Waffle House: Tried-and-true Dixie dining

by Brian Clarey

The Waffle House is old news around here.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the road in the South, then you no doubt are struck with a weird sense memory tied to the scents of bacon and coffee, the sound of eggs sizzling on the griddle and the soft tear and blurb of sugar packets being torn and dumped every time you see one of their signs near an off ramp on the highway.

But Waffle Houses are few and far between outside the parameters of Dixie’s influence, and I had never heard of them until I was a teenager.

It was on a road trip, to be sure – a run from Long Island to New Orleans with a stop in Philadelphia to pick up another teenage Yankee, and there was a Waffle House in the parking lot of our motel at the midway point somewhere in Tennessee.

We were laughing as we walked in, pointing at the garish color scheme and the old broads behind the counter hustling waffles and eggs and coffee out to the slew of truckers at the tiny tables. But we recognized good diner fare when we saw it, and we weren’t laughing after we had mopped up the last of our egg yolks with toast.

The Waffle House became a regular stop on all our travels, and some of our friends took to keeping a pamphlet in the glove compartment with all of the franchise’s locations mapped out.

But they’re not so hard to find, especially after a period of growth in the ’90s, a decade that saw the opening of the thousandth restaurant and an expansion rate of about 30 percent.

Not bad for a couple of guys who lived on the same block in an Atlanta suburb.

Today there are four Waffle Houses in Greensboro; the one on High Point Road by the interstate is a classic example of the form: brick and siding and a shade of yellow that looks like overripe sunflowers; Naugahyde swivel stools at the counter; a jukebox full of doo wop and patriotic country music and easy proximity to major roads and rooms to let.

Along with the gallery of exclamatory house advertisements – “Delicious!”, “Scattered, smothered, covered, and more…!” – there’s a sign above the grill that says, “No profanity or loud abusive language allowed on premises.”

There’s a guy at the counter hunched over the signature meal: the All-Star Breakfast, with two eggs (over easy), scattered hash browns in lieu of grits or tomatoes, bacon (not sausage), toast and a buttery, syrup-soaked waffle. With coffee.

There have been very few concessions to modernity since 1955, the year the first Waffle House opened. The sandwiches are available as wraps, you can get an egg-white omelet and at some point they must have added decaf coffee. But everything here is essentially the same as it was during the years when it may have been considered a health food joint.

A few months back my Philadelphia friend, now a Manhattanite, came to town for a visit. He made mention of the abundance of Waffle Houses here in town and that there are none of them in New York City. He got a faraway look in his eye, and I knew he was thinking about that evening meal we took that night in the parking lot of the motel in the middle of Tennessee. I think I saw him lick his lips. And the memory, it seemed, retained its sweetness.

“If I had a Waffle House near me,” he said, “I would go every day.”

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