Last week, I went down to Allen’s for a twenty-five cent beer. I didn’t get one. Honestly, you’d think, having been immortalized in song thusly, a place would keep its drink specials. Even if the song was twenty years old and reflected on a scene that was a decade and change in the past already.
I didn’t even get a burger grilled by the governor, although I have had one of those. Back when he was an undergraduate at UGA in the 1950s, future guv’nor Zell Miller worked the grill at Allen’s. This was not long after the restaurant first opened, in its original and iconic location in the Athens neighborhood of Normaltown. When Miller began his career in politics in the 1970s, Allen’s became a regular stop for his statewide tours. I was working at the town’s student paper, The Red and Black, in 1994 and got word that Miller would be in town flipping burgers for a while as part of his reelection campaign tour. I got in line early with two or three other people that morning, got to shake the governor’s hand and enjoyed a really good burger. For a place that lived and died on its drink specials, the food here was surprisingly good.
Four years later, my dad asked whether I planned to support some richer-than-sin jackass in his bid for the governor’s seat against Roy Barnes, who, in 1998, did not look like Jabba the Hutt’s pale cousin. I asked my dad whether the jackass planned to cook me a burger. Dad said that he didn’t think so.
“Zell Miller cooked me a burger and I voted for him. I reckon if your man wants my vote, he’ll do the same,” I said. I stand by that to this day. Nevertheless, my dad, who, agonizingly, was some kind of campaign coordinator for some part of Cobb County or other, couldn’t persuade Mr. Billionaire Scumbag to find the time to cook me a burger and get my support. He lost. Eventually, he quit throwing good money after bad and stopped trying to run for office.
As for Zell Miller, while I fondly retain the good memory of sitting at the bar, joking with him about my press credentials and enjoying a quite good burger, he really did lose his freaking mind around 2004. I have since notified all and sundry of my standing offer to return that burger to Mr. Miller at his convenience. I’ve never actually purged, but I reckon any more than twenty seconds’ consideration of the content of his embarrassing book A National Party No More would do the trick.
Allen’s closed on New Year’s Day, 2004 after the building’s owners decided that a parking lot or something would look better on the property. To be honest, I forget the reason. The original owner, Danny Self, had passed away a couple of years previously. Honestly, I never ate there all that often anyway. When word got out that Allen’s would be closing its doors, I made sure that I got the chance for a last visit. This would have been December of ’03 and I had just started seeing this girl who lived in Madison – references in these pages to 2004 being a mistake-filled year would mostly revolve around her – and I wanted to make sure that she had a chance to enjoy this little slice of Athens history before they shut for good. I remember that it was awfully cold that day, and I remember how very well her daughter was behaving. That was a fine day to tell an institution goodbye.
Allen’s returned under new ownership in 2008. They’re now located on Hawthorne, in front of a very odd strip mall that seems to only house a beauty school and a uniform supply company. While this isn’t all the same feel as Allen’s lovely original storefront location, the vibe inside is similar to what fifty years of locals remembered, albeit with a bit more of a nostalgic bent on the walls. There are framed Rolling Stone covers of R.E.M. and the B-52s and newspaper stories of oft-told major wins for the Bulldogs and the Atlanta Braves, but it’s still a dimly-lit dive with flowing taps and good bar food and live music on the weekends.
I took one of my occasional midweek trips to Athens not sure what I wanted to eat. My schedule’s actually going to be changing next month, and it will be Thursdays that I have off. My buddy David’s also off on Thursdays and he might be able to come to Athens with me once in a while, so that prompted me to consider having a bite to eat at a place that he’s already tried, and save other meals for days down the line that he can come along and get something new. Does anybody else decide where to eat this way? Please say you do; otherwise this really sounds weird.
Anyway, I had a pretty pricy lunch at Allen’s. A burger, homemade chips, cup of chili with peppers and cheese and a Coke came to just under twelve dollars. I really don’t know that the burger is quite worth that price, although it’s certainly tasty. The chips are just wonderful, and I’ve always felt that Allen’s serves just about the best chili in Athens. It’s thick and dark and takes an agreeable forever to cool.
Charging an extra buck for cheese and peppers, on the other hand, is pretty eye-rolling. Pushing a meal past nine dollars with peppers, cheese and a soda, well, that’s the sort of thing that angers my accountant. Every so often, though, it strikes me as okay to splurge, and a lunch experience as nice as this, well, it’s almost reasonable.
Update: Sadly, and without warning, Allen’s abruptly closed on November 29 2011.