Chip Apperson ate his first Grillswith when he was 17. The high school senior had finagled a visit to UVA in 1973 for that once famous, since-disbanded annual party weekend  known as Easters. He recalls ending a long day of revelry with friends at the University Diner. They ate one-eyed bacon cheeseburgers—a fried egg serving as the eye—before devouring the decadent dessert: two doughnuts, grilled (hence the “Grills”), topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (hence the “-with”).

That night at the U.D.—and that dish—stuck with him. Apperson never finished his studies at UVA, opting instead for the restaurant business, but he’s brought versions of the Grillswith to restaurants across the country—starting at Shelby on the Upper East Side of New York in the 1990s, then at the Grove Grill in Memphis, and since 2011 at the High Hat Cafe in Uptown New Orleans.

Apperson is not the only one to be paying homage to the beloved late-night dish believed to ward off hangovers; for decades of students, from the 1940s to the 1980s, the U.D.’s Grillswith was an integral part of the University experience. Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert—who did not attend UVA—even mentioned it in his 2013 valedictory speech on Grounds.

Through the years, several other versions of the dish have popped up closer to home, notably at The White Spot on the Corner, hooking other generations of students. It’s even been known to be on the menu at ’Hoo weddings. Today, you can find it in several Charlottesville spots and at the 3rd Street Diner in Richmond.

But it all started at that greasy spoon on the Corner.

The Birth of the Grillswith

According to longtime U.D. owner Irvine Lee Shiflett, who died in 2014, the dish was born in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

In his book The Corner: A History of Student Life at the University of Virginia, Coy Barefoot (Grad ’97) quotes Shiflett as saying: “Someone must have ordered a couple of hot, grilled doughnuts one day and asked to have a scoop of ice cream put on top. Grilled doughnuts with ice cream—the Grillswith. It really caught on as a Corner tradition in the 1960s. We used to get 150 dozen doughnuts delivered every weekend, and by Sunday they would all be gone. No trip to the Corner was complete without a Grillswith.”

The U.D. served the dessert all day, but more were served late at night after students were finished carousing, says Lee’s wife, Fay Dixon Shiflett.

“They would come in and order a sandwich and french fries. We sold the heck out of french fries. And then a Grillswith,” she says. “I would get a big chuckle when people were having coffee and want sweetener for their coffee and sit there and eat the doughnuts with ice cream on it.”

 “We used to get 150 dozen doughnuts delivered every weekend, and by Sunday they would all be gone.”
—University Diner owner Lee Shiflett as told to Coy Barefoot (Grad ’97) Photo by Ed Roseberry

Opened in the early 1930s by Ben Anderson, the University Diner was originally a railroad dining car that sat perched at 1331 W. Main St. The short-order spot was an integral place for students to meet up with friends after parties.

“There were absolutely no chain fast-food restaurants at the Corner or anywhere else in Charlottesville,” reminisces legendary UVA photographer Ed Roseberry (Col ’49) of his college years. He distinctly remembers ordering a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, an 18-ounce milkshake and french fries for 45 cents at one of the Corner joints, he says.

In 1945, Lee’s mother, Alma Shiflett, purchased the U.D., where she had been a waitress for a couple of years. She ran it with her husband, William Herbert Shiflett, and son Lee.  

When William and Alma ran the U.D., they were known for their kindness, Fay Shiflett says. If students didn’t have enough money to eat, Alma would feed them and say, “When you get out of school, we will settle up,” she recalls.

William died in 1960, and later that year the U.D. railcar was replaced with a new brick structure, which still exists and houses Fig Bistro. Alma and Lee continued running the business together. Fay worked part time as a waitress, and when her youngest child was old enough, around 1971, she started working full time as a server.

It was no easy feat for the Shifletts to keep the diner running around the clock for four decades. For only a few hours in the early morning, they’d lock the doors to clean up from the night before and prepare for the breakfast crowd, Fay recalls.

One busy weekend, according to family lore, the diner closed for cleanup—and turned away some famous musicians.

“That night some guys were banging on the door, and Mom opened up and said, ‘We are closed,’ and they said they were The Beach Boys. And sure enough it was,” says Lee and Fay’s daughter Pamela Wagner, who started helping out in the diner when she was in junior high, busing tables and working the steam table.

That evening the short-order cook, Vernon Elwood Breeden, who operated the grill during the evening, had just gotten back from being out sick, and Fay wanted to give him a break.

TOP: Ethel Mae Booker carries two Grillswiths;
LEFT: Lee Shiflett (left) behind the counter at the University Diner in 1985. Inset left photo courtesy of Pamela Wagner; inset right photo courtesy of Rose Cocke Dare (Col ’80)

The most memorable employee, by all accounts, was Ethel Mae Booker, a small, mighty waitress who was known for carrying several plates on her arm at one time and kicking drunk frat boys out of the diner.

“They listened to her, let me tell you,” Pamela says. “She would call them out every so often if they were getting too rambunctious. Ethel Mae could handle the whole floor by herself. She was an excellent waitress. And many times, after students acted up, they got pushed out the door by her.”

“And they’d come back the next day and apologize,” adds Fay with a laugh. Booker was close to the Shiflett family and would come over for dinner and babysit the Shiflett kids during college break when the diner would close down.

David Sloan (Educ ’77) remembers Booker vividly. “I personally witnessed at least a handful of times her jerking a smart-aleck inebriated student out of a booth and throwing him out on the sidewalk at the U.D.,” says Sloan, a former Charlottesville restaurateur who from 1983 to 2000 served a version of the Grillswith around town. “If he wasn’t behaving, if he had too much to drink or if he was being rude or not following the rules, it was not beyond her to grab a guy and throw him outside. She did not play around.”

While Booker was working as a night waitress at the U.D., she worked during the day as a school crossing guard and then decided to pursue a new path. She quit her job at the U.D. to become a traffic control officer.

Booker, who has since died, did return five years later to work one more shift—U.D.’s closing night in 1985.

Lee was 55 then and was having health problems. He could no longer work 12-hour days. When university students got wind that the diner was closing, some came into the U.D. crying and wanted to raise money to keep the doors open, Pamela says. “They were really heartbroken.”

On closing day, students and alumni came out to say their goodbyes, taking home menus, meal cards and photographs off the wall as keepsakes from their favorite college haunt.

Grandma Jean’s Ice Cream parlor opened in the U.D.’s place, and the building went on to house Big Jim’s Diner, Cavalier Diner and Cafe Europa, all now closed.

The Grillswith Today

While the one true U.D. Grillswith no longer exists, there are plenty of places throughout Charlottesville and beyond that keep the U.D. tradition alive.

At Fig Bistro, a Cajun eatery located on the old U.D. site, the Grillswith is made with two glazed doughnuts that are simmered in butter and brown sugar bourbon sauce, and then the warmed doughnuts are topped with organic vanilla ice cream, four different melted chocolates, and a hint of cinnamon and powdered sugar.

“Once we opened and learned that this is the original home of the Grillswith, we wanted to continue the tradition in our own way,” says co-owner Anja Andelic. “Alumni told us about it and how they used to eat them, and then the chef decided on his own twist.”

“I think people are surprised when they read the description, but if they see one go out to a table, that quickly changes to ‘Can I have one of those?’”
—Blue Moon owner Laura Galgano (Col ’98)

Andelic says the price is whatever the customer is comfortable with paying—although as a joke, the price of the Grillswith on the menu is listed as “1K.” “You cannot price something that is priceless,” she says. “When you are done, based on your taste buds and your experience, you get to pick a price, and there is not a wrong or right price.”

Around the corner at The White Spot, the dish is listed as “Grills with ice cream” and is made with two Krispy Kreme doughnuts and topped with vanilla ice cream, just like the original dish from the U.D.

A few blocks down West Main Street, Blue Moon Diner serves up two versions. The classic is made with grilled Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s chocolate sauce; the “local” version uses Carpe Donut cider doughnuts and homemade ice cream. The Grillswith is served for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as a late-night treat.

“I think people are surprised when they read the description, but if they see one go out to a table, that quickly changes to ‘Can I have one of those?’” says Blue Moon owner Laura Galgano (Col ’98).

At the High Hat Cafe in New Orleans, co-owner Apperson says he gets a dozen doughnuts a day from the Freret Street Po’Boy and Donut Shop down the street, which he tops with Quintin’s Natural vanilla ice cream, also made locally. For him, the Grillswith is more than a dish; it’s an identifier. Other alumni have yelled out, “Hey, who here went to Virginia?!” upon seeing it on the menu, he says. “It’s always great to catch up with Virginia folks. People always have the greatest memories of their time in Charlottesville, me included.”

At a whopping 756 calories,

46 grams of fat and 36 grams of sugar, the Grillswith is full of unwholesome, fattening ingredients. “From a nutritional standpoint, there is nothing good for you here; it’s just pure indulgence, which is necessary every once in a while,” says Katherine Basbaum, clinical dietitian for University of Virginia Health System’s Heart and Vascular Center.

Katherine Basbaum

Basbaum has a couple of theories about why the dish has the reputation for soaking up booze and being a hangover cure. “When you wake up in the morning hungover after a night of drinking, your body is tired and lazy and looking to re-energize in the quickest and easiest way,” she says. “Because of this, the body is naturally going to crave the most energy-dense foods, namely fats. And the Grillswith is the epitome of fast and easy fats.”

Basbaum’s other theory relates to brain chemistry and a neuropeptide called galanin. (Neuropeptides are messenger molecules that carry information to neurons in the brain.) “Alcohol intake results in increased galanin production, and galanin increases appetite for fats,” she says.

NUTRITION FACTS

Calories 756
Total Fat 46 g
Saturated Fat 26 g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1.2 g
Monounsaturated Fat 8.5 g
Cholesterol 91 mg
Sodium 436 mg
Total Carbohydrate 81 g
Dietary Fiber 2.5 g
Sugars 36 g

Provided by Katherine Basbaum, clinical dietitian for University of Virginia Health System’s Heart and Vascular Center

Marissa Hermanson is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia.