Jack in the Box, Nashville TN

I have readers in other states who no doubt are raising an eyebrow to see a junky fast food place like this show up in their RSS reader. Hear me out, though. In the Atlanta area, Jack in the Box is a complete novelty, because this chain has very oddly chosen a curious path in its coast-to-coast expansion. Somehow, and I’m not sure this was an accident, they’ve hopped right over the entire I-75 corridor. Ubiquitous in California and the southwest, they expanded as far east as Murfreesboro, and then there’s not a thing until you get to the Carolinas. Our friend Samantha suggests that the nearest to us is in Anderson. They haven’t touched anyplace in Virginia or points north, nor Florida. It’s very weird. Continue reading “Jack in the Box, Nashville TN”

Cook Out, Asheville NC

We’ve mentioned in the previous chapters that Marie very graciously selected the restaurants that we visited on our most recent trip to Asheville, and, even more graciously, paid for them. However, I wasn’t entirely ready to leave town without one last stop. About two hours after lunch, time spent shopping, letting my daughter have the run of things, and the uncompromisable trip to The Chocolate Fetish on Haywood for Marie to load up on dark chocolate sea salt caramels, we drove to the east side of town to show my daughter Tunnel Road, one of Asheville’s more commercial strips, full of chain restaurants and hotels. Well, there’s more than that. There is a very, very good comic shop out here called Comic Envy, a reasonably good barbecue place called Fiddlin’ Pig that I’m sure we’ll revisit, an independently-owned toy store, and a Mexican restaurant called Papas & Beer that has a heck of a lot of fans, but mostly Tunnel Road is clogged with chains. Continue reading “Cook Out, Asheville NC”

The Varsity Jr., Atlanta GA (CLOSED)

I knew that at some point, Marie and I would have to use the blog to spread the unfortunate word about a much-loved restaurant closing, and write up an obituary tribute. I certainly never expected that I would be doing this about The Varsity Jr. on Lindbergh Drive and I’m still amazed that we’re saying goodbye to it before we had the chance to take the camera down to the main location on North Avenue for a proper entry on this Atlanta landmark.

According to the restaurant, it’s a stupid problem with city politics that have doomed the landmark after forty-five years. In a letter to their customers (available as well on the restaurant’s website), the owners explain that the time was long past for an overhaul of the old building, but their architects could not come to an agreement with the city planners. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that one sticking point was the number of driveways, of all things.

This has almost coincided with the groundbreaking of a new Varsity up north in Dawsonville. Apart from the two inside the perimeter and one in Athens, there have long been suburban Varsities northward up all three arteries out of the city, in Norcross, Alpharetta and within walking distance of us in Kennerietta. There is also, incidentally, a really small mini-Varsity in Waleska on the campus of Reinhardt College. I thought that was top secret city lore, but somebody blabbed it onto Wikipedia. Anyway, so the Varsity Jr. is effectively moving to Dawsonville, leaving behind a lot of history and memories.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, Atlanta was suffering a heat wave that would make the current one seem like an autumn breeze. I was driving around my circuit of record stores that August in my second car, a giant, two-door Oldsmobile Delta 88 without air conditioning. I felt like I was about to pass out from the heat, and I stopped into the Varsity Jr. to cool off.

I haven’t thought about this in years, and my present-day self is a little sheepishly embarrassed by how silly I was acting at age eighteen, but I remember that I ordered two small Varsity Oranges – not the better known “F.O.” Frosted Orange, but their tasty not-very-carbonated drink – and a large cup of ice water. I sat in the dining room and slowly drank one of the orange sodas and then took the other drinks outside into the hundred-and-seven degree heat. I took a deep breath, lifted the water cup above my head and slowly poured that out over me. I’m sure that it felt very good at the time. I was an ostentatious kid.

I have lots of silly memories about the place. Many of them seem to have a little sadness around the edges. When my son was just a few weeks old, he decided to go live at Scottish Rite for a month with supraventricular tachycardia. His mother and I subsided on hospital food for several days before I ventured out to get something tasty. I brought back two boxes from Varsity Jr. and stood in an elevator with about six other sad-eyed parents and visitors and grease running up both my sleeves. “Boy, that smells good,” one of them said. By the time we reached the intensive care floor, I was lucky to escape with all my food.

I also remember something really unhappy. The Varsity Jr.’s location was absolutely perfect for a quick walk before or after a movie at the Tara Theater across the street. About five years ago, I took a young lady to see Howl’s Moving Castle. We were on our way to the restaurant for a late dinner afterwards and she started spinning a yarn about an ex-boyfriend that she claimed was stalking her. The subsequent conversation, after we got our food, about the constant danger she felt turned out to be both a gigantic warning sign and a great big old lie that still actively aggravates me. There’s not been a meal here since that I didn’t feel the desire to stand in front of that booth, reach backwards in time and punch myself in the jaw.

On Saturday, Marie and the kids and I had an early lunch here to say goodbye. Between us, we had three burgers with pimento cheese and four dogs, two with slaw, one with chili and one naked. We had two orders of fries, one order of rings, two FOs and one small Coke. Only a mild case of indigestion and artery-clogging followed.

We’ll have to get to the main location again before too much longer and write that up. Heaven knows I direct enough tourists that direction every week; I’m rather overdue. But Cheshire Bridge and Lindbergh without a Varsity is just crazy talk. Where are we supposed to eat after seeing a movie at the Tara now?

Zesto, Atlanta GA (CLOSED)

I think that one of the most interesting little facets to following the world of restaurants is finding little fast food chains that only exist in a city or two. Last month, I mentioned Milo’s in Birmingham, a chain better known for its amazing sweet tea, and how it co-exists in north Alabama with another chain called Jack’s. Each of them manage to survive on the same interstate exits as the better-known national chains like McDonald’s and Burger King. I’m not saying you’ll get really great hamburgers at places like this, but I firmly believe that they’re important, that they give regions their own, special identity, and that anybody – traveler or resident – who’d stop at a national chain over a small regional one when they just want a quick $3.99 value meal has got a seven-inch screw loose somewhere.

There are probably a lot more of these types of restaurants than anybody really knows about. Locals will often overlook them, mistakenly figuring that national success is a measure of quality, and treat these restaurants as oddball minor league wannabes. On the other hand, because the foodie subculture emphasizes (a) independently-owned single locations and (b) really great meals, regional chains only rarely come up in the conversations. They just don’t fit the topic, you might say. I noticed that in Asheville, there is at least one outlet of the Greensboro-based Cook Out, a chain 75 units strong that has not left the state of North Carolina. I’m very curious to try that one day, but honestly, can anybody count just how many superior meals we’d be skipping if we stopped into Cook Out over all the other really great places in Asheville?

Similarly, Atlanta has at least two chains that nobody ever talks about. Neither will serve up spectacular meals, but they’ll do them quickly and cheaply and, hopefully, with a lot of local character. One of these days, I need to tell you about Martin’s, a chain of fifteen stores that’s only open for breakfast and lunch. Twelve of their stores are all northeast of the metro area and only one is as far south as Clayton County, and it tastes a lot like Hardee’s did before Carl’s Jr. bought them out. Martin’s basically illustrates my definition outside Atlanta’s I-285 perimeter, and Zesto is what I’m talking about inside the perimeter.

To be strictly accurate, while Zesto, today, is a regional chain with six stores, back in the 1940s its ancestor corporation was about as large as a national chain could get in those days. According to the fascinating history on its web site, there were Zestos selling soft-serve ice cream in 46 states. I imagine that it and Tasti-Freez were the two biggest competitors to Dairy Queen.

By 1955, the corporation and its franchises dissolved their agreements, leaving the stores to make it on their own. Almost all of the old Zestos were probably gone within a few years. There are still pockets of otherwise unrelated restaurants here and there throughout the country that use the old name but don’t offer the same menu or ingredients, including three around Columbia, South Carolina that appear to be uniquely owned, but the Zesto restaurants in Atlanta have thrived and grown a little.

There are five Zestos in the city, plus with a more recent arrival in the teeny town of Tyrone, which is somewhere between Atlanta and Peachtree City, and each of them plays up the “1950s diner” experience. In the case of the store on Ponce de Leon, it really basks in the glow of nostalgic chrome and neon. The food is not at all bad, although nobody ever dropped their Chubby Decker back onto the wax paper in impressed shock at how amazing it was. There’s an amusing story about how the better-known Big Boy threatened to sue Zesto in 1961 over their imitation burger, named, then, a Fat Boy. I’ve always found Zesto’s burgers to be a little dry; adding a little slaw to a Chubby Decker really brings a refreshing flavor to it.

Zesto flirted, for a time, with the “fresh-mex” concept when it became popular in the late ’90s. The restaurant did the unthinkable then and converted their location on Piedmont Road into a sister restaurant called Burrito Brothers. In time, this was scaled back, and now three of the six stores are discreetly “co-branded” this way, offering tacos and nachos on the menu along with the burgers and chicken. I have never got around to trying these, actually. I guess Zesto is just first in my mind as a burger place.

In Marie’s mind, however, Zesto is a milkshake place first and foremost, with burgers just an appetizer to the real thing. So a couple of weeks ago, my daughter had complained that we had not enjoyed a Zesto milkshake lately, and I said we’d get around to it. (Children, as ever, think parents are made of money.) On Saturday, Marie was due to return to Atlanta from her family business in the Netherlands around 7. I figured, rightly, that she was due some pampering after all those sky miles and would appreciate a chocolate banana malt, so the kids and I picked her up and stopped at the Zesto on Ponce for supper.

I had a chili burger that dreamed of being a Varsity chili burger when it grew up and split an order of quite good chicken fingers with my daughter, and my son had a Chubby Decker and slaw. We all shared fries and heard about Marie’s trip and then we indulged in some quite good shakes. I usually either get the caramel or butterscotch, have trouble deciding between even these two simple choices, and have already forgotten which it was. My son had the blueberry, which was awesome. And Marie should have had a chocolate banana malt, only I forgot to ask them to add malt powder and I don’t think that she liked it as much, only she was too polite to mention it.

It’s good to have her home. I mean, we have to go back to Asheville in two days for a festival and more eating, and her being in the Netherlands would make that kind of difficult.

Milo’s Hamburgers, Birmingham AL

Well, here’s the situation with our recent road trip to Memphis: we didn’t get to stop in Alabama for some white barbecue sauce. I had a place picked out and we were looking forward to it, but mercifully, I had the sense to double-check on the restaurant, located in the northwestern town of Hamilton, and learned that they’re not actually open for lunch on Saturdays. Insanity. Who ever heard of a barbecue joint that wasn’t open for lunch on a Saturday? Well, I say that, but they’re out there. The wonderful Hot Thomas in Watkinsville, near Athens, started a schedule some years back that’s basically the least convenient set of hours anybody ever tried to open, and never, madly, on Saturday. Continue reading “Milo’s Hamburgers, Birmingham AL”