Waffle House is a late-night legend, beckoning to tired truckers and drunken revelers along interstates across the southern United States.
The chain’s shabby and unassuming exteriors do little to instill confidence in the culinary abilities therein. However, despite Waffle House’s reputation as a haunt of those who are not of sober minds, it is increasingly receiving recognition from more-prestigious sources.
“It is indeed marvellous — an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, colour, or degree of inebriation is welcomed,” Anthony Bourdain said of Waffle House after visiting with Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winning chef based in Charleston, South Carolina, and a devoted fan of the chain.
On a recent trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, we decided to stop by Waffle House to see how it has managed to win over everyone who has stepped through its unassuming doors.
Waffle House was founded in 1955 by Tom Forkner and Joe Rogers in Atlanta. Today, the chain has over 1,800 locations in 25 states. As with most Waffle Houses, the outside appearance wasn't much to look at -- but we were more interested in what was inside.
Inside, Waffle House has a classic diner feel. Subway tiles, vinyl booths, and the ubiquitous jukebox lend a comforting timelessness. The chain avoids jumping on the latest dining trends -- no raw wood or industrial lighting fixtures here.
The walls are dotted with greasy-spoon-style diner decor, with signs hawking the chain's titular menu item.
At first glance, the menu seems overwhelming, but in fact, it comprises a handful of diner classics with the option to customise as one desires.
We could hear the food sizzling on the griddle as we cozied into our booth. We could have even hopped the side and poured the waffle batter ourselves -- our waitress didn't have to leave the kitchen to take our order and deliver it steaming hot.
Our order was a fair sampling of the menu: an All-Star Breakfast special, which includes a waffle with pecans, eggs, toast, hash browns, and a protein side, plus a steak melt with more hash browns on the side. Everything arrived lightning-fast, even with our friendly waitress' banter.
It should come as no surprise that Waffle House can serve up a mean waffle. Make no mistake -- this is no Belgian waffle, but a staunchly American take. It's soft and fluffy, but not too thick, close to a pancake in texture but maintaining the crucial grid of the syrup-collection system.
The sausage is typical diner fare: served fresh, a good complement to the eggs, but nothing to write home about.
The eggs are cooked to order -- in this case, over easy -- and we had no complaints. The toast is what one would expect: crucial for sopping up the yolk, but nothing special. The hash browns, however, are a different beast entirely.
When it comes to hash browns, you have options. Feel free to order them smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, or country -- or, if you're feeling really feisty, 'all the way.' We went with smothered and covered, and it was incredible, an extravaganza of potato, cheese, and sautéed onions.
For those not well-versed in Waffle House lingo:
Smothered = with sautéed onions.
Covered = cheese.
Chunked = hickory-smoked ham.
Diced = grilled tomatoes.
Peppered = jalapeño peppers.
Capped = grilled mushrooms.
Topped = chilli.
Country = sausage gravy.
We almost didn't order the steak melt, but our affable waitress said it was one of her favourites and not to be missed. Thank God we listened. We've thought about this melt every day since -- the gestalt of its harmoniously greasy, cheesy, perfectly tender, and masterfully toasted creation nearly drove us to tears.
We went in dreading yet another greasy-spoon experience. We left certain that we had just eaten one of the best meals that American chain restaurants have to offer. So should you be a weary traveller on a southern interstate and see that blazing yellow sign, do not turn away -- go forth and feast upon the smothered, covered, and griddled beauty.
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