How the World’s Largest Drive-In Restaurant Has Operated for Nearly a Century

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

You know you are in the South when you hear men and women screaming “what’ll ya have, what’ll ya have?” as they move you down quickly through the line. If you don’t respond quickly, you’ll be sent back to the line. Sounds like a high school cafeteria? This fast food restaurant is close to it!

With James Beard-nominated chefs, award-winning restaurants, and a myriad of international eateries, the dining scene in Atlanta has changed dramatically over the last few years. But one thing has remained constant for nearly a century—The Varsity.

The legendary hot dog stand was founded by a Georgia Tech student, Frank Gordy, in 1928. Gordy opened the first location across from Tech’s campus in downtown Atlanta and called it “The Yellow Jacket” after the men’s college basketball team. As demand for his messy beef chili dogs, greasy onion rings, fried fruit pies, and frosted orange milkshakes (aka F.O.s) grew, he took the concept to Athens, Ga. and renamed it “The Varsity.”

The Varsity in downtown Atlanta is the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world, covering two city blocks. The multi-level car park can accommodate 600 cars. No one can miss the V-shaped red neon signs with a ‘50s college tailgate feel and barhops dressed in red jackets while driving past Atlanta on I-75. Inside this huge space, it is always loud and busy, as you would expect during recess. The seating downstairs is made to look like classrooms where you can enjoy your tray of burgers, fries, and drink seated at your desk.

In the 1950s and ‘60s when drive-in culture was trending, The Varsity parking lot was not just one of the best fast-food restaurants; it was a place to socialize with friends and go out on a date. “Where else would one eat in Atlanta? It is an experience, an institution!” says Robert Howarth, a semi-retired real estate professional who was a regular at The Varsity when attending Georgia Tech during the ‘70s.

The fast food chain now has seven store locations (including two at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport) and four food trucks in Georgia, and it remains family-owned and operated.

Ashley Weiser, marketing director and granddaughter of Frank Gordy, attributes their success to having great food at a great price consistently over the past 90 years. “Not much has changed over the years and that is one of the things that makes us special. We still serve the same menu items, using the same secret family recipes,” she says, referring to a plain hot dog costing $1.59 and a hamburger at $1.89. Though the menu has gone through very little changes, recent additions include triple stack bacon cheeseburgers and two salads.

While gourmet farm-to-table hamburger restaurants are popping up around the country and fried food is getting less trendy, The Varsity is serving original recipe chili-dog combos, pimento cheese sandwiches, and sweet peach iced teas. “Food trends always come and go but we remain the same and that is what people love about The Varsity. Our business remains steady no matter what new trends in food service appear because we offer delicious quality products and that will never go out of style,” says Weiser.

Even President Obama and President George H.W Bush have stopped by to eat chili dogs at The Varsity in Atlanta.

You clearly don’t come here when you’re on a diet. The biggest draw to The Varsity is nostalgia. People who grew up in metro Atlanta have been eating at The Varsity for generations. They have celebrated birthdays, shared family meals, or had their first kiss at the drive-in. Many of them come back year after year because they want to walk down memory lane and feel like a kid again. Of course, the food is good too.

Weiser recalls, “The Varsity has been part of my life as long as I can remember. I had my birthday parties there as a child, worked there in high school and have great memories of visiting my dad and grandmother at our Atlanta location while they were working. I’ve always loved The Varsity and its long history in Atlanta and how much it means to people.”

Header image courtesy of The Varsity.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

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