“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. Its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South to to come inside. A place of safety and nourishment. It never closes. It is always, ALWAYS faithful. Always there FOR YOU.”
Those were the wise words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, from his Parts Unknown episode where he visited a Waffle House restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.
The man did so much for broadening people’s views about food, between his brilliant books, like Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and his fascinating food shows, like No Reservations and Parts Unknown. He encouraged us to experiment and try new things in new places with new people, to step out of our culinary comfort zones, challenge our sensibilities, and open ourselves up to new, potentially life-changing experiences. As a food blogger, he is one of my greatest influences, in terms of his unique voice (both his writing style and his soothing TV show narration), his curiosity and empathy, and his sense of adventure.
Bourdain knew a good meal when he saw it, whether it was five-star fine dining or some dirty, dangerous dive halfway across the globe. I always appreciated that he spoke so highly of Waffle House (https://www.wafflehouse.com/), that ubiquitous-yet-humble chain of 24-hour Southern diners, and highlighted it on his show.
I also unironically love Waffle House. It is practically synonymous with a “greasy spoon,” and sometimes infamous for unsavory late-night antics. But the truth is, you can get a delicious, hearty, affordable meal there at any time of the day or night, prepared right before your eyes in an open kitchen. I am lucky enough to live near the best Waffle House location ever — always spotless, fast, and friendly no matter when you show up, with impeccable, satisfying, soul-nourishing food. Scoff all you want — if you’re still skeptical, that just means you’ve been denying yourself one of the greatest comfort food experiences to be had in the South.
I’ve been composing this Waffle House review and compiling photos for months, over the course of several separate visits with my wife. But today was Anthony Bourdain’s birthday, so it felt like the right thing to do to go back tonight, to reminisce about the life and legacy of one of the greatest foodies of all, to indulge our senses and think about all the entertainment and education the man provided us over the years. We were also joined by some members of the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, a Facebook group that has also broadened my culinary horizons and introduced me to some amazing new friends. It felt right to commune with these fellow foodies and Bourdain fans, and to talk and laugh and share food with them, tonight of all nights. We learned all the right lessons.
Even if you aren’t familiar with the glory of Waffle House, you may have heard of their flawless hash browns and all the different ways you can order them:
- Smothered with grilled onions
- Covered with melted cheese
- Chunked with grilled smoked ham
- Diced with grilled tomatoes
- Peppered with pickled jalapeno peppers
- Capped with grilled button mushrooms (more for y’all!)
- Topped with Bert’s Chili
- Country with sausage gravy
I am perfectly happy to eat my hash browns straight up with ketchup, but I do love them smothered and covered as a special treat. My wife prefers hers plain, as usual. Tonight one of our dinner companions ordered hers covered, chunked, and peppered. (I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later!)
The All-Star Special is a bargain and also a challenge: fried eggs (you can get them in other styles), accompanied by smothered hash browns (dig the grilled onions) and buttery white toast. Tonight I was feeling like a big shot, so I got cheese on my eggs with a specific purpose in mind:
A picture from an earlier visit, this time with no cheese on the eggs, and thicker grilled and buttered Texas toast, superior to the white toast:
We both love their very crispy bacon, which is my wife’s go-to breakfast meat at any time of day:
You can choose between bacon, sausage, and ham for this All-Star Special, or pay a slight upcharge for a large cut of rich, salty, bone-in country ham, bursting with far more flavor than the “everyday” ham. The country ham is my new favorite. Obviously the texture is totally different, but it always reminds me of prosciutto, one of my favorite foods in the whole world.
As if that wasn’t enough, the All-Star Special also includes a plain waffle, which I believe is made with Golden Malted waffle and pancake mix, the best commercial mix I’ve ever found. It isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make waffles or pancakes from scratch at home, but I buy that mix now to try (in vain) to recreate the perfection of a Waffle House waffle. The outside is always crispy, the inside is always fluffy. Anyway, if I ordered this one in the photo, it would soon be doused in syrup:
Here’s a waffle topped with peanut butter chips, from another visit. You can also get chocolate chips and even pecans. They have even offered peach waffles in past summers, which is a pro-tier move from this Atlanta, Georgia-based company. I’m looking forward to peach waffle season.
Grits! Not my favorite, but my wife sure loves ’em with some butter and salt. We all know that no self-respecting Southerner would make instant grits, but I’m not sure if these are “real” or instant.
And she turned me onto the grilled, split, soft and buttery biscuits, which she likes instead of toast, with a little butter and jam. You can also order a biscuit sandwich with eggs, cheese, and the breakfast meat of your choice.
This is another one of my favorites, the Texas sausage, egg, and cheese melt, on grilled and buttered Texas toast, with added grilled onions. I like mustard on my eggs, mmmm hmmmm. Pure breakfast perfection at any time of day (or night), but I hate eating in the morning. We’re much more likely to go there for dinner.
Tonight, another one of my adventurous friends ordered something I’ve never tried before: the new Cheesesteak Melt Hashbrown Bowl, which is pretty self-explanatory: a large order of hash browns covered with melted cheese and topped with cheesesteak and grilled onions. Everything a growing boy needs, it’s the breakfast of champions, even at 8:30 on a Tuesday night.
But Waffle House is about so much more than just breakfast food! I actually love their burgers.
This is my standard: the $2 double “original” Angus cheeseburger that comes with two patties, melted cheese, and grilled onions on a grilled, buttered bun, with pickles and a packet of delicious WH Sauce, which is similar to chipotle mayo. (It is a Heinz product, and I wish they sold it in bottles!) It’s very much like an old-school diner burger, like the burger you imagine being served at a diner in a Tom Waits song. It is better than just about any fast food burgers. DID I MENTION IT IS $2? It may be the best $2 you’ll ever spend on food.
Again, a better photo from a different visit. I think American cheese is the ultimate cheese for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, for how nicely it melts. Yeah, come at me, bro.
Here’s one adorned with that WH Sauce:
And here’s tonight’s burger, pre-WH Saucing, side by side with one of those wondrous waffles. Don’t worry, they don’t serve them on the same plate, but we had six people at our tiny table, so I was trying to consolidate:
One day they were out of burger buns, so I asked if they could serve the burger on grilled Texas toast. They happily obliged, and I think it was even better — kinda like a patty melt. Pardon the blurriness.
My wife swears by Waffle House’s grilled pork chops, always with her beloved hash browns. These have supplanted eggs and bacon as her standard order, although she still loves the grits, waffles, and biscuits too. They are surprisingly tender, juicy, flavorful, bone-in pork chops. Ask for the “seasoning” — it is just a salt and pepper blend, but it adds a unique touch, and they aren’t the same without it.
Chops ‘n’ browns:
More chops ‘n’ browns:
And if you decide you want picante sauce for your hash browns, eggs, sandwiches, or burgers, I love that the brand is Senora Jackie’s Casa de Waffle. This was old news to us, but our table-mates got a real kick out of it.
Waffle House usually has good sweet iced tea, and I like my iced tea like I like my women: sweet, strong, cool, and with lemon. But usually I’ll get a vanilla Coke or vanilla root beer there, on top of all those other carbs. They actually squirt real vanilla syrup into the fountain beverage, which makes a nice difference. I can’t speak for the coffee, since I rarely touch the stuff.
Waffle House restaurants all have another beloved feature: a jukebox, loaded up with pop hits, golden oldies, and a surprising number of novelty songs written ABOUT Waffle House. Fun fact: Waffle House even has its own record label! I rarely indulge with the jukebox, which is odd, because I love foisting… uh, sharing my musical tastes with others. But tonight I spared our new friends and the stalwart staff, lest I be tempted to queue up some Tom Jones on repeat.
And one more fun fact about the Waffle House I think you should know: it is often the first business up and running again after hurricanes and other natural disasters! Because it stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refers to the “Waffle House Index” in terms of the severity and impact of the disaster. According to this transcribed National Public Radio interview, “If a Waffle House is closed because a disaster is bad, [FEMA calls] it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow… And a completely open, full-menu Waffle House is green.” A Waffle House spokesman said “If we’re opening up quickly, that’s a good sign that community is going to come back quickly. If we are on a limited menu, that’s probably because we’re – have some utilities out, so it’s going to take a bit longer for that community to come back.” So as we edge in those scary Southern summer months that occasionally bring hurricanes, maybe pay as close attention to your local Waffle House as you do to your favorite telegenic weatherperson.
The world is certainly not the same without Anthony Bourdain, and I think about him whenever I try a new dish, visit a new restaurant, or explore a new city… and also whenever I end up at my friendly neighborhood Waffle House. Tonight, over a late dinner with my winsome, wondrous wife — the person I love most in the world — and some really great new foodie friends, Bourdain was on our minds and in our hearts. That fellowship, the fact that I found my way onto a local food forum on Facebook, the fact that I started this blog just over a year ago and bother writing about food at all — I can trace all of it back to him. So on his birthday, a year after we lost him, I mourned and celebrated the man, I ate good food with good people, and I thought long and hard about how lucky we all are to be able to do that.