The sign out front is simple: black letters against a plain, yellow background. At night, the eleven letters that make up its name glow in the darkness, and sometimes, only a handful of them do, the life drained out of them from years of signaling wayward, hungry souls towards a warm meal. It’s as southern as sweet tea and kudzu, and like a southern grandma, it will take you as you are. Sober. Drunk. In pajamas. Doesn’t matter – all are welcome here. If you know about this place, you and I are kindred spirits. If not, take a seat. Relax.
I’d like to share with you the gospel of Waffle House.
I can’t remember the first time I ever ate there. It’s not that I have a terrible memory, mind you – although I’ve been told precisely that on more than one occasion. It’s that trying to recall something like that would be like trying to remember the first time I took a breath in this world; I couldn’t tell you when it happened, it’s been there since the very beginning.
I have been alive for 31 years, and I have, unironically so, chosen Waffle House as my birthday supper of choice on at least three occasions, much to the chagrin of my wife. Now don’t get me wrong, she enjoys Waffle House – she’s not one to practice culinary snobbery. But birthday suppers are supposed to be a sophisticated affair. You only get one of them a year, and if you’re lucky, maybe 70 a lifetime.
So to ask a woman who’s gone through all the trouble of doing her hair and fixing her makeup and putting on a nice dress only to then turn around and sit in a cramped booth that’s eternally sticky, surrounded by a decor of subway tile and a chorus of clanking plates from the kitchen that’s just three feet away, to ask her to sit there and not complain as she attempts to enjoy a meal of sausage and bacon and eggs and, yes, waffles at 7 o’clock at night when she could’ve – and probably should’ve – been enjoying a high-dollar steak and an overpriced colorful cocktail is a tough sell, sure. But that’s the part of love no one ever wants to sing about because it isn’t sexy or romantic and looks a hell of a lot like work: doing something your loved one wants to do with a smile on your face despite the fact, if you had it your way, you would rather be anywhere else in the world, but regardless, you wind up enjoying your time together because you’re together, and those moments when the troubles of the world melt away and it’s just the two of you come few and far between (it must be said my lovely wife has never once complained about any of my Waffle House birthday suppers, although I know they aren’t her favorite).
That being said, I don’t know if I can tell you that Waffle House is…good. At least not in good conscience. However, I can say with absolute certainty that the All-Star Special, complete with a pecan waffle, city ham, scrambled eggs, plain hashbrowns, toast, and several cups of black coffee, is just about the most delicious meal I’ve ever eaten. And it’s by far the best meal you can get for under fifteen bucks (should you happen to know of a better, cheaper meal, do share).
As for the rest of the menu’s quality, I couldn’t tell you one way or the other because to do so would require me to deviate from my Waffle House order. And once a man or woman has found his or her Waffle House order, that bond is sacred and must never be broken for fear that the very fabric that holds our universe together might be severed, thus plunging us into everlasting darkness.
I’m not saying that it will happen, but I ain’t saying that it won’t.
The fate of the universe potentially rests on our shoulders and in our stomachs, and we are strong. So should you ever stumble into a Waffle House that is out of a specific item in your order, your only course of action is to lay a five on the table, thank the waitress for the coffee, tell her to keep the change, and march yourself right back out into the parking lot to either find another Waffle House or a different place to eat altogether. You do not change your order.
I understand some experimentation is necessary in the beginning to find the exact order that leaves you feeling satisfied. (Although satisfied probably isn’t the right word here, what you’re looking for is a feeling of utter shame and guilt for consuming so many calories, coupled with a physical need to get yourself horizontal as quickly as possible to alleviate the pain in your stomach.) So during this time, feel free to mix and match; you do not have to worry about the universe’s fate just yet. But once you’ve found that specific combination of breakfast items to achieve a sufficient level of satisfaction – along with the guilt and shame and pain – that is your order till you part from this Earth.
And, yes, it’s always only breakfast items. Waffle House is a place untethered from time, permanently stuck at 7:30 am, and therefore breakfast is the only thing one should ever get.
“But one whole side of the menu is lunch and dinner. Why would they put it on there if you ain’t supposed to order from it?”
Good question. It’s simply there for looks, to balance out the menu from a graphic design standpoint. It’s kind of like fake fruit in a kitchen – it’s there to look pretty, and you ain’t supposed to eat it. Granted, the fine folks at Waffle House will cook up your burger or patty melt should you order it because they are good people. But if you, dear reader, ever find yourself in the company of someone who does that, my advice is to no longer associate with said person because they ain’t been raised right. And you can’t trust someone who didn’t have a good raising.
It isn’t just the food that draws you in, though – it’s the people.
The cast of characters that pass through any Waffle House on any given day is far more interesting than anything some Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with.
No matter which Waffle House it is, there’s always the waitress that calls you some combination of “hun” or “baby” or “sugar.”
Or there’s the truck driver at the bar doing nothing but killing time, sipping away on his third cup of coffee as he flirts with the waitress, not because he’s looking for romance, but because burning down the interstate five days a week makes a man lonely, and men hate being alone.
Or there’s the family of four that come in every Saturday, the kids scarfing down a waffle bigger than their heads as the parents watch and laugh, no one realizing that years later, it’s the simple mornings like this they’ll end up missing.
Or there’s the elderly couple who come in on Tuesdays and eat together in silence because there’s nothing left to talk about after decades of marriage. So they just sit and eat and smile at each other in between bites till one Tuesday, the couple doesn’t show, that one Tuesday turning into two, then three, then four, till pretty soon, the workers stop keeping count. Then, after several Tuesdays have come and gone, the old man shows up alone, the workers not asking where he’s been because they see it on his face. And the old man eats in the silence, trying not to fall apart as he lifts his head in between bites to find no one smiling.
Or there’s the cook behind the counter wearing long sleeves in the Alabama heat to cover his tattoos, and he’s sweating, and he’s miserable, and his feet always hurt at the end of his shift, but as he smokes his cigarette at the end of the day, he tells himself he’s lucky to have this job considering no one else around here gives second chances.
Or there’s the broke college kids and broken veterans or the Baptist preachers and backsliding sinners or the tough-ass bikers and cute-ass babies and everyone else in between.
At night, though…at night is when the real characters come to life.
Until the wee hours of the morning, every inebriated person within 10 miles descends onto a Waffle House, the conversations flowing loudly and freely from table to table. And should the right song get played on the jukebox, the whole diner is liable to break out in harmony, with forks and knives and drinks being raised in the air for emphasis as the mass of folks take on something resembling a drunken church choir.
And the Waffle House staff never seem to mind, so long as everything stays peaceful and nothing gets broken. After all, drunk folks tip better.
There are times, though, when things get out of hand – such is the way for a place that never locks its doors. You’ll let in the good and bad alike.
People have been shot here. They’ve been stabbed here. Where I used to live, one guy retreated into the bathroom, took off his pants, used them to climb into the ceiling, and attempted to crawl across the top of the dining room area before crashing through to the floor. Police said he was high as a kite – not that that needed mentioning – and was trying to rob the place. Who knows how he was trying to go about that seeing as Waffle House doesn’t keep cash in the ceiling, but…
I have never seen someone fall through the ceiling or get punched in the face during any of my Waffle House visits, though if I’m being honest, it’s on my bucket list (not that I want anyone to get terribly hurt or God forbid killed – I’m not a monster – I’d just like a story to tell, you know). About the closest I’ve come to anything like that was when I saw two people dog-cussing each other in the middle of the afternoon, but it was summertime in Alabama, and folks around here can’t act right when it’s hot.
Luckily for me, there’s no shortage of Waffle House melees available for free, thanks to the wonderful world of YouTube.
Type “waffle house fight” into the search bar, and you will be met with countless videos of people throwing down in the South’s diner at night (because the brawls are almost always at night; so much so that apparently one of the interview questions for potential late-night Waffle House employees is “Can you fight?”).
But there’s one Waffle House fight video that stands tall above the rest – it’s the Citizen Kane of Waffle House fights.
And it starts just like any other.
There’s two men in an argument, yelling and cussing back and forth. Then a punch is thrown, landing flush, the man on the receiving end of it stumbling backward, slipping on the wet floor as he’s shoved (and we know it’s wet because there’s a wet floor sign present from the very first frame of the footage; all of this is so expertly staged, like Hitchcock himself rose from the grave and decided to try his hand at reality tv).
The fight carries on. A broomstick gets swung wildly, the action spilling towards the camera, the cameraman maneuvering out of the way while providing commentary. Then, a break in the action, giving us a false sense of security that the chaos might be over.
But it’s not. Another punch lands. A third combatant enters the fray, brandishing a chair like he’s in the WWF before ditching it entirely to land his own flurry of punches (why the hell do people always drop the chair?). All three men are on the ground now, and the folks in attendance start to clear out, not waiting around to see what happens next. One man even does a little two-step on his way out, providing a nice flair of showmanship this writer appreciates.
Our fearless camera operator then pushes towards the action, urging those involved the fight is finished.
Then, in a move that would make even the greatest of the cinematic greats jealous, the camera whips away from the action to find a lone gentleman seated at his booth, still eating, not phased in the slightest by the all-out brawl.
And that’s perhaps the greatest advertisement Waffle House could ever have, better than anything some fancy ad agency with an unlimited budget could come up with.
How good is Waffle House? It’s worth potentially being caught in the crossfire of a wild, vicious fistfight, complete with chair shots and body slams and destruction.
Because bruises and cuts eventually heal. But knowing you let a good, delicious meal go to waste? There’s no way you come back from that.
That’ll stick with you.