Food & Drink

The Varsity turns 80: Home of ‘What'll ya have?'

The lunchtime noise was piercing. But above it all, you could still hear the chorus yelling from behind the counter.

“What'll ya have? What'll ya have?”

“When you come in here, you need to have your order on your mind and your money in your hand,” said Jaida Danso, 54, who has been slinging The Varsity's trademark lingo for 28 years.

Danso worked her way up from sweeping floors and busing tables to day shift supervisor. But you can still find her behind the counter at lunchtime and on football Saturdays when the eight dining rooms and the adjacent drive-in overflow with Georgia Tech fans.

“If you are not strong, you will learn it here,” she said.

Varsity has been an Atlanta institution for 80 years. From its beginning in 1928 (no one knows the exact date), countermen and women in red aprons and carhop hats have been serving up chili dogs, onion rings and Coca-Cola.

Anyone who is anyone has stopped by The Varsity. Clark Gable ate there in 1939 while in town for the opening of “Gone with the Wind.” Three sitting presidents — Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have sampled the greasy fare.

Everyone is greeted with the same lingo — from the garbage pickup guys to tourists to former Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who began playing hooky from school and sneaking to The Varsity when he was 11.

“The food is a little on the greasy side, but it's the best anywhere,” said Cindy Newcome, 49, an Atlanta teacher who filled two tables with relatives visiting from out of town.

One of them, Marquitta Holland, 49, who lived in Orland Park, Ill., before moving to Ohio, offered an expert opinion. “I don't want to be a traitor, but they are better than Chicago hot dogs,” she said.

When you pull into the carhop, you might as well throw your health concerns out the window.

“We are what we are,” said Gordon Muir, whose grandfather, Frank Gordy, opened the restaurant after dropping out of Georgia Tech. “The food hasn't changed in 80 years.”

The restaurant, expanded in 1940, sits near the university. There are also four other locations in Atlanta and one near the rival University of Georgia in Athens.

Every day, the restaurant serves up 2 miles of hot dogs, a ton of onions, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, 5,000 fried pies (peach and apple) and 300 gallons of chili, all made from scratch. Atlanta Magazine once listed the Varsity onion slicers among Atlanta's 10 toughest jobs.

“We still cut our fries and roll our dough for the fresh pies. The only thing different is that we get our onions already chopped, and I am very thankful for that,” said Muir, 43.

In the early days, the “curb men” took pride in identifying the cars of the regulars. And along with the meal came a song and dance. Comedian Nipsey Russell got his big break at The Varsity as carhop No. 46.

A documentary set to be aired on PBS in September charts the history of The Varsity, including notable employees such as Erby Walker, who earned the title the “What'll Ya Have” man during his half-century as a counterman at The Varsity. Walker died this year at age 70.

Walker once told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he ate a dozen Varsity hot dogs a day.

“My doctor told me, ‘You've got to stop eating hot dogs.' I said, ‘What are you trying to do, kill me now?'”

Walker, it seems, spoke for a great deal of Atlantans.