Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"What'll Ya' Have, What'll Ya' Have?" - A WV Weenie Wonk Visits The Varsity in Atlanta

When I found out in November that I would be traveling to Atlanta for a meeting in April, I immediately made my plans to visit one of the most famous HDJs in all the world: The Varsity. I intentionally arranged flight times so I could make my visit as soon as I got to town in case a second or third trip was in order. I hit town at 2:00 and as soon as I dropped my bags in my room I was off on the 2 mile urban hike to the 61 North Avenue, the site of the "World's Biggest Drive In."

Having seen The Varsity featured in the PBS documentary "A Hot Dog Show" years ago, and having seen Mathew McConaughey as coach Jank Lengyl eating a hot dog there with a recruiting prospect in "We Are Marshall", I thought I knew what to expect, but no, this place is cooler than I imagined. And bigger. The whole place still looks like it must have looked when it opened in 1928. Art Deco chrome, tile and and mirrors make the acoustics lively and tends to amplify the din of the customers and the order takers: All part of the fun. One thing that has surely been added in latter years is the gift shop where you can by t-shirts and other assorted Varsity novelties. You can even buy a coffee table book about the restaurant's history. An ice cream shop shares space with the gift shop.

The restaurant is cut up into several sections and dining rooms. Some have TVs, some are designated non-smoking rooms and some are for the fast eaters who just want a place to sit their Coke while they eat their hot dogs standing up. The main ordering area for inside dining is at a counter that is probably 150' long, behind which are the order takers who whenever they make eye contact with a customer shout "What'll Ya Have?" If there is not an immediate response (and I mean immediate) then the order taker shouts louder "WHAT'LL YA' HAVE, WHAT'LL YA' HAVE!?" If this happens to you I dare you to not be intimidated into ordering whatever pops into your head.

Now one thing the varsity is famous for is "Slaw Dogs." Of course, slaw dogs are what a lot of people incorrectly call West Virginia Hot Dogs, so I was eager to come down and set the record straight on the difference. So when the order taker asked me "What'll ya' have?" I didn't hesitate long enough to get the second level request, I confidently said "Two Slaw Dogs with chil, mustard and onions - and a Coke." (It's Atlanta, ya' gotta have a Coke or they run you out of town.)

When I got my Slaw Dogs they looked really good: Piled high with gorgeous slaw and heavy with chili. I couldn't wait to find a table and photo-document my order so I could dig in. When I did finally dig in I was surprised. I had always imagined slaw this far south would be very sweet, but it is just barely. The chili had a really interesting flavor; kind of complex but barely spicy. The weenie was very good, kind of red like a Chicago dog but smaller, and it had a good flavor. I couldn't tell how it was cooked but I'd imagine lightly grilled from the taste of it. The bun was soft either from light steaming or because it was very, very fresh. But the mustard is what is really different at The Varsity.

Wow, this stuff is tart! And instead of yellow, it has a brown tint to it. It is served on the table in squeeze bottles that must hold nearly a half-gallon of the suff. I think they are proud of it, but to my West Virginia tastebuds it overpowered the whole hot dog so much that wish I'd had ordered without mustard.

So what's the difference between a Varsity Slaw Dog and a WVHD? Primarily it's all about attitude: A real WVHD has slaw on purpose, and a properly executed WVHD has slaw that is intentionally complimentary of the chili, not an afterthought. But The Varsity has done a pretty good job acheiving this complimentary relationship. Overall, if this place was back home and I was giving it an official Weenie score, I think I'd give it a solid 4 Weenie rank, maybe 4.5 including points for atmosphere.


wvapoker said...

Good review of an alien HDJ.

The Film Geek said...

That's a terrific post. Another thing we are better at than Georgia.

LivinTheDream said...

I lived in Atlanta for 2 years and I grew to love the hot dogz at The Varsity. I would recommend everyone that goes to Atlanta make a visit, it is an institution.