My friend Ligaya Figueras, the food and dining editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently emailed me to announce excitedly: “I ate at Waffle House Saturday night for the first time.”
“Wow,” I replied, “your first time at Waffle House? Now, you’re a real Atlantan!”
The reason this Midwest native finally had checked out the metro Atlanta-based chain of diners was for a special package of Waffle House articles for the Sunday paper. She found the experience “really quirky and funny.”
Ligaya’s piece about her initiation into WH was headlined, “You never forget your first Waffle House experience,” but, truth be told, I actually don’t actually remember my first time at a Waffle House.
A logical assumption is that it probably was while I was in college, but back then the WH didn’t occupy the elevated place in pop culture it has assumed in recent years, where hip-hop and country artists alike mention it in their lyrics, and you have the likes of “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert and alt country singer Sturgill Simpson visiting one of the diners for a bit on his show. (They ended up writing a song about Waffle House to go on the chain’s jukeboxes, which feature an entire playlist of songs about WH.)
In other words, I don’t recall my first time at Waffle House, because it was no big deal.
That’s not to denigrate the place Waffle House occupies in our culinary universe. I mean, breakfast any time of the day or night. What’s not to love about that? As Atlanta Falcons star receiver Julio Jones bragged when he was an NFL rookie: “In high school, my nickname was ‘Waffle House.’ Know why? Because I’m always open.”
Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner — or, the quintessential WH experience, grabbing a late-night meal to help sober up — Southerners have been going to Waffle House ever since the first one opened in 1955 in Avondale Estates, Ga., not far from our home in Decatur. And, now, there are more than 1,900 WH locations across 25 states.
Everyone who’s experienced Waffle House has a favorite meal they tend to order. My go-to is the ham and cheese omelette, though at various times I’ve gone with a burger and, once, even one of the 10-ounce T-bone steaks that they sell more of than anyone else in the world (and which they announced they were getting rid of after a yearlong farewell tour in 2012 — only it’s still on the menu, so that must have been like one of The Who’s “farewell” tours).
(Honestly, steak isn’t the best thing they do. It’s hash browns. Or eggs. Or waffles. Or that perfectly crisp bacon.)
Leslie’s standard order is cheesy eggs with raisin toast and grits. Our son Bill favors the All-Star Special (two eggs; hash browns or grits; bacon, ham or sausage; toast (white, wheat, or raisin); and a waffle or biscuit), but he notes that a “waffle and hash browns covered [with melted cheese] are the essential core of any meal there.” Our daughter Livvy favors a grilled cheese with hash browns covered and topped (cheese and Bert’s chili).
I don’t get to Waffle House that often any more (maybe two or three of times a year), but at one point that was at least a two or three times a month. For Leslie and Livvy, it was weekly for a while, thanks to Leslie’s work on her master’s and Livvy taking some postbac science classes after she graduated from the University of Georgia and before she started nursing school at Emory University.
As Leslie recalled: “The Waffle House at Georgia State [in downtown Atlanta] is popular with students, staff, faculty and other, non-university workers. When I took a morning class, Practical Grammar, the professor didn’t like food in the classroom, so I would stop by the Waffle House each time for coffee. They got to know my schedule, so that they would set up a to-go coffee as soon as I came in sight from the MARTA station down the street. When Olivia and I were taking classes there at the same time, we’d go early Friday before class and eat breakfast together.”
Waffle House figured prominently in the years when our kids were in college in Athens. It’s always been popular with students, day and night. Livvy, who was attending UGA at the time, was on hand in 2015, when a nearby Chick-fil A and WH in teamed up to offer an evening of chicken and waffles. The line of customers wrapped around the outside of the store.
When my son was in school at UGA, he and I would meet at the Waffle House in Five Points, near campus, before home football games, in lieu of tailgating. Simple, quick and no packing or cleanup. Also, we’d get to see the cheerleaders arrive at Hodgson’s Pharmacy, directly across the street, for their traditional pregame visit to the soda fountain.
The staff at the Five Points Waffle House was friendly and efficient, which was a good thing, since the place usually was packed with a mix of barely awake college kids (a steady stream from fraternity and sorority row nearby), townie regulars and those of us just in town for the game (usually including some fans of the visiting team).
One game day, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (the same guy who’s now Trump’s agriculture secretary) and his aides came in and took a booth near us. I had not voted for him, but my son and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shake the governor’s hand. Plus, I took the opportunity to lobby for saving the HOPE Scholarship (which makes college available to Georgia residents who have demonstrated academic achievement, and which was under threat at the time).
However, my son’s favorite part of the story is this: After meeting the governor, he recalls, “you walked out without paying.” I had forgotten we had not yet taken care of the check. A waitress called me back. “They were very nice about it, though,” young Bill said.
There are eight other Waffle House restaurants in the Athens area, but the one at Five Points always was my favorite. Unfortunately, it closed last summer after 50 years, when their lease wasn’t renewed, but it still had managed to make it into a toast at my son’s wedding celebration about three weeks earlier, when his best man told a story about one of their adventures there during college.
During the three years my Dad was in assisted living in a little town outside Athens, my brothers, Jon and Tim, and I visited him every Sunday, and, after our visit, we’d go into the WH down the road, where the staff always recognized and greeted us.
But, the most special connection between the King family and Waffle House was Christmas Eve. For 15 years, we dined at a WH every year on the evening of Dec. 24. It began when Livvy was young and was in the youth choir at Holy Trinity Episcopal in Decatur; we’d go to the early Christmas Eve service and then have a meal at the Waffle House.
Even after she had outgrown the choir, we still kept our Xmas Eve Waffle House tradition. It finally ended, sadly, about three years ago, because we found the service had gotten just wretched. (Apparently the worst workers are now scheduled on Christmas Eve. They were extremely slow, and couldn’t get our orders right.)
We were very sad to end that family tradition, but, when you have a worker tell you they can’t make you an omelette because “the omelette machine is broken,” it’s time to move on.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a fan of Waffle House. Just not on Christmas Eve.
So, yes, our long family history with Waffle House continues. Leslie and I ate there just this week.
I think the role Waffle House has played in our family life was summed up nicely when we attended my son’s master’s degree graduation at UNC in Chapel Hill five years ago. At the reception, I heard a friend of his ask what we were doing afterward.
My son’s reply was perfect: “We’re probably going to Waffle House, because we’re Kings, and that’s what we do!”
(To read Quick Cuts entries from before September, 2018, please go to https://billking.livejournal.com.)