“I love Waffle House, and not just because watching someone fry an egg while they’re smoking reminds me of my dad”
I travel by car quite a bit. Some of it is for work and some for my son’s baseball teams. I’m not a big fan of hotels, but I enjoy seeking out places to eat. I’m not picky, either. Sometimes, I’ll just see some place on the side of the road and think: I wonder if that place makes decent food? In the past year alone, I’ve eaten at The White Flash (Jackson, KY), Dave’s BBQ (Guthrie, KY), Beaver Creek Restaurant (Topmost, KY), Big Shanty Smokehouse (Kennesaw, GA), Bridge Street Cafe (Fort Walton Beach, FL), One Place–Two Tastes (Somewhere in TN) and other off-the-radar spots. Some are better than others, but they’re all good. When I travel, I try to avoid fast food (expect Dairy Queen Blizzards) or chain restaurants. The one big exception is Waffle House.
If you live in the South, you know Waffle House. They’re everywhere, and they’re all the same. They have a big yellow and black sign that simply says “WAFFLE HOUSE” in block letters. They’re small restaurants with a few booths and a counter where those of us dining solo are seated. They all have jukeboxes. According the Waffle House website, they’ve been around since 1955. I’m guessing that they looked the same in 1955 as they do now. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I know what you’re thinking: “Why Waffle House? It’s the poor man’s Cracker Barrel!” Here’s why: I love it. It’s never crowded (except after the bars close). The people are nice. The food is good and reasonably priced. More than all that is the Waffle House Experience. It is it’s own world.
If you sit at the counter (on a stool, no less) you will be within feet of the griddle and, of course, the waffle makers. You’ll see the cook sweating over your meal, hear the stories from the regulars and learn a lot about the folks working there.
The waitresses all call me “honey” or “sweetie.” They refill my coffee constantly. They can be a rough-looking bunch, but they’re all out of Central Casting when it comes to diner waitresses. I love it. Just this week I was at a Waffle House in Northern Kentucky and heard this exchange:
Customer: “Where’s Mary?”
Waitress: “Oh, honey, she don’t work here no more. She got accepted to this big tattoo institute.”
Customer: “Oh, hell, she’ll be back.”
Waitress: “I don’t think so. This is one of the biggest tattoo institutes in the country. It’s hard to get accepted.”
Customer: “She’ll be back.”
Waitress: “We’ll see, honey. She’s good. She’s done a bunch of tattooing for people.”
Where else can I hear that? Do you think they carry on like that at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse? Hell, no! I didn’t even know there WERE tattoo institutes, much less that they have high admissions standards. I hope Mary has great success and why wouldn’t she if she graduates from one of the biggest tattoo institutes?
You know something that you’ll never hear at a Waffle House? Nice job cleaning up!
I’ll admit that most Waffle Houses have a certain look to them. They might need a thorough scrub down. The tables might be a little greasy. Don’t look at the waffle irons. They need cleaning.
A couple of years ago, I was driving back to Lexington from Western Kentucky. It was getting late, and I was pretty hungry. I passed several exits along the way until I saw the familiar yellow sign of the Waffle House beckoning. Imagine my disappointment when I approached the door and saw this notice:
“DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH. THIS ESTABLISHMENT WAS RATED “C” ON ITS MOST RECENT INSPECTION. IT WILL BE REINSPECTED WITHIN THE NEXT SEVEN DAYS. IF ALL VIOLATIONS HAVE NOT BEEN CORRECTED, IT SHALL BE CLOSED.”
You see, I’m a bit of a germaphobe. I know that to get a C on a restaurant inspection, you’ve got some bad business going on. Maybe you’re storing kitchen utensils in the toilet or your cook has TB. I wasn’t sure what to do. The lure was strong as was my reticence. I went in anyway.
As you might expect, there were no customers in sight, just the usual hard-living waitress and the sinewy cook. I was greeted with the familiar “Hello, honey, what can I get you to drink?” I ordered my standard black coffee and water and then ventured “Looks like y’all had some problems with the Health Department.” The following ensued:
Waitress: “Oh, lord, I wish we could take down that sign. People just look at it, get back in their cars and take off. I seen you lookin’ at it, too.”
ME [exaggerating]: “Well, yeah, I mean, it covers about half the door.”
Waitress: “Well, don’t you worry about it, honey.”
ME [lying through my teeth]: I’m not worried about it. What happened? [an astute observer would realize that I was, in fact, worried about it]
Waitress: We had a problem with the refrigerators and some cleaning supplies, but it’s took care of now.
Refrigerator? I had some experience with this issue. I was at a bowling alley late one night and decided that a cheeseburger would hit the spot. When I ordered the burger, I was told “We don’t have no cheese. Our refrigerator busted yesterday.” At this point, you should be aware that I was once fond of strong drink which clouded my judgment. “Well, I’ll just have a burger, no cheese.” And so I did. Had I not been in my cups, I would have realized that the proper refrigeration of ground beef is no less critical than that of cheese, perhaps even more so. 24 hours of food borne illness taught me this lesson.
The Waffle House cook sensed my unease and said: “We’ve had everybody in the world up our ass. Health Department, the owner, my boss, Waffle House. This place is so clean now, you could eat off the floor.” I looked around and realized that the unfortunate dust-up with the authorities had, in fact, resulted in the cleanest Waffle House I’ve ever seen–before or since. My fears assuaged, I ordered a ham, egg and cheese wrap and side of grits. Excellent as always. Even better, no ill after effects.
Now, I don’t really think Waffle House is dirty. That’s just part of its ambiance. It’s made to look filthy. Really, if you knock an ash tray over in your plate, whose fault is that? Okay, maybe there are some food scraps lying around. Take a look at your own house. Better hope the Health Department doesn’t show up. It’s possible that they wipe down every table all day long with that same rag, but how do you really know? It’s Greasy Spoon Chic. Enjoy.
“Imagine a gas station bathroom that sells waffles.”
What about the food? It’s good! Some of it is great. My personal favorite is the egg and cheese wrap, whether with ham, bacon or sausage. Side of grits, too. Good stuff.
The hash browns are as good as they get. They’re fried up right there on the griddle. You can have them diced (ham), capped (mushrooms), smothered (cheese) and various other ways. I had some just last week from a cook preparing his very first meal. I had ordered grits, but he seemed proud of the hash browns:
COOK/WAITER: Here are your grits, sir.
ME [staring at the hash browns]: Excuse me?
COOK/WAITER: Your grits. I’ve never made them before. Do they look alright?
ME: Uh, these are hash browns.
COOK/WAITER [after a long pause]: Oh, man! I’m sorry! Man!
ME: Don’t worry about it. I love hash browns. Plus, you can find out if you did them right for the next customer.
I was pleased to tell him that they were excellent. He was quite proud of himself. He told me that he was planning to go to college. I hope he does.
Did you know that Waffle House is the world’s leading server of T-Bone steaks? I don’t know if that’s true, but they have a sign that says so. Think about that. More T-bones than Ponderosa, Longhorn Steakhouse, Texas Roadhouse–you name it. Say what you will, but that’s impressive, assuming it’s true. Even if it’s not true, the hubris required to make such an outrageous claim is impressive in its own right. World’s leading server of waffles? You wouldn’t even question that. T-bones? Wow.
What of the waffles? I’m sorry to report that they’re just waffles. Nothing special, really. Oh, you can get chocolate chips or peanut butter which are both good. Honestly, if you have a waffle iron, you can do just as well. Then again, the waffle itself is a pretty lousy main course. Pancakes are far superior, but I assume that IHOP would battle over the name Pancake House. I don’t even understand why there are waffles. It’s lot easier to make pancakes. Are pancakes just too boring looking? I don’t get it.
“How Can You Freak Out on a Frog?”
Waiter, Waffle House
The people who work at Waffle House are a different breed. I like them. They have good stories. I stopped at Waffle House on a particularly desolate stretch of Interstate. There’s just me, a guy taking orders and the cook. They’re both smoking, which I assume is a health code violation or damn sure should be.
WAITER: “Hey, have you heard about them hallucinogenic frogs?
ME: “What’s that?”
Waiter: “Frogs, man. They’re hallucinogenic. You lick ’em and freak out.”
Me: “Oh, that. I’ve been hearing that story since I was a kid.”
Waiter: “No, man. It’s true. They’re in California. It’s all over the Internet.”
Me: “Okay. How does it work?”
Waiter: “You just grab ’em and lick ’em. Then, you freak out.”
Waiter: “They’re supposed to be some around here. I know a guy lookin’ for ’em. I reckon he’s just grabbin’ frogs and lickin’ ’em until he finds the right one.”
Me [laughing now]: “I guess there’s no other way to do it, is there?”
Waiter: “How can you freak out on a frog? Who the hell figured that out anyway? Did he just start lickin’ frogs for some reason? Of course, somebody had to start snorting bath salts, too. My mommy makes homemade bath salts, and nobody will buy them now, because they think it’s dope. Wild.”
I have nothing to add to that story.
“There’s a subculture out there that’s off the grid, buddy.”
Dad may have been talking about Waffle House. I’m not talking about those who show up drunk at 2:00 AM for a T-bone dinner. I mean folks like me, who show up at 2:00 PM to eat breakfast. I’m talking about the regular crowd with their homemade tattoos and dental hygiene issues. We are the Waffle House subculture. We order our food off menus that double as place mats. The menus have pictures of the food in case we don’t what the food looks like (or can’t read). We know what we want and where to get it. We just look for the yellow sign just off any Interstate exit in the South.
I’ll continue to eat at Waffle House. I will have plenty of opportunities, too. I once read (at a Waffle House, no less) that there are over 1500 Waffle Houses. 1500. I have one within walking distance of my office, in fact.
I don’t ever take my family to Waffle House. I go there alone. To be among my people. Besides, the tables are too small for five people.