Serving Up a Slice of History

13 Oct

The line reaches from the front counter to the back of the Varsity as people shuffle in with long faces and low spirits after SU’s recent loss in double overtime to Rutgers. Grey skies and an incessant drizzle outside match the mood inside. Customers hunch over long, cafeteria tables somberly eating pizza and wings. But at least the restaurant’s familiar surroundings, including black-and-white photos of great moments in SU’s sports history, offer some comfort to disheartened fans, just as it has for generations.

The Varsity, an integral part of SU sports culture, has occupied the same location at 802 S. Crouse Ave. since 1926. Its founding family still owns it. People have met, fallen in love, and hosted their wedding receptions there. Students graduate and bring their grandkids back 60 years later. Although the Varsity has evolved over the decades it represents stability on the Hill.

The restaurant began with Greek immigrant Jerry Dellas selling popcorn and peanuts from a cart on Marshall Street. He then bought a house across from his stand and converted it into the Varsity, a full service restaurant and coffee shop.

So how do we get from cart to Syracuse institution? “It’s really the great American dream story,” says John Dellas, co-owner of the Varsity, owner of Faegan’s and grandson of Jerry Dellas.

Jerry Dellas and his four sons worked in the restaurant and lived upstairs, until World War II pulled three of the sons away to serve. After the war, business boomed as the G.I. Bill brought veterans to Syracuse University. The restaurant expanded. Jerry Dellas’s sons took classes at SU and traveled, but eventually returned to the Varsity. “The family needed help,” John says.

In 1952, Jerry Dellas passed away. Influenced by the fast food movement, his sons converted the Varsity into a cafeteria to serve more people more quickly. The second generation of owners also oversaw the Varsity’s rowdiest era, the 1970s and early 1980s. People packed the restaurant after football victories to see the game’s MVP flip over the opposing team’s pennant, a tradition established by owner Speros Dellas and head coach Dick MacPherson. (The pennants still hang on the back wall, but now the marching band flips them.)

During the 1970s and early 1980s, students (including football and basketball players) packed the Varsity late into the night on Fridays and Saturdays. They fearlessly partied in the open due to the lower drinking age. The photo on the left from the 1979 SU yearbook was accompanied by the caption, “The Varsity was a must, at least once a week, for pizza and beer.” The photo on the right is from the 1976 yearbook.

In the mid 1990s, the restaurant began to deteriorate as its owners aged. Students found it dingy and dated. Generation three, John Dellas and his cousin, hesitantly bought it in 2001. John had been devoting his time to Faegan’s, the pub he opened next door in ‘78, and feared the Varsity had run its course. After renovating the space and expanding the menu, business picked up.

Today, the Varsity sells 200 pizzas on typical days, and 350 to 400 on game days. “I was ambivalent in the beginning, but I really like walking in my dad’s shoes,” John Dellas says.

The Varsity today

Will the move to the ACC affect Syracuse sports traditions, like the Varsity?

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