Nearly every Northsider is aware of the Varsity. Their chili dogs and the F.O. (Frozen Orange drink for the uninitiated) are part of the fabric that makes up the tapestry that is Atlanta.
Those onion rings unite our metro-wide community.
But what most folks might not know is that about 2 1/2 hours up I-85, there’s a place in Spartanburg, S.C., that’s just as revered and a part of that community as the Varsity is to the ATL.
It’s the historic Beacon Drive-In.
“The Beacon is a destination more than a restaurant,” says Steve Duncan, co-owner and operator of the 71-year-old eatery. “I was born in 1963, so the Beacon was in existence for almost 20 years before I was even born.”
Duncan says he often thinks about the history that has unfolded since the Beacon opened.
“World War II has just ended, Eisenhower was president,” Duncan said. “Elvis hadn’t even become Elvis. I just like to stop and think about all of things that have happened since the Beacon has been in existence.”
The late John B. White Jr. started the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1946. The menu serves up sandwiches, seafood items, breakfast biscuits, burgers and more.
White was very rooted in the community, helping civic groups and organizations, as well as his neighbors and friends, Duncan says. “John White made quite a name for himself,” he adds. “It’s the famous big shoes you’ve got to fill, and I stepped into some big ones.”
Folks in the know order their meals “a-plenty,” which is a serving with mountains of French fries and onion rings.
“The number one seller off the bat is the Chili Cheese A-Plenty,” Duncan says. It’s a 1/3-pound burger with chili, cheese and fries. “It’s Americana.”
Duncan describes the menu, with its dozens of items, as overwhelming.
“I tell people we’re burgers, barbecue, chicken and fish,” he said. “That really summarizes it.”
Beacon’s sweet tea is quite popular with locals. The owners say they’re the largest single sellers of ice tea in the nation, pouring 62,500 gallons of the sweet stuff each week.
They also go through 2 ½ tons of onions, three tons of beef and 100 bags of sugar each week, making sure everyone on the line gets the food they want.
“We’re a factory,” Duncan says. “I don’t know we’re as much of a restaurant as we are a factory … a food factory.”
In addition to the food, the Beacon is known for its “call it” man. The most famous “call it” man was J.C. Strobel, who took customers’ orders and shouted them to the cooks for almost 58 years.
Visitors were greeted by his unique, “Callllllllll iiiiiitt!” and “Show me something!”
Strobel died in 2013 and has a street near the drive-in named after him.
“He was the personality and the voice of the Beacon,” Duncan says. Jerry Wiggleton calls food orders now.
Duncan, 54, says he graduated from high school in 1981 and remembers being drawn to the Beacon.
“The Beacon on Friday nights was the place to cruise. This parking lot would be full of teenagers sitting on their cars,” he says. “Boys chasing the girls and the girls chasing the boys. It was the place to be.”
The co-owner says those cruises in the parking lot sparked a few long-lasting romances. “A lot of couples met their spouses here,” Duncan says. “Just a lot of memories. A lot of people have emotional ties to the Beacon just because who they were and where they were.”
The restaurant is also a favorite spot during the political season, with gubernatorial and presidential candidates campaigning amid regulars chomping on burgers and drinking tea.
“The last presidential race, we were able to host every candidate except Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” Duncan smiles. “I think the reason is because they needed a bigger menu.”
The Beacon is open seven days a week and serves more than 1 million people a year.
The Beacon is just one of many destinations to visit in the Spartanburg and Greenville, S.C., areas. Both have quaint downtown spaces with art galleries, restaurants and must-see places.
Morgan Square in downtown Spartanburg is where the city started its municipality and the first businesses in the late 1700s. A historic clock tower and monument that was erected to commemorate the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Cowpens was erected in 1881 and still stands.
Here is more to see on your next road trip:
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