Did it smell like cigarettes?” That’s the question I get whenever I mention that one of the highlights of my summer vacation was a trip to the Waffle House Museum in Georgia. Actually, “trip” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe “pilgrimage” is better. But “crusade” would be too much.
Fans of Waffle House are loyal folks. We know the hash browns are greasy. We know the booths are small. We know the smell of smoke lingers decades after the last legal puffs were taken inside. And yet, there’s something about those eleven yellow squares that make up the iconic logo that just draws us back.
Foodies will never get it. They also don’t get why kale isn’t more popular in Arkansas.
The Waffle House first opened in Avondale, Georgia in 1955, when two veterans named Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner had a dream to serve breakfast 24 hours a day. They remained friends for the rest of their lives, even dying within two months of each other in 2017.
That first restaurant sat a dozen people at the counter, and that was it. Customers could have toast and jelly for 15 cents, a cheeseburger for 35 cents and a waffle with two eggs for 75 cents. The most expensive thing on the menu was a filet mignon, which came with salad, hash browns, and hot bread. That lavish meal would set you back $1.50.
And if you feel that steak and hash browns don’t make for a classy supper, tell that to “Bon Appetit” magazine, which has done several stories on the famous chain. I’m also guessing that there are very few five-star restaurants where the staff will call you “Hon.”
The eleven other tourists had assembled for our appointment at the museum and were all wearing their paper chef hats when I came. We learned the chain has nearly 2,000 stores in 25 states, with 450 locations in Georgia alone. That made sense because the town I grew up in had two — each one visible from the other.
So far, the famous diner hasn’t penetrated farther north than Ohio or farther west than Arizona, but they still claim to use two percent of all the eggs produced in the US. Incidentally, another half percent of egg production went into an omelet a guy I know ate last week.
The Southern chain has long been a magnet for eccentrics. I had a dear friend who was on a first-name basis with four different shifts of waitresses, none of whom objected to him breaking into song over his pork chops. Years ago, I met an old man there wearing a suit with dozens of flashy pins running up his lapels. He looked like the kind of person who wanted you to ask him about his pins, so I did. The man had a record 53 years of perfect attendance in Sunday school and was surely strengthened for the task by 53 years’ worth of bacon and hash browns.
For the record, you can get your hash browns cooked several ways, including smothered (in onions), covered (with cheese), chunked (with ham), diced (with tomatoes) or topped (with chili). Should the folks from the Whole 30 Diet ever take over Waffle House, I’m sure you will also be able to get them whipped (with air), garnished (with tofu) and ground (with dirt).
A building next door to the original restaurant contains memorabilia from six decades of fine dining. A vintage jukebox, dinnerware and uniforms through the ages, and a range of plastic-laminated menus made up the artifacts on display. There was even a T-shirt collage. My favorite said, “Friends don’t let friends eat pancakes.”
The legendary Atlanta Humorist Lewis Grizzard — famous for books like “They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat” — praised the place in a 1985 column. “Waffle House cooks have wonderful memories,” he said. “They can be frying six eggs, four pieces of bacon, and have two waffles in the iron at the same time and listen to three waitresses yelling out orders, and it all registers and they rarely get an order wrong.”
“There ought to be more ex-Waffle House cooks in Congress,” he added.
Now that’ I’ve been to the mother ship, I’m ready for an All-Star Breakfast — a waffle, two scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage and two pieces of toast with jelly. I have been told that I should not be eating this, but I promise it’s OK. I never get chili on my hash browns, and I always get wheat toast.