What Waffle House Taught Me about the South

In December 2008, my family traveled from Orlando to Dallas on a two-day holiday road trip to visit our Texas relatives. Circumstances necessitated that we stop at a Louisiana Waffle House, a stone’s throw from the east–west Interstate 12, for some predawn grub. Amid the familiar sounds of spitting grease and innocuous jukebox tunes, we enjoyed orders of eggs, waffles, and coffee, gearing up for the long drive ahead.

Like a scene from Bad Santa—hilarious yet unsettling—a slumped-over businessman bolted awake in a nearby restaurant booth, shouting “Check!” When a counterworker yelled “You already paid your bill, man,” the guy took a moment then responded, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure. You see, I’m in the business.” Before unsteadily exiting into the dark morning chill, he approached our table and told my wife, “You have smiley eyes.”

By now, few dispute Waffle House’s popular status as a roadside icon of messy Southern modernity. With some 2,100 locations spread across more than two-dozen states, the budget all-night eatery has come a long way since Metro-Atlanta neighbors Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner launched operations in 1955. Today, even Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, boasts its very own scaled-down Waffle House, proof of its prevailing cultural cachet regionwide.

Although the chain itself does little or nothing to promote its Southern bona fides—indeed, its slogan “America’s Best Place to Eat” seems rather geographically diffuse—such regional associations persist, enjoying considerable currency among Americans of all stripes. Widely embraced as a warts-and-all microcosm of today’s Bible Belt, Waffle House engages the public imagination mostly in one of two ways.

The first largely subordinates Waffle House’s conventional menu of hearty, greasy spoon favorites to a range of aberrant onsite occurrences: everything from intoxicated graveyard-shift buffoonery to outright felonious behavior including murder and aggravated robbery. If the sensationalized media reports and snarky Internet tropes that such incidents elicit hold merit, then this lurid version of Waffle House certainly warrants its uncharitable billing as the Florida Man of restaurants.

The second and more recent approach to Waffle House serves as a counternarrative of sorts. It effectively humanizes the chain, approaching its clientele and employees as irrepressible underdogs, misunderstood by the elitist tastemakers and self-appointed gourmands who continuously fail to appreciate the simple yet dependable offerings that a roadside eatery, which ostensibly never locks its doors, provides for all. Figures like Anthony Bourdain and John Mayer have said as much throughout the years.

Each of these perspectives skews toward the reductive, obscuring the mundane restaurant realities that typically characterize everyday operations. With a limited marketing bandwidth—the chain famously avoids all television advertising—Waffle House cedes much of its messaging authority to others. This allows just about anyone to project their own prejudices and praises onto the blank canvas that the restaurant essentially provides.

Like its region of origin, Waffle House carries considerable cultural baggage. It’s a place easily caricatured but difficult to fully grasp. Besides the American West, no other US region is more thoroughly steeped in an enduring mythos than today’s South. From toxic Lost Cause nostalgia to spirited Sunbelt can-do-ism, this bloc of Southeastern and Gulf Coast states teems with a palpable sense of place, one informed by the aspirational yearnings and (mis)remembered histories that animate so many of the real and imaginary landscapes experienced by the millions of Americans who call this contiguous stretch of territory beneath the Mason–Dixon Line home.

With no shortage of voices to champion or challenge what the South truly means, the region resonates for reasons both admirable and unsettling, evoking a dichotomous character that defies simple characterization. For a region that prides itself for its staunch Christian values, folksy friendliness, and down-home charm, an ugly history of exclusion, enslavement, and extrajudicial violence continues to linger, despite efforts to downplay its impact or legislate it out of public discourse.

Reconciling the light and dark, good and bad, appealing and unflattering dualities that undergird the Southern identity proves no easy feat. Yet, Waffle House offers a viable entry point for anyone up the challenge. It’s open right now, and there’s a good chance of encountering something truly memorable on your next visit.

Ty Matejowsky is a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida. His new book is Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary.

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