Welcome to the World’s Largest Drive-in Restaurant in Atlanta
What’ll Ya Have? What’ll Ya Have? What’ll Ya Have?
Amid a cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds, the famous catch-phrase rings out above the din. No matter what time you show up at the world’s largest drive-in, at North Avenue in Atlanta, you can be assured of the smell of fried onion rings, and the constant call of What’ll Ya Have?
In 1928, a man named Frank Gordy, with $2,000 in his pocket opened the original Varsity. It was initially called The Yellow Jacket in homage to the Georgia Tech campus it bordered on but swiftly outgrew the name and location. It was moved to the other side of the interstate and renamed The Varsity, covering a full two blocks in downtown Atlanta.
Other locations have opened and closed over the years, but the original is still there and serves over 17,000 people a day with only 800 seats and 600 carhop spaces.
I have only ever been to two of the other locations. The Varsity Junior wasn’t too far away and closer to my home at the time. It was a miniature version of the original complete with carhops and characters. The other time was in one of the newer suburban locations. I walked in and was a bit worried at the lack of a crowd. I got up to the counter, and the woman asked, “Can I take your order?”
I left and never went back — the nerve.
A newcomer (of which there are few in Atlanta) will view the mob with trepidation and confusion.
“Where do I go?” they ask, looking at the near-endless counter where you order, pay, and pick up your food. And you’d best be damn quick about it.
“Well, down there, you can order dessert, or in that line, you can only get hot dogs and hamburgers, but you want to be in those lines. You can order anything.”
I went there once with my two employees, one of which a recent transplant from Kansas City. He looked around and then at me with a WTF look on his face. I told him I would let him in on an inside secret. “When you get up to the counter, ask about their daily special.” The other guy just rolled his eyes.
As David got to the front of the line (more mob than a line) and was met with, What’ll Ya Have?, he did as I told him. Without skipping a beat, the woman behind the counter cut her eyes to me. What’ll Ya Have?. I ordered my standard two dogs, a ring, and a large FO. It helps a lot to understand the terminology.
A dog is, of course, a hot dog. But a very specific hot dog. A locally sourced, all-beef wiener on a steamed bun with mustard and the Varsity’s own chili. It doesn’t need anything more, and it certainly doesn’t need anything less. You can order something special if you want to, just don’t get in front of me to do it.
A ring is an order of onion rings. These are the onion rings against which all other onion rings are measured. They are simple and only contain three ingredients: onions, batter, and grease. Lots and lots of grease. You will devour these first partially because they are irresistibly bad for you, but mostly they need to be eaten while hot and crisp.
An FO is a frosted orange. Think of a creamsicle in a cup. Brain freezingly cold, orange, and delicious. I don’t know what’s in it, and I don’t need to know. It’s part of the meal. Of course, if a milkshake is too much on top of the almost 1,000 calories in the rest of the meal, have a Coke. Not Pepsi, Coke. This is Atlanta. You carpetbaggers can go the hell back to where you came from.
But wait, there’s more! If you can still get anything else into your stomach, there’s dessert. They have ice cream but walk past that counter to the very end. Where the long line is. Order a fried peach pie. After freezing your mouth on the FO, you now get to scald it with the sweet, sticky insides of this fried pastry.
Comedian Nipsey Russel got his start working the carhop line at the Varsity. But the endless row of parking lots worked by hustling waiters is better known for its longest-running employee, Flossie Mae. John Wesley Raiford started there in 1937 and could be found by the outrageous hats he wore working the line while singing the menu for 56 years. In 1939, he served Clark Gable before the premiere of Gone with the Wind.
The second most famous employee was Erby Walker, who worked the line inside for 55 years and on game day, could be heard shouting, “Have your money out and your food on your mind, and I’ll getcha to the game on time!” The Varsity is about two blocks away from Georgia Tech’s football stadium. Many celebrities and dignitaries have visited it over the decades.
Other lesser-known visitors to the Varsity include Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Varsity was a 24/7/365 operation. The only day it ever closed before 2020 was in 1983 for the funeral of Frank Gordy. Since then, it has kept limited hours and access but still is one of the busiest restaurants in metropolitan Atlanta.
If you are ever passing through Atlanta by car, you will drive on what is known locally as ‘The Connector.’ This a section of the interstate system where I-75 and I-85 merge together for a few miles while it passes through Atlanta. Unless it is the middle of the night, there will be traffic. So you may as well take the North Avenue exit and pull into the Varsity.
You won’t go away hungry.
Just be ready to answer the question.
What’ll Ya Have?