Hint: It’s celebrating its 90th birthday this year and serves the best chili dogs of all time.
Atlanta is a culinary mecca, a revolving door of up-and-coming chefs dolling out deconstructed chicken and dumplings, grilled kale salad, and whipped ricotta toast topped with edible flowers. We’re charmed by the on-trend nibbles, without a doubt; but on literally any day, I’d crush those edible flowers for the fried fare served up at one of Atlanta’s finest—and longest-running—institutions: The Varsity. This 90-year-old icon isn’t going anywhere, and here’s why you’re suddenly going to be craving a road trip to Atlanta.
(Breaking news: Run, don’t walk—because the Varsity is celebrating its 90th anniversary on Saturday, August 18th, by making every item on the menu just 90 cents.)
The Varsity isn’t just some retro homage to the age of drive-ins. As an unspoken rule, its kitsch isn’t kitschy. Rather, the fast food joint just never really changed. I hear the same “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” that my grandfather, a Georgia Tech graduate, once did. He frequented its original downtown Atlanta location, opened in 1928, for its infamous chili dogs, of which he said were “the very best around midnight after a party.”
In fact, as far as I’m concerned, no Southerner’s bucket list is complete without The Varsity Combo #1—two chili dogs and a side of onion rings, plus a Frosted Orange—listed right on top. It’s what my father gets, it’s what my grandfather gets, and if all goes, I’ll know I’ve found my husband when he orders the classic combo with conviction. And no extra side of chopped onions.
My father began his own love affair with The Varsity early and earnestly, attending Georgia Tech football games as a kid and ordering his fair share of Frosted Oranges, the famous creamy orange milkshake made with homemade Varsity Orange. When I attended the University of Georgia, many years into his then-dormant love affair, he wouldn’t leave Athens without hitting The Varsity on the way out of town. I once even snagged a couple cans of its original chili to stash in his Christmas stocking, and man, will that forever be hard to beat.
Greeted first with the almost seductive aroma of its greasy goodness and the urgent echoes of its cashiers’ signature call, “What’ll ya have?,” you’ll do best to snap out of the brief stupor, get in line, have your cash out in hand, and—for the love of it—know your order when you belly up to the counter.
WATCH: Southern Kids Despise This Classic Dish
The Varsity treats everyone the same, from the U.S. presidents to the rowdy college students that frequent the hallowed dining hall. That’s why, betwixt all the fancy new food in the South, it’ll just keep carrying on with its business for another 90 years, heavens willing.
If the iconic drive-in taught me anything, it’s that some of the best times can start (or end) with a cafeteria tray spilling over with chili dogs and onion rings.