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Why The South Loves Waffle House

“It was the place where my friends and I used to always go after high school football games.” – Sophia

“I stumbled into one while on spring break. I don’t remember anything about the meal, but I vividly remember the elation I had once I saw that yellow sign.” – Adam

“My family goes there every Christmas morning with the same family friends. It’s my favorite tradition!” – Meredith

“We went after my granddaddy’s funeral because it was his favorite place.” – Garrett

“I squirted mustard directly onto my hand at my table and started yelling about my time fighting in Vietnam. I was born in the nineties.” – Anonymous

Photo Credit: Waffle House

Nobody has the same experience at Waffle House.

Maybe you’re getting a chocolate chip waffle while taking a study break.

Maybe you’re chasing away the hangover demons with scattered, smothered, covered, and chunked hash browns and a steaming mug of jet black coffee.

Or maybe you’re devouring an All Star Special after running a holiday 5k.

No matter the occasion, one thing remains true:

You’re going to have a good time.

There is truly no place in the world like Waffle House. Simply calling it a restaurant is criminally underselling its place in society. It’s somewhere between an oasis and purgatory. It is both an adventure and a respite. It’s all work and all play.

It’s Waffle House.

Let’s take a closer look at this cultural institution.

NOTE: this is not a paid promotion. All adulations are my own or quotes from others.

The OG Waffle House | Photo Credit: Waffle House

Origins 

America was a very different place in 1955. 

There were only three TV channels.

The #1 album on the Billboard charts was the soundtrack to the Doris Day movie Love Me or Leave Me.

Alaska and Hawaii weren’t U.S. states yet.

And Queen Elizabeth was only 29 years old.

But that year, two Georgia boys, Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner, celebrated their Labor Day by opening up a 24-hour sit-down restaurant in Avondale Estates, merging the speed of fast food with the quality of table service. Forkner made the call to name their new joint after the most profitable food on their 16-item menu: waffles.

25 states and over 2,000 stores later, Waffle House has become a national sensation.

“It’s the modern American diner experience, or at least the quintessential Southern diner experience.” – Kyle

Waffle House Experience

Everybody has had a Waffle House Experience (WHE). It’s a capitalized phrase because it’s simply become a part of the zeitgeist, something that everybody who has been to Waffle House has had for themselves. 

Part of the reason that a WHE is when most people actually go: between the hours of 11:00 PM and 11:00 AM, the time window most ripe for shenanigans and tomfoolery [CITATION NEEDED]. This is either partially or exclusively due to the frequent states of intoxication many patrons are experiencing.

In many ways, Waffle House is a modern day Wild West saloon. Every employee is a jack-of-all-trades, who may be manning the griddle one minute and throwing out an unruly customer the next before returning in time to flip the waffles. Everybody is there to mind their own business, but if you ruffle any feathers, you may be entitled to a thorough and well-deserved reprimanding before everybody returns to their business. 

“The service is just as good at 2:00 AM as it is at 2:00 PM. And so is the food.” – Savannah

The Food

The WHE would be for moot if the food was bad. Luckily, the folks at Waffle House sling out absurd quantities of joy-inducing grub at jaw-droppingly reasonable prices. 

Here are a few of the heavy hitters:

The All Star Special | Photo Credit: Pinterest

The All Star Special

The All Star is the Big Mac of Waffle House. A no-brainer whether you’re a first timer or a regular. You get a little bit of everything: two eggs, toast and jelly, your choice of grits, hash browns, or sliced tomatoes (though I’ve never actually seen anybody order them), plus a waffle, and your choice of bacon, sausage, or ham. 

Waffles

The namesake and the moneymaker. These are the perfect blend of fluffy and crunchy and are perfectly sweet every single time. Get it classic, or add chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, or pecans and make sure to drown it in butter and maple syrup.

Hash Browns Scattered All the Way | Photo Credit: Flickr

Hash Browns 

The waffles may be the name, but the hash browns are the soul of Waffle House. Most customers have their own go-to combination of toppings, but the main breakdown is:

  • Scattered: plain
  • Smothered: diced onions
  • Covered: a slice of American cheese
  • Chunked: chunks of ham
  • Diced: grilled tomatoes
  • Peppered: jalapenos
  • Capped: grilled mushrooms
  • Topped: Bert’s signature chili
  • Scattered All The Way: throw it all together, baby!

It has even been calculated that you can order 768 unique varieties of hash browns.

These are the classics, but here are a few hidden gems:

Chicken biscuit | Photo Credit: Waffle House

Chicken Biscuit 

The biscuit surprisingly has a GRILLED, not fried, piece of juicy and flavorful chicken on top of a griddled biscuit. If you’re looking for a power lunch, this is your best bet. 

WH Sauce

Get a packet and experiment with putting some on everything: sandwiches, hash browns, waffles (proceed at your own risk). It’s just the right amount of tanginess, smokiness, and creaminess and deserves a spot on the echelon of great house sauces.

Coffee

This is exactly the jet fuel you need to complement your heavy meal. Wash down your food with some of this ferocious stuff and you’ll be cross-faded to perfection.

“I like that they cook it in front of you, hibachi style. It makes the food feel even fresher.” – Daniel

WaHo index

Before the days of COVID-19, the only things certain in the world were death, taxes, and Waffle House being open. 

It became so synonymous with never closing that it even earned a FEMA designation. The Waffle House Index started when former Head of FEMA Craig Fugate said, in response to a 2011 tornado during which two WaHo locations remained open, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad.”

A fully operational Waffle House | Photo Credit: USA Today

The Waffle House Index went on to become an unofficial metric to inform disaster response based on WaHo’s top-of-the-line reputation for disaster preparation and either remaining open or reopening quickly after a catastrophe.

There are three levels, which indicate the level of operations and supplies following the natural disaster, whatever it may be:

The Waffle House Index | Photo Credit: CNN

What’s so remarkable about the Waffle House Index is that it has set the gold standard for disaster preparedness across all industries. By indicating how quickly a business, from grocery store to bank, can re-open, the community can better plan its recovery. 

Waffle House is actually regarded by FEMA as one of the top four corporations when it comes to disaster response (the other three are Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s…and they don’t even serve hash browns). Their disaster management plan includes on-site and portable generators as well as “jump teams” of workers and supplies, which are transported in from unafflicted outside areas thus allowing local staff to focus on their own homes and families. 

Simply put, Waffle House is the standard bearer for overcoming disasters of all types. 

“There was a straight up food fight between a cook and a customer and when it was done, everyone just kept eating like nothing happened.” – Ian

“Incidents”

Not many places have an “Incidents” section on their Wikipedia page.

Waffle House is the only place where it would both be expected and you’d be surprised there aren’t more entries on the page. 

It’s unfair to suggest that there’s anything about Waffle House that particularly invites laws to be broken or social norms to be ignored. Any place that is open 24 hours a day is automatically increasing its likelihood of seeing rebellious and peculiar behavior. 

But over the past few years, I can’t help but wonder if it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: do ne’er-do-wells and scoundrels intentionally decide Waffle House will be the stage of their antics?

Despite the notoriety, it should be acknowledged that a vast majority of nights at Waffle House are completely peaceful and devoid of any significant drama or conflict. 

Nothing but good vibes 99.9% of the time.

“It’s a place where my friends and I could have the silliest to deepest talks over the most simple and reliable food, providing a safe space to connect with the comfort of sitting at a friend’s kitchen table.” – Sophie 

Rock the House

Most Waffle House restaurants have a jukebox where you can set the soundtrack for whatever best suits your meal.

But did you know that Waffle House has its own record label called Waffle Records where they write and record their own original tunes to go on the jukebox? They’re even on Spotify

You may be familiar with such bangers as “There Are Raisins in My Toast” and “Make Mine With Cheese”. The styles range from bluegrass to Bruce Springsteen. My personal favorite is “Bert,” an early 2000s style power pop song where the narrator is worried that his girlfriend is having an affair, but it turns out she just loves Bert’s Chili™ at Waffle House. 

Enjoy the music video (with a phenomenal cameo at the end from the one and only Bert)

After listening to every one of their songs, I’ve concluded that the music is not bad. I even forgot I was listening to the Waffle House playlist…the styles are so varied and the quality is high enough that it sounds more like an eclectic Discover Weekly lineup.

Though these original tunes are only played on the jukeboxes about 1% of the time, how many other restaurants are willing to get this ambitious with their house music?

Bourdain-approved

Anthony Bourdain was a man who ate everything imaginable, from salmon tartare cornets at The French Laundry in California to warthog rectum off a campfire in Namibia. Yet, his first late night experience at Waffle House left a lasting impression. He astutely describes it as a place “where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed.”

While sitting at the bar with famed Charleston chef Sean Brock after a night of drinking, the two demolish a pecan waffle, a patty melt with hash browns, pork chops, and t-bone steaks. Not bad for a first timer.

After savoring every bite and soaking in the ambience, he blissfully remarks that the experience draws one “right to the center of what makes our country great.”

“You know you will be treated like family, from morning smiles to midnight judgement, and they will feed your face just the same for a fair price. Also, if you don’t know what scattered, smothered, and covered means, you need to get out more.” – Jaclyn

Photo Credit: Waffle House

So what exactly is it that makes Waffle House so beloved?

I’ve spent hundreds of words trying to figure that out and the deeper I go, the more layers I uncover.

Is it the greasy food, the nostalgic diner ambience, the 24/7/365 service, the eclectic offerings on the jukebox, that big yellow sign, the breathtakingly competent staff…?

The short answer is: yes.

It’s also the inclusivity. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gone to the same one your entire life or are stopping for a quick bite while passing through a small town whose name you don’t even know. You’re going to get the same treatment.

Whether you’re visiting on the way to church or on the way back from the club, that waffle and those hash browns will be there for you. 

Days begin and end at Waffle House, and it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing pajamas or a tuxedo.

Every item on the menu is comfort food, and that’s ultimately why Waffle House is such a fixture. 

There’s an overwhelming comfort that arises when somebody suggests hitting “WaHo.”

Whenever you last went, it’s been too long. 

And whenever you’re going next can’t come soon enough.

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