The burger is one of the most, if not the most quintessential America dishes. As Hamburger America author George Motz told us, “Americans are intensely proud of their hamburger heritage, probably because it’s widely known that the burger is an American invention. The burger also carries a lot of weight in the nostalgia department and is the ultimate portable comfort food available everywhere.”
We at The Daily Meal recently published our 101 Best Burgers in America for 2015. Building on last year’s list, we assembled a poll that included almost 250 burgers from across the United States, from Hollywood, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska. 70 burger experts then voted for their favorites, and we published the top 101. A very impressive 21 can be found in the South (about 20 percent of the total list), and the highest-ranking burger from the region can be found in Atlanta.
The Varsity was not included on our list because it claims to be the world’s largest drive-in, or because it’s one of the few restaurants in America that still employs carhops. No, neither is it The Varsity’s staying power (founder Frank Gordy launched it with a $2,000 nest egg and "million dollar taste buds" in 1928) and its expansion to some eight locations in the greater Atlanta and Athens areas. It’s because it sells one of the country’s most idiosyncratic burgers: the double chili cheeseburger. There’s something going on with the buns ‘round these parts — they get condensed and sweeter once find yourself in Atlanta. Make no mistake, this is a greasy cheeseburger, more compact than most double cheeseburgers, but one whose sloppy, cheesy saltiness all comes together in a solid, but proportionately fluid burger, both texturally and flavor-wise. No wonder it’s one of America’s best burgers (and for just $4.08).
The Varsity’s Double Chili Cheeseburger is so good, it came in at #4 on our list, out-scoring 20 other burgers in the South from Charleston; Miami; Nashville; New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; and various other towns and cities throughout the Carolinas, Florida, and Virginia. This means that, according to our experts, not only is The Varsity’s Double Chili Cheeseburger the fourth-best burger in the country and the very best in the city of Atlanta, it’s also the best to be found in the entire Southern region of the United States.
Off The Broiler
I’m in the Atlanta metro area this week. Having heard about The Varsity on a number of travel and food shows on TV, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to this place. Now in its 80th year, the legendary fast food restaurant is most known for the fact that it is the largest operating drive-in restaurant in the world — Sonic couldn’t even try to hold a candle to this place, even if it tried.
As it turns out The Varsity has a branch in Alpharetta, right across the street from the Marriott Suites where I am staying. So what exactly would possess me to drive over 20 miles south down GA-400 to go to another one? Read on.
The original Downtown Atlanta location of The Varsity.
The big V sign can be seen very clearly off the highway. V for Victory! I found it!
Are you ready for some legendary Atlanta hamburgers and hot dogs? Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more.
A view of the Varsity drive-in lot from the upper parking level for the eat-in restaurant.
The Varsity is known for its friendly car-hops. You can hear them walking the lot with their calls of “yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-elp?” Which can be roughly translated as “Are you being helped?”
Downtown Atlanta’s tallest buildings surround the classic drive-in.
And this particular corporate headquarters looms ominously.
The menu, which is fairly self-explanatory.
According to the Varsity website, every day, the original location sells more than two miles of hotdogs, a ton of onion rings, 2500 pounds of fresh cut potatoes, 5000 homemade fried pies, and 300 gallons of chili, all of which are made from scratch.
Slaw dog and French Fries. The fries, which still have the skins, are quite good indeed.
The slaw dog is a very Southern variant of the hot dog, and its mighty tasty too.
The double chili and cheese burger. Outstanding.
A view from inside the restaurant.
Today was St. Patrick’s Day, so it was particularly busy.
Drink Dr. Pepper! Yeah, right. Not these days!
Now that’s a serious queue.
Boy am I glad I got my food outside!
Maybe I’ll save that chocolate shake for the branch in Alpharetta!
Which, later on that day, I did. I’m not sure if there is a quadruple-thick or quintuple-thick shake category, but if there was, this would definitely rank high on that list. It’s so thick that the ice cream essentially laughs at the straw that’s stuck into it.
Georgia's Best Burgers
We tracked down the Peach State's juiciest bites between two buns.
Farm Burger champions all things local: grass-fed beef raised near Athens, area produce, even a dining room built with wood from a nearby cotton mill.
Order: The Burger Banh Mi, a feisty Vietnamese twist with pickled carrots, daikon radish, jalapeños, cilantro, and house-made pork pâté ($10). farmburger.net
Green Truck Pub
The menu headlines burgers made from grass-fed beef from Hunter Cattle Company, a family ranch in Brooklet, about an hour away.
Order: The Whole Farm, a bacon and Cheddar burger that boasts an extra punch of protein𠅊nd flavor—with the addition of a perfectly fried egg ($12.50). greentruckpub.com
In the heart of Athens, the state&aposs most renowned vegetarian spot has served meat-free comfort foods for nearly three decades. (Fun fact: Michael Stipe of R.E.M. is the landlord.)
Order: The Burger of the Day, which rotates among patties of black beans, white beans, or (the best) red beans tinged with Creole seasonings ($7). thegrit.com
Chef Todd Ginsberg&aposs upscale riff on a drive-in burger has become a favorite among the city&aposs most finicky foodies.
Order: The Burger Stack with two patties (a blend of chuck, brisket, and short-rib meat), melted American cheese, and house-made bread-and-butter pickles ($9 at lunch, $12 with fries at dinner). bocadoatlanta.com
A&A Restaurant and Grocery
Tiny Allentown is home to this friendly country diner where locals gather for juicy burgers dressed with the basics.
Order: The deliciously disheveled Double Bacon Cheeseburger—slathered with ketchup, mustard, and mayo on request. It conjures the ultimate summertime backyard cookout. Ask for the bun toasted𠅊nd for a knife and fork($5). 478/962-3500
Ann&aposs Snack Bar
The eight-seat shack in Atlanta&aposs Kirkwood neighborhood has become as famous for the posted rules of "Ms. Ann" Price ("do not sit or stand babies on counter") as for the massive, misshapen burgers.
Order: The Ghetto Burger—two patties grilled with plenty of onion mashed in and topped with American cheese, bacon, chili, lettuce, and tomato ($8). 404/687-9207
The Varsity Chili Slaw Dog Copycat Recipe
This post brought to you by Bar-S Foods. The content and opinions expressed below are that of Miss Information.
Here in Atlanta, there is an iconic restaurant called The Varsity. One of my favorite things to get there is the chili slaw dog. I remember as a little girl going to eat there before going to see the Atlanta Braves game. It's one of the only fast food places that still has a car hop and every kid get's a famous Varsity hat if they want one. Here is my copycat of their hot dog chili to make a copycat of their chili slaw dog you are going to love!
When you walk into The Varsity Restaurant you are greeted at the register with “What'll ya have? What'll ya have” What'll ya have?” Just to give you a taste of what I mean click this video.
They also developed their own lingo for ordering food items if you go in and order a hot dog it won't be plain, it will have chili and mustard on it. Here's a little video I made for you to explain:
Visiting The Varsity for someone in Atlanta is a true adventure and a rite of passage. I've recreated what I think is the closest you can get to the hot dog chili they use so you can make your own at home. Here is what you will need to make it, chili, mustard, my slaw recipe, buns and Bar-S franks. You might be asking why Bar-S franks? Their classic frank is the number one selling frank in the United States. They're a great value because they cost less than most national brands. They are celebrating by featuring different regional recipes, some from bloggers like me, from all parts of the country on their social media channels, you can Visit Bar-S Facebook for a chance to win products & prizes!
You can find where to buy Bar S Franks here just in time for summer, they are great grilled and they're available in classic, bun length, Jumbo and Cheese Jumbo which my kids love! They are a must for summer fun and don't forget the 4th of July will be here sooner than you think. You can enter to WIN ONE OF FIVE FREE vouchers to give them a try by making a comment below telling me your favorite way to eat a hotdog then click here to Find more information on Bar-S products.
The Varsity: Owners of Atlanta icon face a big decision
Find Matt on Facebook (facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist) and Twitter (@MattKempner) or email him at [email protected]
Items removed from The Varsity’s menu over the years:
Barbecue (they may bring it back)
Items added to The Varsity’s menu in recent years:
Sweet potato pie (fall seasonal item)
Triple stack bacon cheeseburger (a nod to competitors doing bigger burgers)
Where The Varsity restaurants are:
Atlanta on North Avenue (the original)
Kennesaw (near Town Center at Cobb mall)
Concourse C and F of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (licensed to an outside owner/operator, HMSHost)
Is The Varsity OK? That’s what I asked its president, Gordon Muir, whose mom is the CEO and whose grandfather founded the restaurant chain that is as Atlanta as Atlanta.
It seemed like a fair question given the recent sudden closing of The Varsity's Alpharetta restaurant, leaving all of north Fulton un-Varsitized a dozen years after the outpost opened there.
The Varsity, a family-owned business, is at crossroads that’s bigger than its original Atlanta perch at the corner of North Avenue and Spring Street.
Muir said the Alpharetta restaurant near Haynes Bridge Road was in a poor location and was too big and too expensive for the amount of business it did.
But he told me The Varsity is doing “very well” overall and sales companywide have been up every year for the past 10 years.
Now, in fact, Muir and his brother-in-law, John Browne, the chain’s vice president, want to spread small Varsity restaurants across Georgia. But first they have to convince Muir’s mom, Nancy Simms, who is most focused on ensuring the legacy of the restaurants they already have.
Come March 1, they have a decision to make.
That’s when they have scheduled a family pow-wow including the company’s three owners (Muir, sister Carrie Browne and their mom, who is about to turn 70 and has stepped away from most daily operations). A consultant is slated to present results of customer surveys and a ranked list of the 10 best Georgia locations for a new Varsity.
The chain already owns and operates five locations. Two other outlets at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport are licensed to an outside operator, HMSHost.
Muir and Browne hope the top spot for a new restaurant will be in Winder (50 miles northeast of the original Varsity) where they postponed a groundbreaking for a planned restaurant to first get the consultant’s report.
They told me they favor the family building that one and at least three more in the next five years (they aren’t saying where yet). After that, Muir said, the question is: What’s the best way to continue growing?
Build more themselves? Start a franchise operation? Use a hybrid model like Chick-fil-A does?
“We don’t know,” Muir told me.
He did tell me he hopes the family’s next generation continues the legacy. He has a daughter who already handles marketing for the chain.
Every business has a hook. The Varsity’s, near as I can figure, is that it’s unlike most everything else we know locally.
Not that you can’t get heaps of greasy food somewhere else, even chili dogs and onion rings.
But how many other restaurant chains have their own language? (When I was indoctrinated enough to order a Frosted Orange drink at the Athens restaurant just by saying, “I’ll have an F.O.,” it may have been the first time I felt like I had become a legit Georgian.) What other Atlanta eatery is as likely to be on a chamber website for the long haul?
Most fancy restaurants and buzzy neighborhood organics are pups on metro Atlanta's restaurant scene. The Varsity has been in Atlanta's culinary gut for 86 years.
Ninety percent of its sales involve some kind of food item dressed with its chili. (They now sell the stuff in cans, by the way.)
Chili can hide a lot of sins. We’re never entirely sure what’s in it, which I assume might be a good thing.
So, amid the nation’s constant chatter about healthy eating, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear about the Alpharetta Varsity’s closing. I thought, maybe that’s the price of being a chili-dog-and-onion-rings business in an increasingly kale-and-superfoods world.
The Varsity: Where memories (and chili dogs) are made
Locations: 61 North Ave. N.W., Atlanta. 404-881-1706, thevarsity.com. Also: Athens, Alpharetta, Norcross, Kennesaw, Dawsonville and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Terminals C and F. A Winder location is scheduled for spring.
Owners: The family of founder Frank Gordy (1904-1983). Daughter Nancy Simms is CEO, grandson Gordon Muir is president, great-granddaughter Ashley Weiser is marketing director.
The famous chili: "I can't tell you all the secrets," Muir said. "It's just the order or the way we put the spices in. And the onions and the water and how we blend it." The chili is now available by the can (15 ounces for $4.19) — just the thing for anyone who yearns for that Varsity flavor but can't get to Georgia.
Fun facts: The North Avenue location covers more than two acres and can accommodate 600 cars and 800 people inside. "Two miles of hot dogs, a ton of onions, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, 5,000 fried pies and 300 gallons of chili are made from scratch daily," according to the website.
Some say the magic is in the chili dogs. Others swear it’s the Frosted Orange. Many contend it’s the “greeting.”
“What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”
Part salutation, part scolding, it’s the chant that welcomes all who enter 61 North Ave. N.W. in Atlanta — the tired, huddled masses yearning for hamburgers, onion rings, fried pies and that one-of-a-kind cultural experience that makes it the city’s most essential eatery.
I’m talking about the Varsity … the “Vars-tee” … the Big V.
World’s largest drive-in. Crossroads of old South and new. Home of the Glorified Steak (burger with mayo, lettuce and tomato), the Heavy Weight (hot dog with extra chili) and the Joe-ree (coffee with cream).
Founded in 1928 by Georgia Tech dropout Frank Gordy, this fourth-generation family business has survived the fickleness of time and taste to greet smiling presidents and hungry college kids. (President Barack Obama stopped by in 2012.) It’s been imitated, replicated, ridiculed and rhapsodized. Gordy’s progeny maintain the traditions, the recipes, the red-and-white retro packaging, the lore.
So, praise the Lord and pass me a chili-slaw-dog with chopped onions and a squiggle of ketchup and mustard.
Saturday, when Georgia Tech plays Florida State at Bobby Dodd Stadium, just across the interstate, an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people will pass through the doors of the iconic yellow-and-red building, said Gordon Muir, Gordy’s grandson and the Varsity president.
“It amazes me sometimes that we actually get through it,” he said, “because it’s just so busy.”
An average daily crowd is half that size, but football Saturdays aren’t the Varsity’s biggest. “There are many Saturdays that beat a Tech football day,” Muir said. “Actually, most Saturdays in July beat a football day. Supercross Saturday is also a huge day for us.”
That’s a lot of onion rings waitin’ to be battered and fried.
A lot of ground beef, onions and spices, waitin’ to be simmered into chili.
A lot of memories, waitin’ to be made.
My first Varsity visit occurred sometime in the ’60s or ’70s. Yes, I arrived in a station wagon filled with cousins. What I recall is the epic scale: a hot dog stand as big as an airport, a TV set in every room, dumpster-size bins of raw onion rings behind glass windows.
I skipped the Varsity meal plan while at the University of Georgia (the second location, in Athens, dates from 1932) but revisited the downtown Atlanta landmark in the ’80s. This was the height of the disco era, and if we were feeling a little fried, the Varsity was an excellent hangover cure. If we wheeled into the drive-in, we never had to leave the car — not that we could.
Today, what impresses me about this venerable institution is how little it has changed.
Classic chili dogs still arrive on paper plates with a wad of chopped onions tucked into a piece of wax paper on the side. The potatoes are what my octogenarian Aunt Libby would call “real French fries,” meaning they’ve been sliced into long elegant strips, sizzled to a perfect state of doneness and dumped out — hot and ketchup-ready.
By the time I take a bite of hot dog and inhale a couple of rings, my Frosted Orange — a creamsicle-flavored shake made of vanilla soft-serve and house-made Varsity Orange soda — has started to melt.
Slurp. Sluuuuuurp! Up through the straw it glides and, suddenly, all is right with the world. There’s nothing, repeat, nothing on earth that cuts through the salt, oil and taste of Varsity onion rings like a gulp of that sweet, heavenly concoction. (If you want to sound like a regular, ask for an “F.O.”)
At the Varsity, chili goes on everything.
“My grandfather always said the chili was the most important part of the chili dog,” Muir said.
It’s also good on the burgers and, my new favorite thing, the chili-cheese fries.
Salads were added in the late ’80s. “They do very well,” Muir told me.
Y’all go right ahead. I didn’t come to the Varsity to be put on a diet. To me, eating sensibly at the Varsity means a grilled pimento-cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Or chicken salad on toasted wheat — though, honestly, I found the chicken sal a little bland.
Another quibble: The onion-ring breading is unpredictable. Sometimes, it’s thick and doughy — a real no-no, because then you can’t taste the onion. A lighter touch is preferred. That way, the rings fry up crisper and aren’t so heavy and filling. And — hello! — you don’t waste all your F.O. washing them down.
Call me a Peach State traitor, but I favor the fried apple pie over the peach. The filling has just the right texture and hits all the right cinnamon-and-apple-pie notes. It’s perfect for fall.
When Gordy started the Varsity, he wanted to provide good, cheap grub for the Techies next door, and wound up launching a brand that’s endured 87 years and spawned eight locations.
“Two hot dogs a day will keep you young,” he once remarked.
By gosh, that rascal was right. I don’t know about two dogs a day, but I can’t step into the place without feeling a good 40 years younger.
Local Restaurants to Know
One Flew South: Ranked consistently as one of the best airport restaurants in the world, One Flew South is Hartsfield-Jackson's first upscale establishment, and it delivers. Chef Duane Nutter left to open a restaurant in Mobile, Ala., but longtime veteran Jared Hall has stepped in to lead the kitchen. The One Flew South team continues to provide excellent food, service, and solid cocktails to make the airport experience as easy as possible. International ticket not required to access. [Concourse E]
Paschal's Southern Cuisine: This Atlanta institution has served since 1947 as the meeting place for notables like Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson (yes, that Jackson), Martin Luther King, Jr., and Al Gore. The restaurant opened at Hartsfield-Jackson in 1979 — serving people coming in and out of the ATL their famous fried chicken and catfish, country-fried steak, mac 'n' cheese, or Southern vegetable plates. [Concourse B]
Grindhouse Killer Burgers: A full-service Grindhouse outpost is open at D30. Get build-your-own burgers, shakes, fries, and drinks. Look for the robot mural. Fans of the restaurant's intown and Athens locations will recognize it instantly. A second location resides in T Gate near north security with its own seating and large projector screen. Both are good places to post up pre-flight. [Concourse D]
[Temporarily closed] Ecco: This outpost of the popular Midtown restaurant is a great option for those who wish to relax with a glass of wine and a nice meal before a flight — or on an unexpectedly long layover. [Concourse F]
[Temporarily closed] The Original El Taco: The VaHi restaurant has an outpost in the international terminal and Concourse C and is serving up items such as fried chicken tacos to hungry travelers. [Concourse C, Concourse F]
Chicken + Beer: The restaurant from Chris Bridges — better known as superstar Atlanta rapper Ludacris — resides near D5. Fried chicken is on the menu, obviously, but diners will also find stout-braised beef cheeks, crawfish and corn fritters, rosemary-garlic tater tots, and more modern Southern dishes. [Concourse D]
[Temporarily closed] Atlanta Chophouse: This steakhouse in the airport's atrium has steaks (duh) and beer, but it also has meeting rooms available for business groups to rent and, apparently, an excellent reuben sandwich. [Atrium]
[Temporarily closed] LottaFrutta: The popular Old Fourth Ward fruit and sandwich shop has a small spot near B23. Like the in-town original, the airport location focuses on pressed sandwiches, fresh fruit cups, and smoothies. [Concourse B]
Popeyes: While not necessarily local to Atlanta, the fried chicken and chicken sandwiches are getting a lot of hype these days thanks to emerging fast-casual brands and Nashville's hot chicken trend. But, sometimes, nothing beats the simple pleasures of Popeye’s fried chicken. [Concourse B, Concourse D]
Last Cast Bar and Grill: SweetWater Brewing’s restaurant is open on Concourse B. The food at Last Cast is designed for beer pairing so, expect a lot of burgers, fries, pretzel bites with mustard, and tacos on the menu here. Breakfast as well as grab-and-go food is also offered. [Concourse B]
Krispy Kreme: The super popular North Carolina-based doughnut chain brings its hot glazed doughnuts and coffee to the food court in the atrium of Concourse C. [Concourse C, Atrium]
These are the burgers Grandma made. Big and fat and loaded on the inside with so many veggies that they almost qualify as a well rounded meal. Grandma loved to chop up onions, garlic, green peppers, and splash in some steak sauce or Worcestershire. Maybe she’d even mix in some breadcrumbs and an egg as binders. More like meatloaf on a bun, she’d cook these in a frying pan on the stovetop, or even in the oven. Because of all the moisture they were juicy and crumbly. When you were 10, nothing tasted better after a snowball fight. Now they taste like nothing less than home sweet home.
Concourse B: Cafe Intermezzo
Cafe Intermezzo is one of Atlanta's favorite dessert and salad spots, modeled after a traditional European coffee house. The Atlanta airport Cafe Intermezzo is reminiscent of their swanky Midtown digs with dark wood paneling and small wooden tables and chairs. The menu includes a variety of tasty salads, crepes, and European-inspired entrees. Don't forget to save room for one of their decadent cakes on display at the cafe.
* Other great options in Concourse B:
- Sweetwater Draft House and Grill, featuring Atlanta's own Sweetwater microbrews
- Paschal's, a soul kitchen and unofficial headquarters of the Civil Rights Movement has an outpost at ATL and is known for its fried chicken
Does anyone actually like the Varsity?
What’ll ya have? The chili dogs, triple-stack bacon cheeseburgers, and frosted orange shakes have made the 91-year-old drive-in restaurant an Atlanta institution. For presidential candidates, it’s a required photo-op. The diner is consistently listed on Atlanta tourism guides, touted as “the world’s largest drive-in restaurant” or “Atlanta’s favorite hotdogs and hamburgers.” Is it a tourist trap? Maybe, but its fans don’t care.
“We love this place. It’s a treat,” says Stephen Gissendaner, a Birmingham, Alabama native who was visiting Atlanta with his family on his birthday and picked the Varsity for dinner. Gissendaner first noticed the fast-food joint “years and years” ago when he was staying at a nearby hotel, saw the restaurant was packed, and decided to give it a try. He’s eaten there more than 10 times since.
For some non-tourists, the Varsity’s draw is not just about the food but the nostalgia. “I went to high school here,” says Renee Hunter, who’s lived in Conyers for more than 20 years. “[The Varsity] always used to sponsor the senior class they’d bring us the hats for the homecoming pep rallies. When we got done with football games or if we would come into the city, we would always come in here and eat. It was cheap.” As the restaurant nears its centennial, Gissendaner makes a good point: “It can’t suck and be in business this long.”