That Waffle House ambience

Being on the road with a dog, there aren’t that many opportunities for a sit down meal, or at least a leisurely sit down inside a restaurant meal — meaning I, in my travels below the Mason-Dixon Line, have been missing out on that southern culinary and cultural delight: The Waffle House.

The Waffle House is one of my favorite places on earth. I love to sit on a stool at the counter and watch the short order cook in action. I love the way the waitresses shout out the orders. I love to watch the waffle iron overflow, see the eggs sizzle on the grill, and eavesdrop on conversations about the days events, spoken in southern accents thick as maple syrup.

On this trip with Ace, in the middle of the summer, the chances to savor a Waffle House experience have been non-existent. It has been way to hot to leave a dog in a car for any length of time.

But the other morning, the coolest one in a long time, I pulled into a Waffle House — they are, after all, at nearly every exit down south, still more prevalent than Starbucks. I found a parking space in partial shade, popped the back window open, and let Ace watch me (and I him) as I sat at a stool and downed a waffle and some orange juice.

I needed my Waffle House fix. It only took 15 minutes. Don’t hate me.

It’s not just the food, which comes fast, costs little and tastes good; it’s the Waffle House ambience. It’s knowing, soon as you walk in, four or five employees are going to shout out a hello. Your waitress is going to call you hon’, or perhaps darlin’. And chances are there will be a good conversation going on at the counter. Something about sitting at a counter, even if there’s not a bartender on the other side, sparks open discussion, group conversations. Counters — and they’ve been declining since the demise of the drug store soda shop — have a way of making us realize, as we sit elbow to elbow, that we’re all in this together.

So I always choose the counter.

At this particular Waffle House in Virginia, the conversation was about daytime TV talk show host Wendy Williams. It began when someone said “How you doin’?” Then everybody started saying “How you doin’?” Apparently it is Wendy Williams signature phrase, though some thought she stole it from Joey on “Friends.” Others thought Wendy Williams looked a lot like a man, which of course led to giggles and more debate.

(I didn’t say that discussions were of vital importance, just that they occur.)

(Tip to young reporters: Waffle Houses are a great place to get, in addition to waffles, quotes — better than bars because people are generally sober, unless you’re there late at night; better, too, than the “man on the street,” because the man on the street is generally headed somewhere and doesn’t have time for you. It’s easy to walk in, take a seat — at the counter of course — and get a conversation started on the subject you’re reporting on. I long ago opened a story on a proposal in South Carolina to castrate convicted rapists with a Waffle House exchange.)

The Waffle House got its start in the mid-1950’s when neighbors Joe Rogers, who worked for the Toddle House, and Tom Forkner, in the real estate business, decided to start a business of their own. On Labor Day 1955, they opened the first Waffle House in Avondale Estates, an Atlanta suburb. The chain grew to 401 restaurants by the end of the 1970’s, 672 by the end of the 1980’s, 1,228 by the end of the 1990’s. By 2006, Waffle House Inc., operated more than 1,500 restaurants in 25 states.

At the Waffle House you can get your grits. You can get your hash brown potatoes “Scattered, Smothered and Covered.” You can get “Cheese n’ Egg”s or “Egg and Cheese,” which are two different things, I learned a few years back.

Seeking scrambled eggs with cheese, I placed my order: “I’ll have the cheese and eggs.”

“The Cheese n’ Eggs, or the Egg and Cheese?” the waitress asked. As I was silently pondering what the difference might be — trying to figure out just what I was missing — she explained that the Egg and Cheese is a sandwich.

Waffle Houses —  they’re all always open and they all have individual jukeboxes in the booths, but not so loud as to drown out the conversation — are not exclusive to the south, but, like kudzu, that’s where they’ve spread the most.

If you’ve never experienced one, you should. Sit at the counter. Join the conversation. Have a waffle, and maybe some eggs and cheese. Or was that cheese and eggs?

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