Owners of The Varsity in Rock Hill sell iconic restaurant
Time, and age, could not wait any more. Not the speckled butterbeans and the stewed taters and the creamed taters. Even the pan fried pork chops are gone. Not even the country fried steak could beat time.
Rock Hill’s Varsity Restaurant is closed.
To be replaced by a booming and soon to be expanding brew pub business across the street.
Owner Roy Russell, the great Roy Russell, with no fanfare and trying to keep a secret in a place where talk was on the menu for 36 years and giving away some secrets might include loss of a limb, sold the building and the property this week to Chad McGowan, owner of Legal Remedy. Legal Remedy is a brew pub and restaurant across the street from the Varsity – but the types of businesses are a million miles apart.
“It’s over,” said owner Russell, 36 years in the same building and many more before that in another building in the parking lot that literally had a tree growing inside. “It wasn’t easy to do. It was hard and I hemmed and I hawed. We cussed and we fussed and we cried. But I’m tired.”
Legal Remedy has taken off like a rocket – in less than a year capturing the local craft beer and craft food craze. The Varsity’s craft was meatloaf and fried okra and biscuits and grits and red eye gravy and fresh plain hot coffee and tea sweet enough to cause a diabetic coma.
No place was better than the Varsity in what it did. Simple, home-cooked food served fast and hot and good and now it ain’t no more.
Russell is 65 in July and his wife and co-owner – and backbone of the business for all of the 36 years – is named Darlene. She is even more of a legend than Roy as her face was the face of the business. She worked so long and so hard with a smile every day that people would fight for her tables and counter stools. But the Russells, they decided to take up McGowan on the offer and sell. The deal was formalized this past week when Russell closed, saying he and his staff were on vacation. That was true.
They put up hand-written signs that said “On vacation.”
The Varsity just won’t open again after this vacation.
“The customers here are like our family, and we love them all, but it is our time together now,” Darlene Russell said.
She put it this way: “We always went home tired but we went home happy.,”
Yet her face showed the emotion, the work and the joy and the hugs and the toil, of 36 years on her feet and a living made by loyalty that works both ways – for and to The Varsity.
But a Rock Hill without a Varsity Restaurant is unthinkable. It is impossible.
Yet it is.
The Russells told the waitresses and cooks and dishwashers who have been there so long and so loyal with plenty of notice, and word leaked to a couple others, but this past week Russell spent the days cleaning the building out so the new owners to take over. McGowan bought much of the food preparation equipment.
Like the Ebenezer Grill, Red’s Grill, White Horse, Kinch’s and other independent restaurants still breathing fire after decades, The Varsity fought on as an independent with a loyal and trusted client base. Roy Russell, the character, the man, is a legendary firebrand who fought smoking bans and hospitality taxes and needless red tape like an English knight. His tongue is sharper than any sword.
But his heart is bigger than any king.
Yet all the work finally caught up to the Russells. And so many regulars aged out, and plainly, many of them got old and died.
Restaurant brokers and land dealers and more had bugged Roy for years. McGowan with the business almost directly across the street made the offer and Russell made the deal.
Roy and Darlene decided not to hold a last day event because they would have had a line down the street, and so many tears.
“We didn’t want to leave anybody out, not being able to thank everybody,” Roy Russell said. “But we thank everyone who ever came here. We appreciate every one of them so much. We tried to give them value, good food, good service. We gave them our best.”
Russell had a sign made that he will put out today that says simply: “Closed. Property has been sold. Thanks for the memories.”
The memories are the memories of the city and its people. The Varsity has long been the social crossroads for so many people, opening early and staying open through lunch. Its counters and tables were often filled to capacity with generations of people who ate there once, twice, five times a week.
All gossip, true and not, made its way there.
Russell keeps the Varsity name and the Watkins hot dog brand name, and would never rule out another foray into the restaurant business. But that’s the future. Right now his work for 36 years is over.
Legal Remedy opened in September 2015 and the response has been “phenomenal” said McGowan, a trial lawyer by trade whose passion for good beer and good food has turned into a second full-time job and a business that is booming. Legal Remedy brews it own beer and makes much of its food by hand, and handles thousands of customers every month, McGowan said.
The Varsity building will be a prep kitchen and allow Legal remedy to move toward making food products under the Legal Remedy brand, McGowan said.
“It will allow us to expand and be even more creative,” McGowan said.
McGowan praised the Russells for their work over the decades and The Varsity’s legacy. His business’s commitment to service, quality, and loyalty is no different.s
Legal Remedy is a place that makes its own bacon.
Darlene and Roy Russell and their workers at The Varsity served a million pounds of bacon – they didn’t make it, though.
They served tens of thousands of textile workers and cops and firemen and secretaries and lawyers and telephone lineman and everybody in between. The Varsity was for 36 years the classic meat and three vegetables lunch spot after a brisk breakfast trade that was eggs and biscuits and ham and grits – the staples. The food was homemade and the menu designed every day by Darlene Russell.
A Rock Hill Watkins hot dog has been available since 1936 under that name in different spots. In serving Watkins dogs since 1973 first downtown and then at the Oakland Avenue spot after taking over the name, Roy Russell has sold at least a million hot dogs and probably five times that many.
The number of meals given away to the poor, the broke, the broken, the homeless, the train bums, the waiting for Friday paycheck people, is uncountable. Roy and Darlene Russell fed all people anyway even when they had nothing to pay for the food but hunger.
Yet the food was what brought people. The Varsity desserts with so much butter in them you could feel an artery clog as it went down the pipe. Food like an aunt made, or your granny or your momma. Not fancy.
Russell turned down the TV show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” – twice.
“I was too busy working,” Russell said.
Legal Remedy grabbing the microbrew craft food and craft beer that McGowan calls a “movement” is without question the future of many places, and appeals to young people, and without question Rock Hill has to grab onto that train.
The Varsity was Rock Hill history, though, and the present until last week.
The Varsity was Rock Hill family. And it is no more.
Roy Russell wanted no fanfare in selling and closing The Varsity and he got none.
But when people read this, there will be tears.
Because when family dies, people cry.