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The Varsity closing

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The worst kept secret the last 10 years and a fortnight or two was the unretreating rumor that the Varsity would be closing, but nobody knew exactly when the curtain would fall.

Now we know. The official announcement week before last brought regret, gastronomic depression and bellyaching (literally and figuratively) that a celebrated Athens institution was no more. For many, it was tantamount to relocating the UGA Arch or tearing down the Chapel Bell.

At that great short order restaurant in the sky, Epp Suddath, the co-founder, facilitator and keeper of the holy grail of chili dawgs and frosted oranges, summoned his most trusted earthly colleagues Otha Brown and Doyle Jarrett to lament the latest developments on Broad Street.

For the last half of the 20 th Century, the downtown Varsity at Broad St. and College Ave. was, for many, the center of the universe. The iconic names for Varsity products such as a steak through the garden (hamburger with lettuce and tomato) four chili-dogs walking (four dogs to go), N.I.P.C (no ice chocolate milk), a Sally Rand (a naked burger) heightened the experience. A Coke was a skeet, an orange drink was a squirt. One which nobody remembers—a hobo soda was a glass of water and a toothpick.

I have never been more flummoxed than on an October Saturday during my high school years when I got an invite to journey to Athens to see Georgia play Vanderbilt between-the-hedges. Our coach took his minions to the Varsity for lunch. I studied the menu carefully and counted my change. Not sure what a hamburger cost back then, likely 15 cents, which meant that I had just enough to buy two hamburgers and a small Coca-Cola.

The line was about 10-deep when I joined it and patiently waited my turn. None other than the aforementioned Doyle, who would later become a friend, sounded forth in a penetrating voice, the standard line for the ages in Varsity lore, “Whaddayouhave?” Nervous and apprehensive, I said, tentatively, “Two hamburgers and a Coke.” Doyle turned and shouted out the order, “Pair of steaks and a skeet.”

At that time, I had never eaten a steak in my life, but I knew that I could not afford one. Overtly alarmed, I quickly corrected Doyle, exclaiming, “Oh no, I said hamburgers.” Knowing I was not familiar with Varsity lingo, Doyle laughed and said, “We got you covered.”

From that point to subsequent trips to Athens, enrollment and beyond, I was a proud Varsity alumnus, who has often been filled and fulfilled at the Varsity. In latent years, I was only an occasional Varsity patron, but when I went there for a couple of renowned chili dogs and a frosted orange, it brought back memories of my days on campus when I, like thousands of others, became a Varsity regular.

When the downtown Varsity closed, I felt like my campus sweetheart had left me—but there was consolation. The Drive-In at Broad and Milledge remained. When Bill Griffin, native of Rutledge who settled in Pittsburgh, reached a milestone birthday, he could have experienced an unforgettable meal anywhere from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, but he chose the Varsity.

We didn’t like it when Tony’s Restaurant on Clayton Street closed. When Poss’ Barbecue Restaurant on the Atlanta Highway shut down, when Moon-Winn Drug Store downtown bit the dust, but this is the mother of all “going out of business” downers.

Nothing lasts forever except, perhaps, the hedges of Sanford Stadium. George Suddath, a son of Epp, who now resides in Raleigh, N. C., is an avid sports memorabilia collector. He started working for his father at the Varsity when he was 12-years-old, pointing out that that was legal if your family owned or ran a business.

“It was so much fun,” George remembers. “The cash registers they have today make it easy, but when I started out at the Varsity we had to calculate everything in our head. Then add tax to the total and make change.” He remembers that Friday nights before game day, the employees made ham and chicken salad sandwiches all night long. He also recalls the time a Varsity insider named Skeet Nunnelly made 3,000 hotdogs on a football Saturday. That record is still intact.

The Varsity would cash checks. Woe be unto the student who wrote a bad check. In those “in loco parentis” days, all Epp had to do was take the bad check over to the office of William Tate, the colorful Dean of men, who would summon the miscreant and say: “Hand over the cash or hand over your student ID card.” The threat of getting kicked out of school made model citizens out of many campus reprobates. The legend of the Varsity is worthy of an unabridged volume or two.

If there is a new venue, as I have heard bandied about, I’ll show up for two steaks through the garden and bow in memory of Epp, Brown, Doyle and others. It is hard on the heart when you lose dear friends, even if it is a naked steak. Err, Sally Rand.