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The Varsity: Where memories (and chili dogs) are made

Some say the magic is in the chili dogs. Others swear it’s the Frosted Orange. Many contend it’s the “greeting.”

“What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”

Part salutation, part scolding, it’s the chant that welcomes all who enter 61 North Ave. N.W. in Atlanta — the tired, huddled masses yearning for hamburgers, onion rings, fried pies and that one-of-a-kind cultural experience that makes it the city’s most essential eatery.

I’m talking about the Varsity … the “Vars-tee” … the Big V.

World’s largest drive-in. Crossroads of old South and new. Home of the Glorified Steak (burger with mayo, lettuce and tomato), the Heavy Weight (hot dog with extra chili) and the Joe-ree (coffee with cream).

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Founded in 1928 by Georgia Tech dropout Frank Gordy, this fourth-generation family business has survived the fickleness of time and taste to greet smiling presidents and hungry college kids. (President Barack Obama stopped by in 2012.) It’s been imitated, replicated, ridiculed and rhapsodized. Gordy’s progeny maintain the traditions, the recipes, the red-and-white retro packaging, the lore.

So, praise the Lord and pass me a chili-slaw-dog with chopped onions and a squiggle of ketchup and mustard.

Saturday, when Georgia Tech plays Florida State at Bobby Dodd Stadium, just across the interstate, an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people will pass through the doors of the iconic yellow-and-red building, said Gordon Muir, Gordy’s grandson and the Varsity president.

“It amazes me sometimes that we actually get through it,” he said, “because it’s just so busy.”

An average daily crowd is half that size, but football Saturdays aren’t the Varsity’s biggest. “There are many Saturdays that beat a Tech football day,” Muir said. “Actually, most Saturdays in July beat a football day. Supercross Saturday is also a huge day for us.”

That’s a lot of onion rings waitin’ to be battered and fried.

A lot of ground beef, onions and spices, waitin’ to be simmered into chili.

A lot of memories, waitin’ to be made.

My first Varsity visit occurred sometime in the ’60s or ’70s. Yes, I arrived in a station wagon filled with cousins. What I recall is the epic scale: a hot dog stand as big as an airport, a TV set in every room, dumpster-size bins of raw onion rings behind glass windows.

I skipped the Varsity meal plan while at the University of Georgia (the second location, in Athens, dates from 1932) but revisited the downtown Atlanta landmark in the ’80s. This was the height of the disco era, and if we were feeling a little fried, the Varsity was an excellent hangover cure. If we wheeled into the drive-in, we never had to leave the car — not that we could.

Today, what impresses me about this venerable institution is how little it has changed.

Classic chili dogs still arrive on paper plates with a wad of chopped onions tucked into a piece of wax paper on the side. The potatoes are what my octogenarian Aunt Libby would call “real French fries,” meaning they’ve been sliced into long elegant strips, sizzled to a perfect state of doneness and dumped out — hot and ketchup-ready.

By the time I take a bite of hot dog and inhale a couple of rings, my Frosted Orange — a creamsicle-flavored shake made of vanilla soft-serve and house-made Varsity Orange soda — has started to melt.

Slurp. Sluuuuuurp! Up through the straw it glides and, suddenly, all is right with the world. There’s nothing, repeat, nothing on earth that cuts through the salt, oil and taste of Varsity onion rings like a gulp of that sweet, heavenly concoction. (If you want to sound like a regular, ask for an “F.O.”)

At the Varsity, chili goes on everything.

“My grandfather always said the chili was the most important part of the chili dog,” Muir said.

It’s also good on the burgers and, my new favorite thing, the chili-cheese fries.

Salads were added in the late ’80s. “They do very well,” Muir told me.

Y’all go right ahead. I didn’t come to the Varsity to be put on a diet. To me, eating sensibly at the Varsity means a grilled pimento-cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Or chicken salad on toasted wheat — though, honestly, I found the chicken sal a little bland.

Another quibble: The onion-ring breading is unpredictable. Sometimes, it’s thick and doughy — a real no-no, because then you can’t taste the onion. A lighter touch is preferred. That way, the rings fry up crisper and aren’t so heavy and filling. And — hello! — you don’t waste all your F.O. washing them down.

Call me a Peach State traitor, but I favor the fried apple pie over the peach. The filling has just the right texture and hits all the right cinnamon-and-apple-pie notes. It’s perfect for fall.

When Gordy started the Varsity, he wanted to provide good, cheap grub for the Techies next door, and wound up launching a brand that’s endured 87 years and spawned eight locations.

“Two hot dogs a day will keep you young,” he once remarked.

By gosh, that rascal was right. I don’t know about two dogs a day, but I can’t step into the place without feeling a good 40 years younger.

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