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Georgia's best burger is Collegiates, newspaper says
Former owners of The Collegiate, Margene and George Brown.

Best hamburger in Georgia, right here in Gainesville?

That's what USA Today says. None other than the venerable Collegiate Grill gets the honors, the national newspaper says. USA Today, in its "Great American Bites" feature earlier this month, chose 51 best hamburgers from among the states and the District of Columbia.

"It was a pleasant surprise," said Jeff Worley, who owns the Collegiate with his wife Donna. But nobody contacted him officially about the honor; he just read it in the paper.

"Customers enjoy freshly prepared burgers, dogs and shakes in a 1940s setting," the paragraph about Georgia's best hamburger read. "The black-and-white checkered floors, red vinyl booths and counter seating make the experience even more memorable."

The Collegiate's burgers were recommended to USA Today by Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner of Georgia's tourism office. Langston said he'd never eaten a Collegiate hamburger, but American travel writers who visited there back in May and some of his staff had and nominated it for the honor.

Worley remembers accommodating the writers during their tour of the state, but didn't expect his grill to be so honored.

What makes the best hamburger in Georgia? It's just a simple burger, Worley says, but it starts with fresh ground beef from Green's Grocery, the same place the Collegiate got its hamburger meat down through the decades.

Some secrets he doesn't share. Customers rave about the slaw that many want on their burgers or hot dogs. To make it, Jeff and Donna use the same cabbage grinder the late George Brown and his wife, Margene, used when they ran the Collegiate for almost 40 years starting when it opened April 3, 1947.

The Worleys also follow the Browns' tradition of fresh french fries, which customers say probably would win an award if there were one.

The USA Today recognition boosted business for the Collegiate. When the Petit Le Mans was run at Road Atlanta recently, the Worleys had customers from several states. More local customers are coming, too, Jeff Worley said.

Worley, 38, knows how to run the Collegiate because he worked there as a 12-year-old under the Browns. The USA Today article incorrectly reported the Browns as founders of the grill, but it was Curtis Sewell, an Atlanta restaurateur, who started it and hired the Browns, who had met at a hamburger place in Atlanta.

The Browns had a huge following because of their unique style of customer service. They knew the majority of their customers; many were regulars from local high schools.

Mrs. Brown was famous for taking orders with no notes and hollering them out to husband George at the grill. George, amid all the chaos behind the counter, somehow would keep track of them and set them on the counter for his wife to pick up and deliver them to customers waiting in the booths. If orders were mixed up, that was just part of the Collegiate experience. Nobody got a check; customers just told the cash register operator what they'd had as they were leaving.

The Worleys don't attempt that kind of magic, but they have tried to return the Collegiate to its roots. The grill had a few turnovers of owners/managers and stood empty for a while. The Worleys bought it in November 2008.

The menu has been simplified to near its original lineup of hamburgers, hot dogs, chopped steaks, toasted cheese, french fries, milkshakes, etc. They can't match those 1947 prices of 10-cent hamburgers and hot dogs or milkshakes for a quarter. But they have the place looking and running pretty much like it did back then.

Last year was tough for the Collegiate because of the economy and Georgia Mountains Center construction across the street. But business is brisk today. High school reunions, especially for classes in the 1960s, continue to be popular, and grandparents and parents who hung out there back in the day return with their grandchildren or children.

The Collegiate even was host to a wedding rehearsal dinner for 100 people recently.

Does Worley believe the Collegiate hamburger is the best in the state?

"There are a lot of good hamburgers out there," he said, "but, yes. You didn't expect me to say ‘no,' did you?"

 Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on