Names don’t come much bigger than Herschel Walker’s in college football. And nowhere does the legend of No. 34 loom larger than in Athens, where he won that Heisman Trophy and led the Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship.
For years, there’s been a sure way to guarantee a crowd in the Classic City: Announce an appearance by Herschel.
Now, Walker is going to see if he can use that popularity to launch a successful restaurant that bears his name and likeness and is, in fact, built around him.
Herschel’s Famous 34 Pub & Grill opens this weekend in the historic Michael Brothers Building (where Davison’s used to be) at 320 E. Clayton St. in downtown Athens.
While the official opening to the public won’t be until 1 p.m. Sunday, the place had a “soft” opening Thursday night and marketing chief Mark Kooyman said Walker will be at the restaurant around 5:30 p.m. Friday for the ribbon-cutting and then will be holding a special get-together for UGA coaches and friends. He’ll also be there Saturday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. for another private event. “The events on both days are not really open to the public,” Kooyman told me, “but folks can be there for the ribbon cutting and then the restaurant will be open after the host event is over around 7:30 p.m. on Friday.” The public also will be let in after 7 p.m. Saturday. Sunday will see some Super Bowl specials, Kooyman said.
Herschel’s essentially is a sports bar themed around Walker’s football career, with, for instance, 34 varieties of wings, 34 craft brews, and menu items like the “Oh You Herschel Walker” grilled cheese, the Bobsled tuna (a reference to Walker’s career as an Olympian) and Herschel’s Mama’s Chicken. There are six 60-inch TVs and tabletop iPads that will feature highlights from No. 34’s playing career. And Walker’s career is celebrated in the wall artwork behind the bar.
Of course, celebrated athletes having their name slapped on a restaurant is a time-honored tradition, but as is usually the case with Walker, Herschel’s is a bit different. While the restaurant is owned by DD Leisure Management Corp. out of Dover, Del., Walker isn’t just a figurehead because the food is being supplied by his Renaissance Man Food Services, the Savannah-based restaurant food supply business that Walker quietly has built over the years when he wasn’t appearing on TV with Donald Trump or dabbling in mixed martial arts.
This isn’t Walker’s first foray into the restaurant business in Athens, though it’s the first one to carry his name. He was the owner of a location of D’Lites of America at the Beechwood shopping center back in the mid-1980s. Everyone in town knew he owned it, and it even had a No. 34 burger on the menu, but Walker’s name wasn’t officially in play.
This time it is, as the Athens location of Herschel’s Famous 34 Pub & Grill is envisioned as the flagship of a chain of restaurants.
While the menu at Herschel’s falls squarely in sports bar/pub grub territory, it’s pretty extensive. Besides the wings and craft beers (which include Athens-based Terrapin), there are grilled steaks and burgers, sandwiches, seafood, soups and salads (like the Hail Mary Wedge salad) prepared fresh by hand using local produce, omelets and desserts that range from cheesecake to the Jack Daniels Honey Cake.
Specialties offered include Angus beef burgers like The Dawg, topped with lump crabmeat, and the Pit Burger, topped with smoky pulled pork.
Sides include various types of fries and tots as well as grilled seasonal vegetables and slaw. Appetizers include fried shrimp rubbed with chili-lime seasoning and lightly-battered oysters prepared with mango habanera jam, along with such items as pork nachos, crab cakes, loaded steak fries, sliders and chicken tenders.
It’s not exactly light fare, as you can tell from Herschel’s Mama’s Chicken, which comes with banana-cream dipped french toast topped with chicken tenders and maple syrup! And that grilled cheese sandwich comes with bacon, peppers, mushrooms, onion straws and barbecue sauce.
But the Bulldog Burger makes a nod to eating healthy: It’s ground turkey served on a wheat kaiser roll — topped, of course, with caramelized onions, mozzarella cheese and red pepper tomato sauce. There are beef, turkey and sausage burgers, and other entrees include turkey meatloaf, steaks and ribs, several pasta dishes crab, salmon and tuna. And, yes, there’s a Little Bulldogs menu for the kids that includes mac and cheese, tenders, a mini burger or mini meatloaf.
The restaurant’s regular hours will be 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and it will offer patrons the opportunity to have a VIP card and check on Facebook for special samplings, sporting event specials and notification of periodic visits by Herschel.
There are, of course, no sure things in the restaurant business, which has an extremely high casualty rate, but Herschel Walker, pub grub and a convenient location near the UGA campus seem like a good combination. Plus, Walker has shown over the years that he has a head for business.
And, as the Bulldog Nation is well aware, No. 34 knows how to score.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
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