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THE VARSITY DRIVE IN // rings & a nekkid dog

The line outside The Varsity stretched around the block.

"Have your money in hand and order in mind," said Tim English, who had stopped there with his family to eat after a volleyball game. "Stutter and they might send you to the back of the line."

The historic fast food joint on North Avenue has a language all its own.

"Ask for a neckid dog and hobo soda," said 10-year-old Caroline in a sweet southern drawl.

"Neckid?" I asked.

"Yeah, neckid," she repeated. "That means a plain hot dog and water."

"Oh naked," I said. "As in just the buns showing."

"Right," she said. "You've got it."

The 2-acre restaurant can accommodate 600 cars and 800 people. When Georgia Tech plays, they might have 30,000 customers stop by for a Varsity orange and bag of strings.

On a typical day, The Varsity serves a ton of onions, two miles of hot dogs, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, 5,000 fried pies, 300 gallons of chili and an undetermined amount of grease.

"I've been coming here for more than 30 years," said Sally English. "This place is a classic. It never changes."

Tim English used to come here with his parents. Now he brings his daughters, who seemed to have mastered the lingo before they could walk.

"If you can, also ask for a walking dog," Caroline continued. "And to drink, an F.O. or P.C."

Translation: hot dog to go and a frosted orange or chocolate milk, always served with shaved ice.

"Do they teach this stuff in school?" I asked.

"Yes sir," a native Atlantan behind me explained. "You take it right in between gym and health class."

Most Varsity regulars know what they want before they step up to the counter.

"When I was in high school, I'd always get three chili dogs, two chili steaks (hamburgers), one ring (onion), one string (fries), three P.C.s (chocolate milk and ice) and one fried peach pie," said Tim English.

This high grease diet gave English the girth he needed to play nose guard for Vanderbilt.

"But over the years my diet has evolved," he said. "I have had to tone it down a bit."

The food is reasonable, a family of four can usually get in and out for under $15. The wait is long, especially during the Olympics, but while you're standing in line, it's pretty easy to steal a fry or ring off a passing plate.

"We call that a party foul," English explained.

The Varsity opened in 1928 and earned its reputation with drive-in service. The Varsity "curb men" would often sing and dance to the customers. The most famous car hops were Flossy Mae, who sang the menu to customers for more than 50 years, and Nipsy Russell.

But in July of '96, the restaurant became better known for the controversy surrounding a trading pin it produced in celebration of the Olympic Games.

The pin, which originally sold for a couple of dollars, had a picture of some fried onion rings arranged like the Olympic rings. This, of course, drew the ire of the Olympic Committee, so sales were stopped. Now the pin goes for $200 on the street.

You can learn a lot waiting on line to order.

But when your turn comes up, and you hear that legendary Varsity "What'll Ya Have?," you'd better be ready. Or it is back to the end of the line, and rest assured, the place isn't so interesting that you'll want to wait there twice.

"What'll ya have?" the woman behind the counter asked.

The moment of truth had arrived. I fumbled for my wallet and the crib sheet I had prepared with the help of the English family.

"Uhhhhh."

The woman looked disgusted, and she raised her finger. For a moment, I thought I was about to be scolded, perhaps even spanked.

"Three chili cheese dogs, two chili steaks, one ring, one string and one peach pie," I said without taking a breath.

She nodded then screamed my order over her shoulder to the cooks in the kitchen, "Three chili cheese dogs, two chili steaks, one ring, one string and one peach pie."

She stared ahead blankly, obviously unimpressed by linguistic proficiency.

"And to drink?"

"Pepsi," I said.

For nearly 20 years, since the early days of Saturday Night Live, I had waited for a moment like this. Fortunately, this was Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola, I knew I couldn't miss.

"Sorry, Coke, no Pepsi," she said.

I laughed. "Well in that case, give me a chocolate milk over shaved ice," I said. "Or in Varsity Speak, a P.C. please."

She didn't crack a smile, but the extra peach pie on the plate hinted that she probably appreciated the bad joke.

On the way to the table, I looked at all the food and realized that it might be prudent to pick up some Pepto.

"Pepto Bismol ... all you'll need is a restroom," Tim English said. "That stuff will work better than snake oil."

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