Strategy We went to Waffle House — the American highway staple beloved by truckers — and discovered why Anthony Bourdain and chefs are obsessed with it

  • Published:

It's easy to write off Waffle House, but here's why it's worth a shot.

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. play

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.

(Hollis Johnson)
24/7 Live - Subscribe to the Pulse Newsletter!

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 marvelous — an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color, 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.

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 of the location we visited in Charlottesville, Virginia, wasn't much to look at — but we were more interested in what was inside. play

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 of the location we visited in Charlottesville, Virginia, wasn't much to look at — but we were more interested in what was inside.

(Hollis Johnson)


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.

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. play

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.

(Hollis Johnson)


The walls are dotted with greasy-spoon-style diner decor, with signs hawking the chain's titular menu item.

The walls are dotted with greasy-spoon-style diner decor, with signs hawking the chain's titular menu item. play

The walls are dotted with greasy-spoon-style diner decor, with signs hawking the chain's titular menu item.

(Hollis Johnson)


At first glance, the menu seems overwhelming, but in fact, it comprises a handful of diner classics with the option to customize as one desires.

At first glance, the menu seems overwhelming, but in fact, it comprises a handful of diner classics with the option to customize as one desires. play

At first glance, the menu seems overwhelming, but in fact, it comprises a handful of diner classics with the option to customize as one desires.

(Hollis Johnson)


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.

And that's the difference between Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. While Cracker Barrel has more of a sit-down, stay-a-while vibe, Waffle House's food is indisputably superior. It lingers in the subconscious; to eat at Waffle House is to yearn to return. To eat at Cracker Barrel is merely a pit stop on the road. play

And that's the difference between Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. While Cracker Barrel has more of a sit-down, stay-a-while vibe, Waffle House's food is indisputably superior. It lingers in the subconscious; to eat at Waffle House is to yearn to return. To eat at Cracker Barrel is merely a pit stop on the road.

(Hollis Johnson)


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.

play

(Hollis Johnson)


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.

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. play

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.

(Hollis Johnson)


The sausage is typical diner fare: served fresh, a good complement to the eggs, but nothing to write home about.

The sausage is typical diner fare: served fresh, a good complement to the eggs, but nothing to write home about. play

The sausage is typical diner fare: served fresh, a good complement to the eggs, but nothing to write home about.

(Hollis Johnson)


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.

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. play

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.

(Hollis Johnson)


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.

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. play

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.

(Hollis Johnson)

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 = chili.
Country = sausage gravy.



We almost didn't order the steak melt, but our affable waitress said it was one of her favorites 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 almost didn't order the steak melt, but our affable waitress said it was one of her favorites 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. play

We almost didn't order the steak melt, but our affable waitress said it was one of her favorites 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.

(Hollis Johnson)


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 traveler 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.

So, next time you find yourself seeking some sustenance on a long and winding road, think to yourself: do you want to be full, or do you want a meal to remember? If you want a meal that's truly unforgettable — perfect in its humble simplicity — take the exit with the Waffle House. play

So, next time you find yourself seeking some sustenance on a long and winding road, think to yourself: do you want to be full, or do you want a meal to remember? If you want a meal that's truly unforgettable — perfect in its humble simplicity — take the exit with the Waffle House.

(Hollis Johnson)