Stardust Memories of Waffle House
For nine years in the 1990s, I made my home on the distant planet of Atlanta, Ga. Those days were filled with idleness and promise, with iced tea and humidity and a whole lotta Braves baseball. It was a groove captured by Billy Pilgrim’s epitaph in “Slaughterhouse-Five”: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
I drank in the South till I’d extracted every drop, and when the time came I packed up and resumed my regularly scheduled life on the West Coast. I don’t spend much time missing my days below the Mason-Dixon Line. But when the blessed weekends of summer come back around, there’s a part of me that would trade my velvet-foam latte in a hot second for a hard plastic booth and my usual breakfast bounty at the Waffle House.
Hatched in Georgia in 1955, the 24/7 restaurant chain blankets the South. Its sunny yellow Scrabble-tile signs standing proudly at every other exit from Savannah to Gulfport — and beyond; today folks up to Pennsylvania and as far west as Arizona enjoy the good fortune of having a Waffle House (or several) nearby. My preferred location was one of the three at a single exit off I-85, on Clairmont Road past the Piggly Wiggly; if the line at one was too long (and there was frequently a wait), you could simply head across the way. I also logged many a meal at the outpost behind Market Square Mall, notable for the mud-stained red truck that never seemed to leave the parking lot, its rear window emblazoned with a decal so politically incorrect that were I even to attempt to re-phrase it as a euphemism, I would probably land this publication in hot water.
Dining at Waffle House was most often a shared pleasure with my partner in crime. The General and I had dated in college but, like Jerry and Elaine, concluded that we were better as friends. And as friends, we were as tight as they come. The WH was the launching pad for our weekends. We’d linger over coffee and calories, sharing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In our self-exile from America proper, it was our version of bagels and The New York Times, and the second booth to the right was our kitchen table, where we read Gene Kelly’s and McLean Stevenson’s obituaries and talked our way into accepting the arrival of interleague play.
The General was a waffle man — and the House’s signature item was indeed wonderful: light and sweet, with a fluffy scoop of butter in the center. But salty breakfast meats are my heroin, and the Bacon Egg & Cheese sandwich quickly became my regular, along with a side of hashbrowns served Scattered (on the grill), Smothered (sautéed onions), Covered (melted cheese), Chunked (ham), Diced (tomatoes) and Topped (Bert’s Chili).
“All the way?” the waitress would always confirm.
“All the way,” I’d respond, a verbal waiver of any responsibility on the part of the restaurant.
The hashbrown ante has continued to rise, and “all the way” now also includes Peppered (jalapenos), Capped (button mushrooms) and Country (sausage gravy). It does seem a lot going on in one serving of potatoes; but I have no doubt that somehow it all comes together perfectly.
The two of us ate like kings for eleven dollars and change, and left well fortified for excursions to Target and Best Buy to outfit our fledgling households and feed our music habits, until the oppressive heat of the afternoon drove us to his air-conditioned apartment to pour cheap beer down our gullets in front of the ballgame with his genial roommates.
Sometimes we’d mix it up and stop in at night after a movie. Evening hours were a time to more broadly sample the WH’s repertoire, perhaps with chop steak or chocolate pie—though of course, you could get anything on the menu at any hour you pleased.
The General and I liked to hit the open road, and wherever we roamed, a Waffle House was there to greet us. It was a familiar backdrop in which we could recount and process the wonders of Southern life we’d witnessed along the way; we graced WH locations from Biloxi to Clearwater to Nashville.
The waitresses were chatty and friendly and had been around the block a few times; the cooks were short-order wizards. The food came fast and hot, the Coke came in the classic shapely glasses and I never did reach the bottom of my cup of coffee. I also never got used to being asked whether I wanted my grits with mayonnaise or butter. Mayonnaise! Some cultural customs are destined to remain impenetrable.
Atlanta wasn’t the same once the General left for New York City, and I bailed out not long thereafter. But while I remained, I tried my best to make a go of things, and that included preserving my beloved weekend tradition. I once brought along a gent who pretended to get off on the down-home charm, but who at the end of the meal disappeared into the bathroom for an age, compulsively washing the imagined residue of maple syrup from his hands with the determination of Lady Macbeth. Waffle House was a great litmus test for fellas.
So as the mercury finally climbs here in the Northwest and I rush outside to celebrate the new season, I think of the next adventure that will bring me back to the house that waffles built; of where and when and with whom I’ll share it.