61 North Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30308 (map); 404-881-1706; thevarsity.com
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: World-famous drive-in kills it with their chili dogs, but don't fall for the bad burgers
Want Fries with That? They're greasy, soggy, and strangely perfect, given the cheap-eats setting
Price: Hamburger, $1.89; Double Cheeseburger, $3.28
Well, here it is. The review I didn't want to have to write. And it's all Time Magazine's fault.
Loyal AHT'ers may recall that the publication put out a list back in January of "The 17 Most Influential Burgers of All Time." Many readers scoffed at the silliness of the list; most of them were at odds with either the inclusion of this particular burger or the omission of that particular burger. When I read the list, though, I saw a single glaring issue that I knew I'd have to address. Right there at #15—with its non-hyperlinked lack of AHT coverage standing out like a sore thumb—The Varsity Burger from The Varsity in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Varsity is a honest-to-God Atlanta icon. If you have only one weekend in this city and need a shortlist of places you MUST visit for the real-deal experience, The Varsity is damn near the top of that list (and I could make an argument for it being #1). Smack in the heart of downtown, it's the world's largest drive-in, with a two-story building the size of a city block on a five-plus-acre lot. They can seat over 800 at a time and accommodate 600 cars. But even with those mind-blowing numbers, prepare for a looong wait if you go on a Georgia Tech football Saturday. (Hell, there's a line a dozen deep at all 18 cash registers at lunchtime on a random Tuesday!)
They go through 2,500 pounds of potatoes and 5,000 fried pies daily, and are reportedly the largest single-restaurant account on the planet for Coca-Cola, but ask any ATLien, and this is what The Varsity is famous for:
The chili dogs: under-three-buck gut bombs spiked with tangy mustard and topped with from-scratch chili that will have you wantonly craving another and simultaneously knowing you'll pay dearly for this brief moment of ecstasy later...all before the first one is down your gullet. The best cheap eat in the city, they deserve their own blog post and have been featured on numerous TV specials rounding up the country's finest franks.
But the burgers? Sigh. The reason there hadn't been an AHT review of The Varsity's burgers is a simple one, one that I'm loathe to admit out loud, given how much I truly love the place:
The Varsity's burgers suck ass.
C'mon. How influential does that look? What was Time thinking? How could they blow this call so atrociously? I mean, there was that 1938 Man of the Year debacle (Adolf Hitler—no, really) that they followed up in 1939 (with Josef Stalin, and then gave it to him again in '42)...but wait a sec. If you go back and dig deeper, that award isn't necessarily given to the best person of the year, but the one who impacted things most. Perhaps there was similar asterisking and footnoting surrounding their Influential Burger List? Sure enough, Time justifies The Varsity's "influential" inclusion thusly:
The ordering lingo for this Atlanta staple, which debuted in 1928, is almost as delicious as the burger itself: you get it "all the way" in lieu of "with onions," and "walk a steak" replaces "to-go." These branding gimmicks were later replicated by burger chains like In-N-Out, whose secret menu . . . has helped lure millions of customers.
Ah, it's not the burger that Time thinks is influential so much as the diner jargon that has become a piece of true Americana. And I'll agree, that is a genuine part of The Varsity's charm. The restaurant's carhops and cashiers alike have long made a game of inventing elaborate sing-song rhymes and clever catchphrases that they work into their personal routines. "What'll ya have? What'll ya have? Have your order in your mind and your money in your hand!" (or some derivative thereof) has been shouted at every customer for generations, by colorful characters like Flossie Mae and Erby Walker, regular order-takers who became true local celebrities. Even a pre-movie-star Nipsey Russell got his start hawking hot dogs at The Varsity.
So if that's the measure of what makes The Varsity influential, I concur. Then again, they do call the burger itself "delicious" right there in black and white. Well, ladies and gentlemen of the press, I call bullshit.
The Double Cheeseburger ($3.28) comes as plain as plain can be: two chalky-brown industrial patties wedged between a flattened bun that hadn't even been fully split, with cheese that's not really melting so much as drooping with sadness at being exiled to this travesty of burgerdom.
A cross-section shows the dry lifelessness of the meat and made me hate myself for not just ordering my regular two chili dogs LIKE EVERY RESPECTABLE ATLANTAN IS SUPPOSED—AND ARGUABLY SHOULD BE REQUIRED BY LAW—TO DO upon entering this institution.
This burger (and don't kid yourself; the menu's other burgers are no better, not even with that otherwise-glorious chili sauce) is exactly on par with your standard godawful grade-school-cafeteria burger. Yes, it technically qualifies as a cheeseburger, but it's not good in any understanding of that word that I know of. The only upsides I can come up with are that it's inexpensive, and that after six bites, it's gone forever.
Famously greasy and soggy, the skin-on spuds are served in plentiful portions and are the perfect accompaniment to the cheap, so-good-they're-obviously-bad-for-you chili dogs. They don't make the burger any better—or any more influential, for my money—but they helped salvage this lunch at The Varsity from being a completely wasted trip.
Sorry, Time. Your list won't make me like The Varsity's burgers, just as The Varsity's woefully disgraceful burgers won't make me love their chili dogs and fries any less. The Varsity may deserve props for making it perfectly acceptable to shout, "Naked dog walking!" in a crowded restaurant, but don't try to sell me on a bad, boring burger being influential.