-a-kind presentation for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
As Brock reminds, those types of standout experiences are fun and memorable, but a big part of The Varsity’s charm is in its unwavering sameness: “Even after 91 years, at the end of the day, it’s still just a drive-in. … The food tastes the exact same at all of its locations. The Varsity is always clean and it has this polished look that never changes. That’s why people go there.” It’s one of the reasons why longtime Georgians make regularly scheduled visits and why their friends, family, and co-workers of the “I’m only in town for one day” variety find themselves picking The Varsity for their lunch or dinner choice. Sometimes even just the mere mention of The Varsity ensures a visit is in the foreseeable future. Says Brock, “Once it’s on the brain, you’ve got to go. There’s no escaping it.”
So what is The Varsity’s secret to success? “Just that classic imagery of a Varsity chili dog, onion rings, and a Frosted Orange…” Brock briefly trails off to find the right words (or to plan out his lunch order). “I’m not going to say it brings tears to my eyes, but it does bring a smile to my face every single time. It’s quintessentially Atlanta and it’s pure Americana.”