Now here’s a restaurant with an uphill battle. Guthrie’s has been around since 1965, and the formula that we know them by – limited menu, incredibly tasty sauce – was finalized in 1982. They have a strong claim to being the place that invented and perfected the chicken finger restaurant formula, yet somehow they’ve been completely passed in the market by one of their imitators, Zaxby’s. Now, Zaxby’s isn’t bad, and we’ve been known to stop in many times over the years, but when I first discovered a Zaxby’s in the nearby town of Watkinsville, I described it to all my Athens friends as “kind of like Guthrie’s, but with more stuff.”
Guthrie’s couldn’t have had much less stuff at all. The menu consists of really incredibly amazing chicken fingers, Texas toast, fries and slaw, served in a handful of ways. I recall that if you stopped at the Guthrie’s on Baxter Hill, you could get them in a plate, in a box, in a smaller size without slaw or between two slices of bread. Those were your only options. They were absolutely essential to the dorm dining experience. Everybody who lived in the high-rise dorms had Guthrie’s all the time and those of us by the stadium regularly; so did thousands of tailgaters and high school students. The line out the door whenever Clarke Central was playing at home in the fall was every bit as insane on a Friday as on a UGA game day.
That Guthrie’s was the third in the chain, which is quite successful today in its home state of Alabama, with scattered outposts in other Southern states. In the early nineties, Guthrie’s opened a second Athens store, over by Cedar Shoals High School, so their students could enjoy the same Friday night craziness. This was a hugely important Athens tradition in the 1980s and 1990s, and its simplicity fueled wonderful urban legends. Some said there was a secret menu, and some said that if you left a penny in the sauce – a sort of peppery brown mayo, totally delicious – overnight, you could retrieve it polished and glittering.
Then one day in the late ’90s, the Athens locations were gone. It was very abrupt and their departure fueled a whole new raft of urban legends, which I’ll decline to repeat in these pages. Some stories are best left unreported, if unconfirmed. Talk radio should try that sometime.
Several years later, Guthrie’s returned ever-so-briefly to the Athens region, opening a store twenty-ish miles north in Danielsville. It’s gone now, but there are two stores in the Atlanta area along with the twenty-ish restaurants in Alabama and six in other states. I was working in the Ravinia building when the Dunwoody store opened in 2004 and a co-worker mentioned it. She thought, wrongly, that it was a Zaxby’s knockoff. I let her know it was the other way around, but you can bet that Guthrie’s glacier-like speed at expanding is going to run into that everywhere. If they try moving into Louisiana, they’ll be called a Raising Cane’s clone.
Guthrie’s is an occasional destination for us, whenever we need a quick meal on the top end of I-285 while going out of town through Spaghetti Junction. On Friday, Marie and I had hoped to get lunch further up the road as we started an anniversary getaway, but trouble leaving work early meant that we didn’t get on the perimeter until after the lunch rush had already ended, and the Spaghetti Junction backup already showing signs of starting. (You’ll notice I don’t say who had trouble leaving early. Maybe I’m polite, or maybe I just don’t want you to think ill of me.) This store has expanded their menu just a little, adding wings and breakfast to their offerings, but what they need to do is hire somebody to straighten that place up some. Nobody ever stopped at Guthrie’s wanting cleanliness – that Baxter Hill store looked like a war zone from sunup to sundown – but I’m starting to get at the age where I want somebody to get out from behind the counter and wipe down dirty tables.
Then again, it’s not like this is haute cuisine; it’s finger-gooping greasy fried chicken fingers, done right. You remember how one day you went through a Zaxby’s drive-thru and didn’t have to wait for your food and the sauce came prepackaged in a factory-made plastic cube with the ingredients on the label? Guthrie’s reminds you of the days before Zaxby’s got corporate enough to change into that. Or, if you will, the days before there was a Zaxby’s. I hope that they’re always around, somewhere, and that there will always be people who will spread the word that theirs was the better restaurant, first.
Now if only I could convince Guthrie’s to serve up those fried mushrooms and Fanta Cherry that their imitator has. Don’t you judge me.