Atlanta's Varsity: Best burger ever. Really.
On The Varsity, memory, and grease, delicious grease
Let’s talk fast food. I’ve got my thoughts on the best, and in just a minute, I’ll ask for yours too, so get ready.
Earlier this week, some tie-wearing goof commenting on a TV finance show got way too far out over his skis and said something really stupid. This happens. It’s happened to me1. You sit in a chair with a producer talking in your ear, you’re staring into the cold emotionless unblinking camera eye, and all of a sudden unfamiliar and unwanted words come tumbling out of your mouth that you want to chase down like love letters thrown from a speeding car. It’s a sickening feeling for the speaker, but very funny for anyone who happens to be watching.
This cat was talking about inflation (it’s bad!) and the cost of food (it’s up!) and made the unfortunate decision to reveal to the world that he dines at Taco Bell — no shame, we all have our vices — but claimed his lunch now costs $28. Twenty-eight dollars! At Taco Bell! What the actual hell, man?
There are three possibilities here: 1. This gentleman has never even eaten at a Taco Bell and just tossed out that restaurant name to pander to his audience; 2. This gentleman was way over-exaggerating the cost of his Taco Bell lunch in order to make an unnecessary point about inflation (yep, still bad!); or 3. This gentleman actually IS eating $28 worth of Taco Bell every day, in which case he probably won’t need to worry about inflation, or anything else, for much longer.
Naturally, the “$28 fast food lunch” question took off on Twitter, with people trying to figure how large of a pile of garbage drive-thru food they could devour in one sitting and expect to live through the night. To me, the salad is the play: fast-food joints charge up to $10 for a salad — 10 times more than biscuits and tacos, which is a dark little message all its own — so you could probably house a few of those and be fine.
And then I remembered the Varsity.
More than a century old, the Varsity — an old-fashioned drive-thru turned sort-of-sleek franchise burger joint — has stood on North Avenue in downtown Atlanta, just across the highway from Georgia Tech, welcoming millions with its chili dogs, onion rings, Frosted Orange drinks, and maybe one salad in all. It’s an enduring symbol of the city, for both better and worse. Atlanta’s holier-than-thou foodie elitists dismiss the Varsity as an overpriced, grease-laden, flavor-challenged tourist trap. Thing is, they’re all right — but those are features, not bugs.
I say this with all the love I can muster: the chili has the texture of kindergarten paste. The onion rings are 3 percent onion, 47 percent batter and 50 percent grease. The burgers are NHL-regulation hockey pucks, and the dogs have a slick film that gives them a texture you probably don’t want to dwell on. The Frosted Orange has a flavor dangerously close to children’s aspirin. The restaurant itself is the easiest, laziest possible destination for newcomers to Atlanta.
And yet, I love it all, so, so much.
The best comfort-food restaurants understand that they’re working at the nexus of three conditions: cost, flavor and experience. Nail any two of those, and you’re in great shape. I’ve had cheap, delicious tacos served out of someone’s garage. I’ve spent way too much on expensive but flavor-bursting curated barbecue in quirky storefronts. And then there’s the Varsity, where the food is — or was — cheap and came freighted with so many memories, it didn’t much matter how it tasted.
I’ve been going to the Varsity since I was a little kid headed to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or the Omni or Turner Field or the Georgia Dome (damn, Atlanta has burned through a lot of stadiums). I once got into a fight with my brother where we pointed condiment dispensers at each other in a Sergio Leone-esque standoff … and then he squeezed his, covering me in a rope of mustard. Back when it was open 24 hours, I’d hit the Varsity after covering games, and to this day, we go there after every Peachtree Road Race on the Fourth of July, instantly obliterating all health benefits we got from just running six miles.
Every time I’ve taken out-of-town friends to the Varsity, the reaction has been almost identical: “Huh. OK. That’s it?” It’s understandable; devoid of the memories and the experiences, the food ain’t all that special. The prior visits, the friends and family, the long-running jokes and the tastes of years gone by are what make places like the Varsity so special, the scent of onion rings and chili burgers unlocking memories every time I walk in the door.
The Varsity has grown into an Atlanta institution, with outlets all over the area. There’s even a couple in the Atlanta airport, which seems to me an unnecessarily cruel fate to inflict on unwary travelers and their future seatmates. Still, every time I’ve been flying out of the country, I’ve cast a longing eye at the Varsity there, always settling for a Frosted Orange. Hell, if I’d rolled into China earlier this year with a belly full of onion rings and Varsity chili, I probably would’ve been detained as a bioterrorist.
The thing is, the Varsity may trade on the warm, hazy glow of a bygone era, but it does business in this economically challenged one. Its hours have gradually tightened as the available labor pool has dwindled, and its costs have skyrocketed; a combo of two chili dogs, onion rings and a drink is pushing $15, up from half that just a few years ago. (Hence the $28 challenge. If I had to, I could demolish four dogs, two rings and a couple drinks. I’d need some time alone soon after, but I could absolutely do it.)
The Varsity’s one of those institutions where you either love it or you don’t get it, and I’m firmly in the former camp. There are objectively better tasting burgers out there, but none that summon up everything that the Varsity does for me. I’ll be knocking back Varsity chili as long as I’m knocking around.
Now, it’s your turn. In the comments, hit me with your favorite comfort-food restaurant — location, what I have to order, and how much I could get with twenty-eight bucks. Go!
Song of the Week: Pony Bradshaw, “Foxfire Wine”
Pony Bradshaw — born James Bradshaw, but as a fellow James and a fan of the ‘70s Steelers, I’m all on board with the switch — is a Mississippi-born, Georgia-based country troubadour. This tune’s jaunty beginning gives way to pedal steel and an expansive sound reminiscent of everything from Glenn Campbell to Sturgill Simpson. It’s a damn fine drum-the-steering-wheel open-road joint. As always, “Foxfire Wine” and all the other fine selections highlighted here are available in the ongoing Flashlight & A Biscuit Spotify playlist:
(Stetson tip to the fine Substack newsletter Barbecue, Bets & Beats for putting this one on my radar.)
Did you know we once dropped two atomic bombs on North Carolina? And not, as I would have expected, to take out the Duke basketball team. It happened — by accident, not design — in 1961, and National Geographic wrote about it a couple years back …
The 17-year-old ran out to the porch of his family’s farm house just in time to see a flaming B-52 bomber—one wing missing, fiery debris rocketing off in all directions—plunge from the sky and plow into a field barely a quarter-mile away …
Within an hour, in the early morning of January 24, a military helicopter was hovering overhead. Above the whomp-whomp of the blades, an amplified voice kept repeating the same word: “Evacuate!”
What the voice in the chopper knew was that besides the wreckage of the ill-fated B-52, somewhere out there in the winter darkness lay what the military referred to as “broken arrows”—the remains of two 3.8-megaton thermonuclear atomic bombs. Each contained more firepower than the combined destructive force of every explosion caused by humans from the beginning of time to the end of World War II.
Damn. That’ll wake you up.
Over at Yahoo Sports, it was like the pre-COVID travelin’ days all over again! I covered the Braves’ first playoff games of the postseason and I’m headed to Knoxville this weekend to size up the monster Tennessee-Alabama game Saturday. Full report next week, though you’ll probably know who won by then.
Have yourself a fine weekend, my friends, and we’ll catch you right back here next Saturday.
This is issue #77 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
Remembering Loretta Lynn, an icon without equal
We need a good Southern video game
Could you survive a Waffle House brawl?
On Willie Nelson and his magnificent old guitar
What does “Flashlight & A Biscuit” mean, anyway?
If you dig this newsletter, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everyone’s welcome
I was on “CBS This Morning” a few years back to talk about one of the NFL’s many domesti abuse scandals. Serious topic, one which I needed to treat with the appropriate gravitas. Don’t make any “NFL fumbled the investigation” jokes, I told myself over and over. And then I heard the host introduce me and ask me to break down the latest, and without even missing a beat, I said, “Well, the NFL really fumbled this investigation…” Idiot.