But, the Varsity, known as the world’s largest drive-in, isn’t just an Atlanta institution. For 86 years, there’s also been a Varsity in my hometown of Athens. The original Athens location was located downtown, just across from the famed University of Georgia Arch. A larger drive-in version a few miles away came along in 1962, and remains open.
In honor of the restaurant’s birthday, I wrote a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with memories from me and others about growing up and going to school in the Varsity’s other hometown.
But, in the limited space I was allowed, I couldn’t fit in all of the fond reminiscences and stories about the Varsity that were shared with me. So, here, with minimal editing, are more tales of chili dogs, naked steaks, Frosted Oranges, cold beers and kindly carhops from those who grew up with the Greasy V …
MiMi DuBose Gudenrath:
My Dad, Dr. Bolling S. DuBose, was an internal medicine doctor in Athens for over 50 years. When he set up his practice in Athens in the 1950s, making “house calls” after hours and at night was a common occurrence at our house, and probably all the other docs in town, too! My sisters and brother and I would always wait at the front window late in the afternoon for him to come home, and rush out to hug him. Suppers at our house were around the table as a family but, often, he would get a call during that time and would leave. He was called away to someone’s home almost as often as he was at our table, but that was his work ethic.
There was one night, though, that was sacred … and that was Sunday, sacred because we were in First Presbyterian Sunday school and church each Sunday morning, but Sunday night, we ALWAYS went to the Varsity. ALWAYS. As early as 5, we were expected to place our own order with a please, thank you, yes ma’am, and no sir. My whole life I have always eaten hot dogs and hamburgers plain … totally plain … and I use to love to get to place the order with my Dad. He let me say “May I please have a naked dog?” and I would just die laughing because it was the one place I was allowed to say “naked” in public! My Dad would die laughing because I was laughing so hard, and it is a memory I cherish to this day. If I ordered with my Mom, I had to say “May I have a plain hot dog?” so I always tried to get my Dad’s hand to navigate to the counter. When we all ordered, we all sat down and knew that no one would call and interrupt, so we had Dad to ourselves for this one night … and what better place that the Varsity?
As the Varsity grew, and they had different TV shows on in each room, we would race to the room with our favorite show, either Walt Disney or “Bonanza,” and my parents would always land in the room with the evening news. It was still the best night of the week, because my Dad was always there and I still positioned myself to ask for a “naked dog.” We knew everyone’s name who worked there, because they became part of our Sunday family.
When I was in the 10th grade, I was dating the most handsome boy at Athens High School, at least I thought so, and I loved being his girlfriend! One Friday night in the spring of that year, he was to come pick me up for a date, but instead I got a phone call from him saying he thought we should date other people and he would not be picking me up. I was devasted (aren’t all girls when they get dumped??? ), so I quickly thought to myself I have to get out of the house and not let my parents see how upset I am. I got in our 4-door Ford Falcon stick shift, a very old car, left Hampton Court, and burst into tears. I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing, and no friend to “call,” so I drove onto Milledge off our street and found myself at the Varsity in the back, where you could by then place outside orders from the car. I had no intensions of placing an order, I just needed a safe place to go and cry! Think about that … THE VARSITY WAS MY SAFE SPACE!!!
A few minutes after I had turned off the car — I must have looked a mess in a ratty T-shirt and a baseball hat — someone was tapping on my window. I looked up and there was Jackson, one of the wonderful Varsity employees who had waited on our family off and on for years. I rolled down the window, tears streaming down my face, and he bent down and said, “Miss MiMi, you look like you could use a ‘naked dog walking’ … to which I said, “Yes, I guess I could.” He came back with not one but TWO naked dogs walking, a Frosted Orange, patted me on the shoulder and said, “you don’t owe us for this naked dog … .it’s on us. Now, you stop crying and go find some fun.”
Only at the Varsity … and only in Athens!
Oby remembers when she was attending Athens High School in the late ’60s, and she used to slip out during lunch period and go to the drive-in Varsity nearby, where “you could find a hundred or 200 students having lunch,” despite the fact that only seniors were supposed to have off-campus lunch privileges.
“It was always the Varsity,” she said of the kids who left school against the rules. “That’s just where you went.”
Weekends, you also could find plenty of high school students in the Varsity parking lot. “It was the hangout.”
Her family also had a Sunday Varsity tradition. “Each Sunday, Daddy would go and get four or five boxes of Varsity chili dogs and bring them home, along with a big pickle jar filled with the Varsity’s Big Orange. He did that on Sundays for as long as I can remember.”
Oby and MiMi were close friends in high school and were “cut-ups,” Oby said. One night when she and MiMi were 16, theyd decided to emulate the teenage boys who revved their car engines in the Varsity’s parking lot, looking for someone to race down Broad Street.
Oby had her boyfriend’s Pontiac LeMans for the weekend “and we revved it up at the Varsity and, sure enough, got some takers.”
During the ensuing race, “It was said we were clocked at over 120 miles per hour. We each had a Varsity Orange to celebrate.”
In later years, after she was grown and had a child of her own, she recalled, “My Dad used to take my daughter to the Varsity Monday through Friday for years.”
When I was a sophomore at Athens High, in what was called Study Hall, a senior who will go unnamed asked me if I would like to slip out for a field trip to the satellite Greasy V. After careful deliberation of at least a couple of seconds, I said sure, and off we went. Not 2 minutes after we sat down, the AHS principal walked in and said, "Good morning, gentlemen." He mercifully let us off with a warning to never return during school hours.
Johnny Barrett has a similar story:
Skipping 2nd period one day, as I was leaving the Varsity, Dr. John C. Cragg [the principal] was entering, which extended my visit that day until Dr. Cragg ordered his food and escorted me back to AHS.
OMG! Do I have memories. The best memory is when a lot of my girlfriends would pile in my car. We were always broke, but you couldn’t park [at the drive-in Varsity] unless you ordered something. The manager would run us off. What we did is order one Coke and leave it on the [window] tray so we would be in compliance.
If we saw any boyfriends or potential boyfriends, we would go sit in their cars. If we didn’t get lucky, it would be time to cruise to the Burger Chef to see what was going on there. Of course, we would always go back to the Varsity and order another Coke.
My sister and I went to College Avenue School. Some days we would walk downtown before our mom got off work at Woolworth’s. One day while walking by the [original downtown] Varsity, we saw our uncle. It was hard to believe, as he and his family, along with all my mom’s relatives, lived in Indianapolis and Kokomo, Indiana. We had not seen them in a long time but there they were.
He later told us that he wanted to make sure they ate at the “world famous Varsity” before they came to our house for their week’s visit.
My mom got upset with him, but he said he just couldn’t wait for a famous hot dog
When I was a little girl in the 1950s it was a common practice in our family to go for "a ride" in the car on a Sunday afternoon or evening. My father loved ice cream, so we would often end up at the Varsity downtown to buy ice cream. I remember being too short to see over the marble counter where you ordered, and recall holding on the edge of the counter and jumping up to try to see what was going on.
When the second Varsity location opened on West Broad Street and Milledge Avenue, there were three TV rooms, each with a color TV tuned to one of the three network stations. It was a big deal to go there to watch “Batman” on TV. I also used to think it a strange juxtaposition of those huge, stately magnolia trees on the property with the drive-in Varsity. The trees were in the yard of the old home that faced Milledge Avenue that was torn down to make way for the Varsity. I seem to recall that, in and of itself, being a controversy in Athens.
In the summer of 1973, I had a summer job at McGregor's, the office supply/stationery/bookstore/print shop downtown. I would take my lunch hour and go to the Varsity and sit and watch the Watergate hearings on the TV. I can still hear the Sen. Sam Ervin's booming Southern drawl in my head.
I am still a big fan of the Varsity and hardly ever drive through Atlanta without stopping there or try to grab some of that outstanding greasy Varsity food when changing planes at the Atlanta airport.
Back in the early 1960s, a Sunday afternoon drive with my parents would usually end up at the downtown Varsity — for an ice cream cone. But, Mother told me that women were never to be seen entering or leaving the Varsity, and that was just the way it was. So, Daddy would go in and come back out, balancing three cones for us to eat in the car.
Apparently, that rule did not apply at the “new" Varsity, and I got to see my first color TV while eating at those "desks" [seats that were like schooldesks]. I thought that was the greatest. One time, we ordered curb service at the new Varsity and I managed to hide the glass with the football player kicking under the seat and took it home with me. I coveted that glass for years.
One of my first memories as a toddler is Varsity takeout boxes sitting on a small gas space heater in our little duplex on Lumpkin Street.
I also remember my mom sitting in the car in the slant spaces on College Avenue in front of the Varsity while I went in to order our food. She thought women weren't supposed to go in the V.
Back in the ’60s, in those days between getting a driver's license and finding a steady girl, my brother Joe and Rusty Gunn and I would find ourselves at the Varsity for dinner. There was a standing bet to see who could eat $5 worth of Varsity food in one sitting. Honestly, we never really tried. But what we did do was see who could order the most food by value and finish. Two chili steaks, an order of rings and a large PC only primed the pump. But that was less than $3. More hamburgers and a Coke could bring your order to $4, but you could never make $5. Rusty usually won. He also usually felt the worst.
My mom and dad would take my sister and I downtown to the varsity on Friday nights. We would pull up to the front on College Avenue. And the hops would bring a tray, place on the car door; you had to roll up the window a couple of inches for the tray to fit. My dad always ordered a Frosted Orange. On one particular occasion, a fraternity was hazing their pledges in front of the Varsity by blindfolding them and making them squat and do a duck walk in single file while quacking. Why can’t life be that simple and entertaining now?
My one memorable experience is from when I walked in the Varsity in the ’70s with a giant red afro, and I could've sworn the counter guy said, "Hippie?" I said "What?!?" and he repeated himself. Only then did I realize what he actually said was "He'p ya?"
So many great sights and sounds from the Varsity. … I remember as a junior high kid seeing two well-lubricated football fans order the famous “two chili dogs walkin’” and two Frosted Orange drinks for takeout, but they were a bit wobbly and decided to plop down at a booth. Each time one of them made a point about the game, he dipped his chili dog in the other fellow’s drink as he continued pontificating. One guy slipped a flask out every now and then and put extra cough syrup in their frosties. By the time they finally finished up their fare and headed out the Varsity doors, they were “two Dawgs barely walkin’.”
Students who attended the University of Georgia also have fond memories of the Varsity …
My main memory involves beer, which makes me a classic University of Georgia alum. The downtown Varsity sold ice-cold cans from a glass-topped refrigerated case by the counter. I'm pretty sure it was the closest spot to campus where you could get one. Some evenings, I'd have a beer and a hotdog for dinner while reading the newspaper I'd just bought at Barnett's [a newsstand next door].
In a larger sense, I always loved that street corner. It really felt collegiate, and embodied the town and gown aspect of Athens. Behind the arch was academia. On the other side, beer and newspapers.
In April, 1974, I was a senior at UGA carrying a full load at the J School and working full time at the Athens Daily News as the State Editor —which meant I covered a lot of county commission and school board meetings. UPI called Plott Brice, the editor, and asked if he would send someone to cover Sen. Ted Kennedy’s speech the next Saturday morning at the Law School for Law Day. Plott offered it to me, and I gladly took the $15 or so it paid.
The speech was in the main auditorium where I would later attend Dean Rusk’s International Law class. I walked up to the entrance, and there were groups of prominent politicians and lawyers chatting. A man standing alone off to the side opened the door for me — Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. We exchanged pleasantries, and I walked toward my seat.
Hunter S. Thompson was standing at the back of the auditorium. The effect that Hunter S. Thompson had on the alternative media and avid Rolling Stone readers like me at that time is hard to overstate — he had single-handedly transformed journalism with his blend of outrageous first person adventures and acute commentary about all things political. He was the voice of a new generation, and I was stunned. Here, in little Athens. I controlled my excitement, walked up to him and introduced myself. I said I’ve read everything you’ve ever written and I’m so glad to meet you. Is there anything I can help you with? He was smoking a cigarette with his trademark holder (smoking inside was OK, even expected, then) and looked me up and down.
“Thanks, where can I get something to drink around here?”
Remember, it’s 10:30 on a Saturday morning. I couldn’t let Mr. Thompson down, and I knew of only two places for morning drinking. The downtown Varsity — which for some reason opened around 8 in the morning but never offered breakfast, just the same rings, dogs and burgers, but still did a business, and it sold beer in cans. The beer drinkers in the morning were mostly solo, probably biding their time until the places for lunch drinking opened. The other place was in Normaltown — I can’t remember the name, but it had a Schlitz sign out front and catered to the night shift guys getting off work. So, I told him about the Varsity, and he left. As far as I know, he didn’t stay for Sen. Kennedy. I did, and he gave an uninspired speech with lame phrases like “tall as a Georgia pine.”
Afterwards, the “press” adjourned to the imposing Hatton Lovejoy Courtroom for a press conference with Sen. Kennedy. As he began answering questions, I heard the unmistakable sound of an empty beer can clattering to the polished floor. I looked back, and Mr. Thompson had brought three or four Varsity beers into this hallowed place — used for moot court competitions and the occasional Georgia Supreme Court session. He was sitting on the church-style pew, knocking them off fast and slamming them to the floor. Sen. Kennedy’s security team glowered but did nothing.
I stopped by as we filed out — he looked up at me and said, “That Varsity’s a weird place, man.”
The Law School hosted a luncheon for the dignitaries, but I wasn’t invited. Jimmy Carter was one of the speakers, and Mr. Thompson was able to slip in and attend.
In 1976, just prior to the election, Rolling Stone published a brief piece by Mr. Thompson. For once, his writing was spare, disciplined. He wrote about Carter’s speech that day, how he spoke from the heart and how he needed to be President. Some commentators later said that this piece helped deliver the youth vote and get President Carter into the White House.
I went back to the office and wrote up something about Sen. Kennedy’s speech, trying my best to mimic wire service style. Leaving out, of course, future President Carter, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Varsity.
UPI didn’t publish it, but I did get $15, and a priceless memory.
In the fall of 1973 in Athens, when I was a sophomore in the Henry Grady School of Journalism, the Varsity kept me alive. Living in Reed Hall Dormitory with Steve Oney as my roommate on a shoestring budget, I frequently lunched at the downtown V, because they would allow me to write a check, and the food was cheap. I remember the menu featured a killer ham salad sandwich plate. This special sandwich was toasted and adorned with potato chips of sufficient number to rival a Snoopy size pile of autumn leaves.
My recollections consist of cashing $10 checks (as a permanently poor freshman) across from the Arch, and ordering Big Oranges to wash away a hangover.
My favorite Varsity story involves my father, Col. Warren Thrasher. In 1996, my 82-year old father was accompanying my mother to her doctor’s appointment to see Dr. Lucas. I am quite sure that Dad, who remembered growing up during the Depression, could never let the opportunity to get free medical advice go by. Much to my mother’s aggravation, he began detailing his symptoms, including chest pains and shortness of breath, and adding that he hadn’t been to see his cardiologist because his insurance required that he now get a referral to see a specialist. Dr. Lucas said, I’ll give you a referral right now. As it turned out, Dr. Lucas was able to get Dad in to see a cardiologist immediately. The cardiologist determined that Dad had multiple blockages and wanted to admit him to Athens Regional to prep for bypass surgery.
They did allow Dad to go home to pack a bag, and he was then to come back to the hospital to be admitted. After picking up the bag at home, Mom was driving Dad back to the hospital by way of Milledge Avenue. When Dad saw the Varsity sign, he asked Mom to pull in and ordered 2 chili cheese dogs, an order of onion rings and a Coke. That was Dad’s last meal before quintuple bypass surgery the same day. He went on to live 12 more years and enjoyed many more trips to the “Greasy V.”
My introduction to The Varsity came in high school at Newton County. Whenever we came anywhere close to Athens, whether it be after a game or on a scouting trip, or when he took us to watch the Georgia basketball team play, my coach, Ronald Bradley, would make sure we visited The Varsity. I became a fan for life and still look for reasons to go there.
Once, we played Athens High, though, and the girls won and the boys lost. The girls got to go inside and eat, and we had to stay on the bus. Worst trip to The Varsity EVER. To add insult to injury, they all got back on the bus wearing those paper hats and they all smelled like onion rings all the way home!
When I was in college, my buddies and I were in the old downtown Varsity [on a day Georgia was playing Georgia Tech]. Something came over me and I snatched a rat cap off a Tech freshman’s head and ran like the devil, right across Broad Street and across North Campus. He and his buddies chased us all the way to the stadium, and we spent the whole game avoiding those guys.
I was taking a graduate course once and there were a bunch of Yankee-Americans in the class who had never been to The Varsity, so we planned a field trip for supper. It was about an hour before a Georgia-Kentucky basketball game, and the place was packed. There was a tough old gal named Beth in the class — from Chicago — and we tried to coach her to be ready for the brusque manner of the counter workers and to have her “order in mind and money in hand.” She just laughed us off and told us how street smart she was. When we got there, I ordered for two other people while they went to snatch a table — a big order, several dogs and burgers, fries and rings and drinks. When Beth got to the counter she panicked and said, “I’ll have what he’s having!”
My standard order at The Varsity is a chili dog, a glorified steak, a ring, a fry, an FO [Frosted Orange] with onions on the side. Every time. For 50 years.
Last year, I had the glorious honor of introducing my grandson, Henley, to The Varsity and his first UGA basketball game. He came home with a paper hat and ketchup and mustard all over his face and his shirt and now he begs to go back every time we are anywhere near.
Thus another generation of patrons is born.
Thanks to all who shared memories of the Varsity above, along with John Toon (who took the behind-the-counter shot), Pete McCommons, Don Nelson, Milton Leathers, Doc Eldridge, Charlie Bonner, Ort, Helen Castronis, Ginger Adams, Dave Burch and the Growing Up in Athens GA Facebook page, which provided the exterior shots of the old downtown Varsity.