Hash browns. I knew I wanted hash browns. The question was how? With sauteed onions, grilled tomatoes, ham, jalapenos, Bert’s Chili? Wait. Who’s Bert?
The waitress was waiting patiently for my order. I played the onion-ham-tomato-pepper combination in my head. That sounded good. Hmm, maybe leave off the ham and stick with vegetables. I couldn’t keep her waiting.
“What do you recommend?” I asked.
“Smothered, covered is popular,” she said smoothly, quickly.
Smothered. Covered. I looked down at the laminated menu for the translation: onions and melted cheese.
“OK. I’ll take that.” And a patty melt, and a biscuit with gravy and … I was taking so long to order. The six waffle makers were distracting me. Did they really use all six waffle makers at one time?
If you’re a longtime, die-hard Waffle House fan, please forgive my ignorance — and my confession: Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never eaten at Waffle House. It’s not entirely my fault. I didn’t grow up with the yellow and black building on every corner. But it was long past time for me to set my butt inside the place that fills the hearts and stomachs of breakfast-loving folk 24 hours a day.
Across the table, the AJC’s intrepid Fulton County reporter and Waffle House aficionado Ben Brasch nodded in approval. He made sure that fellow reporter Raisa Habersham was there as witness, too. The Atlanta native is – well, that’s all you need to know. She’s an Atlanta native. She knows Waffle House. They both speak Waffle House so fluently they don’t need a menu.
My husband was there as well. For spousal support? Nah. For kicks. He went to the jukebox and plunked down a buck to hear “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and a song from the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack (Was it “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon”?).
As the Waffle House staff did their fast dance number with our orders, Ben wanted my first impressions.
The floor, the table, the menu — all of it was coated in a layer of film. But it wasn’t off-putting. It was comforting, like the outdated kitchen of a cook-happy grandma or aunt. It was far more comforting to sit in this sticky booth than in some sterile, cold, odorless kitchen with shiny modern appliances and a spick-and-span floor.
The smell. What was that sugary baking smell? The aroma of waffle batter was pacifying me, lulling me to sleep, almost. It was 11:15 p.m. on a Saturday night. Bedtime for this early riser.
Food came within minutes. I hadn’t realized that Ben had ordered his waffle with chocolate chips. I didn’t even realize you could do that here. I loved these people for giving us chocolate chips at 11:15 p.m. on a Saturday night. I felt a surge of warm fuzzies and wanted to give them a hug. I swear I wasn’t drunk. I’d had a glass of wine a couple of hours earlier, but I wasn’t in the same state that the seven-person crew at 2264 Cheshire Bridge Road would deal with later in their night shift.
Or was I? After all, we’d all be walking through the door for the same reason: hungry for Waffle House.
We took Lyft home. It was the fastest pickup I’ve ever had. The guy was already sitting in the parking lot when he accepted our ride request. How was our night going, he asked.
“I just ate at Waffle House for the first time,” I blurted out.
“Awesome!” he said.
You know what’s even more awesome? Unbeknownst to me, while I was shoving smothered, covered hash browns in my mouth, my college-aged son was eating at a Waffle House a few miles down the road. He told me I got my order wrong. I should have picked the All-Star, the best bang for the buck since it comes with scrambled eggs and a waffle, plus the bonus of toast and a sausage patty or bacon. Now I know.
“Next time,” I told Anton.
As I type this, an email has arrived from my fellow AJC dining critic Wendell Brock: “Waffle House now has a $3 grits bowl with scrambled eggs, cheese, and sausage crumbles. They fancy. Best grits bowl around!”
Waffle House “will always be there for you,” Ben said on initiation night. When I feel like an All-Star, a good bowl of fancy grits or hash browns any which way, it’s great to know that Waffle House will be there for me.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution