Grazing: Golden oldies

A trip down memory lane at the Varsity, Chris' Pizza and the Colonnade

The moment I set foot in the downtown Varsity (61 North Ave., 404-881-1706), "the world's largest drive-in," I feel the first pangs of nostalgia neuralgia. It's not often I visit a restaurant older than me, which was already legendary when I was a kid. It's been a decade or longer since I visited this two-acre landmark.

It's about an hour before closing and the place is eerily empty, which contributes to the sense that it's haunted by my teenage self. Growing up in Sandy Springs, I didn't come here until I had a driver's license, but I remember the incredible crowds, especially before games at Georgia Tech.

Despite the emptiness, a man behind the mile-long counter begins barking, "Whaddayahave, whaddayahave?" I order a chili cheese dog, a chili burger, onion rings and an Orange Freeze. I carry my tray to a room where six people are eating and watching Fox TV's election-night reporting.

Watching Laura Ingraham fist-pumping the Republicans adds to my impending nausea. I've tried to head it off by taking a double dose of my GI drugs, but the first bite of the hot dog sets off my internal alarm. The hot dog is skinny, the chili is like greasy purée and the cheese is Velveeta-esque. The onion rings cause me to grab extra napkins. The chili burger is horrendous. The Orange Freeze, something like Creamsicle granitas, causes my esophagus to freeze.

Even when I was a kid, the food nauseated me. I think of my friends Bill and Clay. They met at a mental hospital where they ended up during their freshman year of college. One night, we got drunk and hit the Varsity. I had learned to eat very little there, especially while drunk, but Clay pigged out. On the way back to his house in my mother's gigantic Impala, Clay hurled a gallon of partially digested chili dogs all over the back seat. No amount of cleaning would kill the odor, so my mother stuck cloves in a bunch of apples and drove around with them for the next two months.

In Toco Hills

Since we're in the Toco Hills area, I suggest we go to Shorty's Pizza but Wayne, having eaten there recently, suggests we instead go to Chris' Pizza House (2911 N Druid Hills Road, 404-636-7544). This is another restaurant that's been around as long as I can remember — 27 years — but I've never visited.

Although Chris' serves pizza, the menu principally features Greek cooking. The walls are that Mykonos blue you see in every Greek restaurant. There's a fountain in the center of the room. There's clear plastic covering the white tablecloths. There's a very pleasant staff — ask for Zach — serving a rather elderly clientele.

I order the spanakopita appetizer portion. It tastes like it was made three days ago and it's really dry, but weirdly edible nonetheless. Wayne orders a Greek salad, that isn't Greek at all, except for some black olives, crumbled feta and pepperoncini — all over iceberg lettuce. There is a "real" lettuce-free horiatiki salad on the menu, but it costs more than $7.

I select moussaka for my entrée. It's served with a red meat sauce and roasted potatoes. The eggplant is not overcooked, as it is most places. Overall, it has good flavor in that frozen dinner sort of way. Wayne orders a pizza — a thick-crusted pie topped with feta, tomatoes and anchovies. Too thick for my taste.

"Well, it's just as I remember it 12 years ago," Wayne says.

On Cheshire Bridge

Few restaurants evoke nostalgia for me like the Colonnade (1879 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-874-5642). It's been around since 1927 and is famous for its clientele of gay men and the elderly. This restaurant is haunted, too. Nancy Roquemore, who was my copy editor at the AJC, used to eat at the bar there nearly every night.

I ate with countless friends here in the '80s and just about every one of them, including my first partner, Rick, died in the AIDS epidemic. So, I always feel a little sad when I eat here.

I used to order the lamb shank nearly every visit. It was on the menu before they became every restaurant's favorite. It remained on the menu but increased dramatically in cost and finally disappeared. I also used to regularly order the fried oysters and chicken livers.

But my favorite has always been the fried chicken, which really is among the city's best. It comes to the table piping hot and crispy with a slight bacon taste, just like my mother's. The serving is two gigantic breasts and two wings. I order collards on the side and take half the meal home. I throw the leftover yeast rolls, always perfect, in the box with the chicken and leave behind a quarter of the huge wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing.

It's true that prices have increased a lot in recent years — and they still don't take credit cards. There's also a menu of fairly expensive specials including some New Orleans-inspired dishes and oddities such as a bacon-wrapped elk chop with pomegranate demi-glace.

But it's mainly the memories that keep me going back.

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