Travelers seek to fulfill Atlanta food cravings on trips back to the city

A customer comes through tyhe drive-thru at the Varsity. / Varsity Facebook page

A customer comes through tyhe drive-thru at the Varsity. / Varsity Facebook page

As former Atlantans return home for the holidays, some of them may be heading straight from the airport to pick up their favorite local food and fulfill cravings after months of being away.

It may call for a stop at The Varsity. It might be an order of wings. Former Atlantans who have left the city for college, work or other pursuits say the cravings are real.

As soon as Tanya Raye Holmes lands at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for visits a few times a year, her first order of business is to pick up some lemon pepper wings.

Holmes lived in the Atlanta area for more than two decades before moving in 2021 to Tampa — “Where I can’t get any lemon pepper wings. At all,” she said with emphasis. At least, not the kind she’s looking for.

To be sure, there are places like Wingstop. “They got the lemon pepper,” she acknowledges. “It’s not the same.”

“It’s just something about the mom-and-pops in Atlanta,” Holmes said. “I don’t know what they do.”

Holmes likes to stop at the American Deli on Memorial Drive for her fix after landing at the Atlanta airport.

She has figured out how to make lemon pepper wings to satisfy her cravings when she can’t get back to Atlanta. They’re good enough that her kids, who are now 29 and 33, have pushed her to open a food truck in Tampa.

“They said, ‘You need to do wings in Tampa, you’ll make so much money,’” Holmes said. “They grew up on it. ... I stayed there (in Atlanta) for 25 years and that’s all we ate, was lemon pepper chicken wings.”

Atlanta Falcons reporter D. Orlando Ledbetter said his chosen comfort food is the lemon pepper wings from Varners Restaurant and Tavern.

Credit: Courtesy of Varners Restaurant & Tavern

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Credit: Courtesy of Varners Restaurant & Tavern

Some people seek out longtime Atlanta classics when they come back to the city.

For David Borer, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area now, it’s two chili dogs, fries and a Coke from The Varsity.

Borer is general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees and lived in the Atlanta area from 1997 to 2002 while running a campaign to attempt to unionize Delta Air Lines’ flight attendants.

The campaign wasn’t successful, but Borer took back with him memories of The Varsity, which he says is unlike anything you can find outside of Atlanta and has a “nostalgia factor.”

“It’s been there so long and you know, it’s still the same as it was decades ago,” Borer said of the restaurant, which opened more than 90 years ago. “There’s a crowd every day, you get in that big mass of people, and... ‘What’ll ya have,’ right?”

“If you’re in Atlanta and you’ve got a chance to go there, let’s go,” he said.

Food from the menu of El Tesoro / Courtesy of Chris Rank

Credit: CHRIS RANK

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Credit: CHRIS RANK

Borer recalls a particularly memorable attempt to go to The Varsity in 2002. He suffered a heart attack and on the way from McDonough to the hospital at Emory, “I tried to convince the ambulance crew that we should swing through and get our order in.”

“They said, ‘You wouldn’t believe how many times people have said that to us, but we aren’t allowed to stop,’” Borer recalls.

On the other end of the spectrum, Borer also likes to dine at Italian restaurant Sotto Sotto in Inman Park when he’s in Atlanta.

But The Varsity “is in a class by itself,” he said. Just talking about it “is making me want to get in a plane and get down there.”

Even Atlanta residents who travel often have go-to spots to visit when they get back to town.

Chris Rank, a professional photographer who lives in Sandy Springs and travels often, has a routine of stopping at his favorite restaurant, El Tesoro in Edgewood, after landing back in Atlanta.

He remembers many meals there with his family during the COVID-19 pandemic, sitting outside. “It was just very comfortable and safe,” said Rank, who has also shot photos for El Tesoro. “It just feels like ‘Cheers’ for the 21st century.”

“We went to Greece two years ago and when we came back, like we got off the airplane and went straight to El Tesoro,” Rank said. “The margaritas, the chips, the tacos, the mulitas, they just — they speak Atlanta to me. It speaks to the culture of Atlanta, how it’s changing.”

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has also worked to create more of a “sense of place” for travelers to find Georgia food right in the airport when they land.

There are a number of local eateries today with outposts at the Atlanta airport, including Paschal’s, Grindhouse Killer Burgers, Papi’s, Goldbergs and Varasano’s Pizzeria.

In fact, there are locations of The Varsity on Concourse C and Concourse F. That’s where Borer plans to stop by the next time he flies in.

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