Garden

A Love Letter to the Varsity in Athens, Georgia

, Author

When I saw the news on Facebook, I gasped. The Varsity in my hometown of Athens, Georgia, was closing. I texted my family group chat immediately: “Someone please tell me this isn’t true.” My dad responded first: “My heart is heavy. Athens will never be the same.” On Sunday, after nearly ninety years in business, the beloved one-time drive-in closed its doors, pulling down the rooftop flags and iconic Scrabble-board sign in preparation for demolition this summer.  

photo: Beth Sanders

The writer, center, with her dad and brother at the Varsity in Athens circa 1997.

I’ve been eating at Athens’s Varsity since before I was tall enough to peek my head over the counter to see the cashier calling, “What’ll ya have?” We’d go when Mom was out of town and Dad was in charge of planning dinner; after church league basketball games; for nearly every single one of my birthday dinners. The fluorescent lights illuminating the linoleum floors and bright red booths fill my childhood memories, as do the smell of the fryer making fries and hand pies and the muffled sounds of the Jetsons or Tom and Jerry playing on the overhead TV in the cartoon room (my preferred seating locale if my brother wasn’t around to vote for the room next door that aired ESPN.) I remember the ancient drinking fountains spewing icy cold water sourced from a secret compartment holding a block of slowly sweating ice; the larger-than-life map of town where you could point out school, and church, and our house, if you just knew where to look; the other patrons you’d wave to, whether you knew them or not. 

It’s true that after a year in which millions of people died from a virus that made us feel as though the world were crumbling around us at every turn, this loss isn’t that momentous. It’s just one of the countless restaurants that fell prey to the economy’s upheavals. And when I get a hankering for some greasy onion rings or a P.C.—chocolate milk poured straight from the carton into a paper cup filled nearly to the brim with pellet ice—I can brave the traffic on I-85 into the thick of downtown Atlanta to stop by the original Atlanta Varsity location or swing through terminal C during the inevitable Hartsfield-Jackson layover. The restaurant’s social media pages hint that they might build a new location in Athens, soon, as well. 

photo: Amanda Green

But still, I—and most of my fellow Athenians or anyone who’s spent four (or more) years carousing the University of Georgia’s campus—am mourning for the wide, sunny, magnolia-lined lot on the corner of West Broad Street and Milledge Avenue. In 1932, four years after the original Varsity location opened in Atlanta, the Gordy family set up shop in Athens across from UGA’s iconic arch. In 1962, the current iteration opened, serving the town from two spots for a decade and a half before the downtown shop shuttered. 

photo: Ashley Weiser

A photo hanging inside depicts the downtown location in the 1960s.

It’s in these places that my adoration for this restaurant began before I was even born. My grandparents went on dates at the Atlanta drive-in in the early fifties when my grandmother was in high school and my grandpa had just returned from the Korean War, but they switched their allegiance easily to the Athens location when they moved there as newlyweds. When I was in high school, they’d take me there on dates. We’d sit in a booth by the front door—my grandfather couldn’t hear me over the quiet purr of the televisions in the side rooms—and catch up on the goings-on in my life and theirs. They would order together: one chili dog, for Papa; one slaw dog, for Nana; and a chili slaw dog they’d split down the middle. Years later, after my grandpa’s funeral, the Varsity was the first place I wanted to go. 

photo: Ashley Weiser

My dad claims to have been the last to-go order at the downtown location on the day it closed in 1978. (He has kept that box and cup in our basement for years beside high school yearbooks and 1996 Olympic memorabilia.) Behind him in line, UGA dean William Tate pulled out a cassette recorder and played “Auld Lang Syne” as he ordered the very last chili dog eaten in the building. 

photo: Mark Sanders

The last takeout box and cup ordered from the Varsity’s original downtown Athens location in 1978.

I went home a few weeks ago for my brother’s wedding. Before the weekend’s festivities began, my dad and I set out for the Varsity one last time. The restaurant already announced it would be closing, but even the employees weren’t sure when. The dining room never reopened after COVID, so we pulled through the drive-thru, ordered our usuals—wedding diet be damned—and sat out front on a picnic table in the softening summer light. As we slurped down our P.C.s and inhaled too many chili dogs, we talked about the upcoming wedding, about the future and our growing family. I glanced through the windows into the half-dark building. Someday soon, they’ll rebuild somewhere else in Athens, and we’ll frequent that spot just as loyally as we did this one. Maybe one day my children will sit in a red booth and listen to my dad tell stories about when he was dating my mom, as cartoons from my childhood drone in the background. 

Like he knew what I was thinking, my dad raised his red paper cup to me in salutation and nodded. One last P.C. for auld lang syne.

photo: Ashley Weiser

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