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» The Varsity: Burgers from a Hot Dog Stand
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The Varsity: Burgers from a Hot Dog Stand

By • Apr 21st, 2010 • Category: Burger Blog

To say that The Varsity is an Atlanta landmark is an understatement.  “Institution” is a more apropos word to describe this 82-year-old, two-story, full-city-block-long hot dog joint that serves 2 miles of frankfurters EVERY DAY.

I call it a hot dog joint because that’s what the World’s Largest Drive-In is best known for: greasy little chili-laden, mustard-spiked, onion-topped gut bombs that taste better in pairs and should always be washed down with an ice-cold Coca-Cola, whose towering world headquarters are 9 minutes away (on foot) and in the background of this pic:

But this is a blog devoted to cheeseburgers, and yes, the Varsity’s menu features those, too.

(Look at those prices.  Who charges $1.24 for anything?!?)  So last week, I braved the lunch hour crowd to see if Atlanta’s top dog could do a decent burger.

A word about lunchtime at the Varsity: come prepared.  The place is sprawling.  It can seat over 800 people at one time, and that doesn’t count the 600 cars it can handle simultaneously.  The place is divided into rooms that are named after what channel the TVs in that room are locked on.  And by the time you reach one of the 18 registers (all of which had a line a dozen deep on this Thursday), you’d better know what you want to eat.

“What’ll you have?  What’ll you have?  Have your order in your mind and your money in your hand!” This (or some derivative thereof) is the famous chorus you’ll have shouted at you when you get there.  Long before the Soup Nazi, there were Varsity carhops like Flossie Mae, Erby Walker, and a pre-movie star Nipsey Russell, colorful characters who came up with clever catchphrases and elaborate sing-song rhymes to engage and entertain customers.  I managed to squelch my usual of “Double chili-cheese dogs, fries, and a Varsity orange” and instead ordered a #2: a chili cheese dog and a chili cheeseburger combo.  (I figured even if the burger sucked, I’d still have one of those glorious dogs to fall back on.)

Once seated, I was already glad I had a backup plan.  The burger was tiny. Not a slyder, technically, but not too far off.  A peek under the bun was even more depressing:

If you can’t tell by the photo (the real thing was right there in front of me, and it took me a minute, too), the top bun half is coated with chili; the bottom bun half is holding the burger.  The fact that they were so damn similar in color and texture was troubling, to say the least.  But I’ve been proven wrong before by an unattractive package that turned out to be spectacular, so I tucked in:

Yes, that picture is blurry.  And actually, in this case, it’s more than a little fitting.  This was one seriously unimpressive burger. Bland, boring, and saved only by the familiar taste of the chili and crunchy tang of the raw onions I’d sprinkled on just prior.  Most upsetting was how small it was: gone in 5 bites.  (Although, truthfully, a bigger version of this burger doesn’t need to exist.)  Thank God for that Plan B chili cheese dog.

I’ll never trash The Varsity’s iconic good name because it’s truly one of my favorite spots and a must-go whenever friends or family come visit the ATL.

But I’ll also never order their chili cheeseburger again. Sometimes, it’s best to dance with who brung ya.  There’s a good reason that The Varsity is known as a hot dog joint.

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