I recently read an article stating that for the 12thyear certain Waffle House restaurants are taking reservations for Valentine’s day. The article said that it was the only day ever that Waffle House puts out white linen tablecloths, dims the lights and even offers a special menu.
Hmmm. Valentine’s Day at Waffle House. I like that idea.
As much as I love creative, quality food, and for as many times as I’ve been deemed a food snob, I think it’s fair to say that there are just some places and foods that are special because of their lack of frill or extravagance. Waffle House is one of those places.
There are a few restaurant chains that have the recognition and reputation that the ubiquitous Waffle House does. That yellow lettered sign is everywhere it seems, unless I have a sudden craving for a patty melt while on a trip and then it seems they are hidden, and I have to look up the closest one. Something that I’m more than happy to do if it means a patty melt is coming my way.
I never go into a Waffle House that I don’t think of my grandfather. I grew up going there with him for breakfast whenever I could. I didn’t think that much about it as a kid, but I loved their raisin toast, which is odd because I hate raisins. Sitting with my grandfather as he enjoyed his coffee, I would polish off a waffle, a bowl of grits or hash browns loaded with ketchup, and an order of raisin toast. Obviously that was back in the day before carbs were demonized.
Since he lived close to the restaurant he was a regular and knew all the waitresses by name. They were “Sweetie Pie” and “Honey,” and they addressed him,“Darlin,’ you ready for some more coffee?” Sometimes, when it was crowded we’d get to sit at the high counter with the swivel stools, and anyone with kids knows that swivel stools are essentially just a free carnival ride. Everything that was wonderful about the world was right then and there in that Waffle House as I swung my chair back and forth, buttery triangle of raisin toast in hand. I’m certain I was annoying someone, but he never once told me to stop moving the stool, because that’s the kind of grandfather he was.
Sometimes we ate there for dinner which was a real treat because my grandfather could still get breakfast—something that you can do anytime there—and I could get a cheeseburger. Once while eating dinner at Waffle House my grandfather looked at me and said “How about after dinner we go get you that guinea pig we saw yesterday?”
I’ve never eaten a meal so fast in my life, and “Albert” was the first of my many guinea pigs to come.
When I was older Waffle House became the 2am rescue meal to soak up some of the alcohol we had consumed earlier in the evening, hence warding off the next day’s hangover. Those were the days when I could eat chili cheese hash browns at 2am and not experience even a twinge of heartburn. Today I’d probably have to go straight to the hospital afterwards—not because the famous Bert’s chili is subpar in anyway, oh far from it, but because my digestive system has had a hard life and chooses to remind me (Dammit. Now I really want chili cheese hash browns).
When I was in Journalism school at The University of Georgia I was writing my first article for the campus newspaper, and I had to interview a gentleman as a source for my article. The gentleman asked me to meet him at a Waffle House right on the edge of campus. I was incredibly nervous, doing my first interview as a student journalist, and I was afraid the man was going to see me as an inexperienced child so, for the first time in my life, I ordered a cup of coffee at the Waffle House that day. There I sat, asking him the probing questions about some silly topic I had dreamt up, trying to appear grown up and professional while my nervous knees were shaking under the table. But I got the interview, wrote the article, and it was published in the paper, landing me a solid A in my Public Affairs Reporting class that semester. To this day every time I’m visiting Athens, Georgia and pass that Waffle House, I remember that’s where I had my first grown up cup of coffee.
We still go to Waffle House when I can’t take it anymore, and I just have to have my favorite “BLT, with a fried egg, pickles and onions on it” (try it, I’m telling you) or one of their world class “monogrammed” waffles—the waffles are so incredible I take my own European butter from home in my purse to put on them, because I won’t disrespect the waffle with anything less.
Once I contemplated straying from my norm and ordering the pecan waffle but –here is where my food snobbery shows a little– I wasn’t sure if the pecans were toasted. My husband looked at our server, who was working with the hurried proficiency of an air traffic controller and a circus plate-spinning act all at once, and said,
“I dare you to ask her that.”
I just settled for a regular waffle that day.
Waffle House is not only the premiere spot for affordable, familiar, heart-warming food but wherever they are they stand as a gauge for a community hit by any crisis. The Waffle House Index is a real standard for a hurricane’s severity or any other emergency. Since they pride themselves on being open 24 hours a day/7 days a week, if the local Waffle House is closed then someone better send in the troops because the situation is “red.” And I’ve heard more than once of Waffle House executives, called jump teams, heading into crisis areas to help keep their restaurants open so people affected by the disaster and first responders can find something to eat. That’s just not what any ordinary restaurant that serves up grits and hash browns does. That’s “super hero” grits and hash browns kind of stuff, right there.
One of my favorite parts of eating at Waffle House is the open kitchen. At high volume times, it can look chaotic, but it’s a well-oiled machine of spinning waffle irons, sizzling bacon, and popping toasters. The kitchen has its own secret language too. I like to try to guess what someone’s order is from what’s being shouted behind the counter or which plated waffle in the line up is mine. I would fail miserably at Waffle House school. The first time someone shouted more than two items at one time I’d sit down and cry, the system would buckle, and no one would get their waffles that day–pecan or otherwise. I know where my strengths lie, and they are on the eating side of the counter.
We recently loaded up in our cars with some friends and all our college-age kids and did a Waffle House run for a late breakfast. We had to wait a little bit, because there were several of us and we wanted to sit close together, but it was fine. Customers wait patiently at Waffle House for some reason—maybe it’s because they really want those crispy hash browns or because they can always see how hard the staff is working to get them seated so they just can’t complain. Two things you’ll always notice while waiting to be seated at Waffle House– some stranger always starts a friendly conversation with you and at some point someone waiting is going to get up and hold the doors open for someone’s feeble little grandmother. And quite frankly, either one of those is just a nice way to start your day.
When I finally get to sit down at my table at Waffle House I’m almost giddy when I grab the menu –to the point that my husband makes fun of me pretending to clap his hands. I don’t care. Let him. That just means I’m not sharing any of my waffle with him.
I don’t know what the special Valentine’s Day menu is at Waffle House. Maybe heart-shaped waffles? Maybe little doilies under your bowl of grits? There’s no wine list and probably no espresso or Tiramisu after your Valentine’s Day T-bone steak. You probably aren’t going to get a little orchid, or a chef’s fancy chocolate scribe on your plate. I don’t even know if they’re going to toast the pecans on that waffle. But if you’re there with the right person there’s going to be plenty of sweet Valentine memories to be made—not to mention some killer raisin toast.
And if you’re a lucky girl like me, maybe even a guinea pig.