To be honest, I was more than a little skeptical.
My husband and I had just moved to the Triangle from Elizabeth City, a sleepy little town in the very northeastern corner of the state. The holidays were just around the corner, and I was really starting to miss my family and old friends.
A new friend, Holly, knew I was feeling blue. One evening, she showed up at my house and told me she was taking me someplace that would cheer me up.
When she pulled her car into the parking lot of a Waffle House, skepticism morphed into flat-out disbelief. How was some dodgy greasy-spoon chain eatery going to make me feel better? I wasn’t even sure it was safe to eat there.
When we walked in, a waitress greeted us like she’d been expecting us and eagerly awaiting our arrival.
“Do you know her?” I asked Holly.
“Never seen her before in my life,” she answered with a glitter of mischief in her eye.
We took a seat, and Holly ordered for both of us. She requested cheese omelets, Cokes with light vanilla, and hash browns, scattered, smothered, and covered.
The omelet was a revelation. They beat the eggs in a milkshake machine, so it turns out puffy and light, almost soufflé-like. But that’s the only fancy thing about it. The cheese is basic American, the fat they use is the kind of institutional cooking oil that comes in barrels, and the pans they use are generic restaurant supply. But these humble elements come together to make this steaming, yellow, cheese-filled plate of breakfast nirvana.
And, can we talk about those perfectly crispy hash browns with a pantry’s worth of possible additions? There’s the menu lingo that not only denotes your own favorite combo; scattered (on the grill), smothered (onions), covered (cheese), chunked (ham), and so on, but also separates the vets from the newbies and becomes the basis for friendly debates between strangers.
After that first meal with Holly, Waffle House became the place I wanted to go after a bad day. I’ve since learned that the Waffle House friendly greeting is standard issue at every location, but that doesn’t diminish its warmth. And I know that, with every visit, my go-to order—a cheese omelet; scattered, smothered, and covered hash browns; and a vanilla Coke, light on the vanilla—will satisfy every time.
It’s become a place for celebrations, too. My husband and I have eaten many birthday and Valentine’s Day meals on those Formica tables while listening to eighties tunes on the jukebox, a cherished feature at every location.
A visit to Waffle House is so bewitchingly transcendent, it’s beloved by all. It was the site of the famous Super Bowl Eve double date of couples John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Carrie Underwood and her family eat Christmas breakfast there every year.
Even chefs are not immune to its charms.
“I have a long relationship with the Waffle House and places like it,” local restaurant impresario Ashley Christensen says. “My dad was a truck driver when I was growing up, so I’ve always had a soft spot for those twenty-four-hour restaurants that cater to travelers and find ways to create hospitality through accessibility. Waffle House is the pinnacle of this—they are consistent and always a sure bet. That’s one of the hardest things to achieve in restaurants, so I have a lot of respect for them.”
Christensen even chose to celebrate her most recent birthday at Waffle House. “I typically order an egg dish of some kind, always hash browns (smothered, covered, diced). And I like to do a pecan waffle for the table—I never want more than one bite, but can’t resist ordering it.”
Chef James Clark, of Postal Fish Company in Pittsboro, remembers going to Waffle House with his mom as a kid, a tradition he’s recreated with his own daughters.
“We go for the first day of school; we’ve gone after watching lunar eclipses and early morning school functions. And when it’s dad and daughters’ day,” Clark says. “My go-to order is a ‘patty melt one’ (one patty on Texas toast); hash browns scattered, covered, chunked; and a pecan waffle, extra crispy.”
There are twenty-one-hundred Waffle Houses, but each one feels like home.