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Drive-in extraordinaire

It is noontide. The hungry lunch-hour crowd, some in blue jeans, some in coats and ties, is at the high-tide mark, surging against the counters of the Varsity, as crowds have since 1928.

TVs are blaring soap operas and news in the eating rooms. Children are laughing. The regulars are calling out their orders in lingua Varsity (e.g., ''MK dog,'' ''steak allaway,'' ''PC'').

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Outside, John Wesley Raiford, wearing one of his crazy hats, is serving drive-in customers, as he has since 1938. He was there in the '40s and '50s when many women considered it unladylike to go inside, and when, until the mid-'60s, blacks had to eat on a curb in back.

Welcome to the Varsity - one of the nation's busiest restaurants, an institution in Atlanta, an event, not just a place to eat. Chili dogs, hamburgers, French-fried onion rings - and a slice of Southern life and history, all at reasonable rates.

Owner Frank Gordy, who patrols his turf like a marine sergeant on inspection, advertises the Varsity as the ''World's largest drive-in.'' It may be. (National Restaurant Association spokesman Art Miller says he lacks data to confirm or deny the claim, but adds that the Varsity is ''certainly one of the biggest drive-ins.'')

In any case, the average daily sale of 9,000 to 12,000 hot dogs and 5,000 to 9,000 hamburgers, and a ton of fries, as operations manager Joe Shalabi counts it, is no small operation. Neither is the daily average of 12,000 to 16,000 customers he says flow in - up to 30,000 on football weekends.

But it is not just the food that draws the regulars back over the years or pulls in out-of-town visitors by the busload. (''I've had 18 greyhounds out here at night at one time,'' says Wallace Fuller, parking lot supervisor for the past 34 years.)

Elaine Armour, an Atlanta clerk, comes because ''the atmosphere is exciting.'' She says she likes the ''hustle and bustle'' of the crowds.

Bus driver Harrison Gaines, leaving with a carry-out order, says he likes the fast service. Telephone company official Bill Maner comes to the Varsity a couple of times a week - he says he likes the hot dogs. ''As far as I'm concerned, they're the best in Atlanta,'' he says, wearing dress slacks, a shirt and tie, and eating a Varsity ice cream cone.

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At various times the Varsity has been a part of many Atlantans' lives. Joe T. Holleman used to watch bowl games at the Varsity, free from distractions such as telephones. ''There are a lot of people I used to see there all the time who used to consider it their clubhouse,'' he says.

For owner Gordy and some of his longtime employees, the Varsity has been much of their life. Gordy says he dropped out of nearby Georgia Institute of Technology. Since he opened the Varsity in 1928, he has shepherded its growth with an uncompromising insistence on quality and quick service. A former meat supplier to the Varsity says Gordy demanded the best - and got it. A longtime friend of Gordy's (and Varsity customer since the late '20s), Olney Rankin, calls him ''a real fair, Christian man.''

Veteran carhop Raiford recalls the late '30s when he began waiting on cars. ''You could make a good living,'' despite hard economic times, because people just kept coming in, he says. To attract and keep customers, some carhops sang to their clients. Raiford just recited the menu - fast, and nonstop - something he still does occasionally.

But behind the smile, with eyes that look deep inside you, he explains how until the mid-1960s blacks could only go in a back door. Then they had to carry their food out. They often ate it sitting on a curb in back, he recalled.

''If a colored maid came in a car, you could serve her, but you set the tray on the white person's side,'' he says.

Raiford's hat of the day was adorned with a pink feather, a white cloth streamer, and a brightly colored handkerchief worn like an Arab turban.

As he left work that afternoon, the lunch crowd tide had swept out, but the evening tide would soon be in.

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