A Welcome Port in a Storm: Special Moments at the Waffle House

CG | What is “The South” – capital T, capital S – and how do you know when you’re there? Elsewhere on the blog, we’ve talked about the “Pine Straw Line,” and I’ve heard low rumblings in regards to a “Sweet Tea Line,” but surely one of the truest indicators of Southerness can be found in the answer to a simple, five-word question: “Do they have Waffle House?”*

Waffle House wasn’t something my family ate with any regularity when I was a kid, but as my peers and I got into our teens and started driving – and especially after my friend Jeb and I started a band together – it felt like we were always there.

Maybe we were drawn to it because it had an air of authenticity compared to the other options available in the late 80s. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King – even if these places had been open during the late-night hours we kept, none of them were going to tolerate a bunch of goofy-looking teenagers nursing cups of coffee or sweet tea for hours on end following a meal that cost less than $5. Waffle House tolerated our loitering. What’s more, it felt a little edgy, like we were stepping into a slightly dangerous, more grown-up world, where you could hear the spit of the griddle and every employee interaction was on display.

In retrospect, there were certainly more authentic diner options in Montgomery: the Dutch House downtown, Walt’s Family Diner on Norman Bridge Road, or the truck stop near the Greyhound station down on the Southern Bypass to name a few. But the various Waffle Houses scattered across the city felt more like home to me. Perhaps those homegrown establishments felt a bit TOO authentic and edgy to me, or perhaps it’s just that Waffle House was so pervasive. In fact, during the early 1990s there was a location in Montgomery where you could sit in a Waffle House and see two other Waffle Houses. It was an act of magnificent overkill. Waffle House had the whole “Starbucks-across-from-a-Starbucks” thing nailed well before Starbucks.

Waffle House unwittingly played directly into my generation’s ironic fascination with kitsch, from the lurid Crayola red and yellow color scheme to the vaguely Mid-Century Modern globe light fixtures, not to mention a jukebox full of songs like Special Lady At The Waffle House. Throw in a few chintzy mugs and plates adorned with a “syrup” typeface that looked more akin to the Misfits logo than a breakfast topping, and going anywhere else was out of the question.

Chop steak was my meal of choice in those days. Jeb and I would laugh at the description of the chop steak as “choice” ground beef (quotation marks theirs) as we scoured the greasy laminated menus for clues about the elusive characters mentioned in relation to some of the dishes. Who is Bert? Who is Alice? Walt? Who is the mysterious Lib of patty melt fame – and why would she allow herself to be called that? And who, for the love of all things fattening and delicious, is “Papa Joe?”

It’s my firm belief that quintessentially Southern things are exponentially more likely to happen at Waffle House, possibly because it’s traditionally one of the only places still open late at night when people have had the time to render themselves really, really hammered. Despite whatever progress (or backsliding, depending on your point of view) we’ve made over the years, Southerners still have a tendency to repress our less pure motivations behind a mask of gentility and inhibition. At Waffle House, that mask is more likely to slip. I’ve seen things get dicey a time or two when that happens, but more likely than not it tends to be genial and good-natured.

My first brush with this phenomenon happened when I was about 17, sitting at the counter of a Montgomery Waffle House. A wiry, tough-looking man in his early 40s came in, took my Dead Milkmen baseball cap off my head, and tossed it back into the grill area. He said something to me in a fast, high-pitched voice with an accent so thick I had no chance of understanding his meaning. I stared back in wordless horror at the prospect of dying in this godforsaken breakfast joint. He repeated the meaningless phrase, grinned at me for what seemed like forever, then uttered a short bark of a laugh as he walked behind the counter. After retrieving my cap, he slipped a folded ten dollar bill in the pocket of my shirt and struck up a conversation with the woman giving him a flirty side-eye from behind the counter. By the end of my meal I’d pieced together that they were an item of some sort, and that my cap had been an essential prop in his play-acting of a cowboy in an old Western, throwing his hat into a saloon to see if it was shot at or if he was welcome to come on in.

On a trip to Louisville in my 30s, I saw a man standing on a chair near the bathroom, respectfully toasting patrons with a Miller Lite tallboy as they passed by, introducing himself as “The King of Waffle House” in a quiet, slurred voice. He was not removed from the establishment — they didn’t even make him stop drinking his beer – although he was respectfully compelled to take a seat and behave in a manner befitting his station.

The raucous, anything-can-happen vibe at a Saturday night Waffle House belies the humble fellowship that can be found there as well. One year my brother and I found ourselves making a Thanksgiving Day drive back to our parents’ house from Asheville, where he lived briefly. It was a cheerless day with a scrim of iron-grey clouds hung low over the Smokies. Somewhere along the way, we pulled into a Waffle House for coffee and hashbrowns. A poster in the window advertised Thanksgiving Day specials. The mood inside felt warm but uncharacteristically reserved, customers and employees trading small, gracious smiles as they tucked into their turkey and gravy or called orders. For Scott and I, it was just a stop along the way to a family meal, but for some of these folks it would serve as the main event, and their attitudes reflected that.

To me, Waffle House’s marriage of the sublime and the absurd mirrors the nature of the South when we’re at our best. It’s a place where you can be wild and reverent and quiet and drunken and playful and somber – either in turn or all at once. You can spend time with friends, strangers, or strangers who seem like friends. All of this, plus a plated meal with coffee for less than $10. We’re lucky to have it.

* Who doesn’t have Waffle House, you ask? Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska,Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming don’t have Waffle House. Adjust your travel plans accordingly.

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