Foodies active in the Twitterverse were amused, one recent night, to find myself and Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant editor of Bon Appetit, separately tweeting from Denny’s and Waffle House, respectively. My reaction, once alerted to the fact, was neither surprise nor amusement. No, I was jealous. Knowlton had won. Denny’s was just a weaker, better-furnished version of Waffle House. In fact, it occurred to me, every restaurant is in some way a paler approximation of Waffle House.
Because Waffle House is the Great American Restaurant.
The chain has been in the public eye more than usual recently, the result of an unfortunate spate of violent crimes that have taken place there. But where else are they going to take place? A large part of America lives at Waffle House. Teenagers go there after parties; retirees kill their mornings there. Software salesmen stop there to plan their meetings; criminals stop in to plan heists. America has a race problem, and so there have been race issues at the chain, most notably a 2005 lawsuit in Virginia. Our food system is screwed up, so sometimes people have gotten sick or fat there. They are cash operations that are always open and seldom have so much as a traffic light surrounding them; of course there are crimes there. Why wouldn’t there be? Sometimes they are even committed by the employees themselves. Whatever.
And yet Waffle House doesn’t just endure; it exults. There are many chains that are more ubiquitous than Waffle House. It’s neither large (1600 units) nor truly national (they are concentrated in the Southeast, where they seem to adorn nearly every exit ramp.) The quantities of food they serve, though they seem titanic to the chain itself, are not really that amazing. Nor, to be totally honest, is the food at any given Waffle House better than at any really well-run traditional diner.
And yet I can hardly think of a single entity as inordinately pleased with itself as this chain of squat, square, no-frills buildings, whose check average is generally less than a Domino’s pizza. Waffle House, like the country it serves and, in so many ways, represents, never got the memo that it was undersized and less than prestigious. When you go in there, there is a jukebox filled with unlistenable anthems, comparable in tone and style to Warsaw Bloc field marches, all celebrating the place. Language everywhere expresses an incredulous awe (“If you could stack all of the Sausage Patties that Waffle House serves in one day on top of each other, it would be nearly twice the size of the World’s Tallest Building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai or four times the size of the Empire State Building!”)
You can almost hear McDonald’s corporate chefs laughing. But that’s OK. Because Waffle House’s value isn’t how many sausage patties it sells, or how much coffee it serves (“enough to fill nearly eight Olympic swimming pools!”) or its cultlike following or even the blissful insularity it has from the outside world. Even its legendary resilience, which the government actually uses as an index of disaster severity, isn’t the thing I love the most about it. That would be the grill operators. The Great American Restaurant shouldn’t be a place where the workers are hidden in the back, where the only interface is with fawning servers; it should be a place where there are no secrets, no shadows, no middle managers cracking the whip where the customers can’t see. There should be value, and competence and an utterly egalitarian transparency. You sit at the counter at Waffle House, and you order your triple scattered smothered hash browns with extra grease, say. The grill operator makes it well. The ingredients are about as bad as they can be, but the price is right, and they will come out right every time. If you are lucky, you might get served by a Master Grill Operator, a virtuoso capable of selling $3200 worth of food in a 10-hour shift, in a place that charges $7 for a T-bone steak. I’m told that there is such a thing as a Super Master Grill Operator, but their existence is shadowy and unconfirmed.
Whether the grill operator is a tyro or a master, he operates the grill via a secret “magic marker” system that doesn’t involve any written tickets. Instead, the cook marks a plate with various condiments to indicate what the order is. There has never been an official reason given for this system, but I’m convinced that it’s an accommodation to the many grill operators that have shaky literacy skills. Waffle House is one of the places an ex-convict or a dropout can get a job — and not a job washing dishes in the back, or stocking shelves but the most important job in the restaurant and one done in plain sight of everyone. Even hedge fund managers are not considered beneath the dignity of the position.
Even if they were, I suppose, they could still come in and eat there. Anyone can. And anyone who wants to feel good about America, even in the worst of times, really ought to.