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Around the clock at Waffle House

Smothered and covered on Cheshire Bridge Road

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"Every night is different. We get a lot of drunks; you just have to know how to handle them. You gotta have a go-get-them personality. And you've gotta pray." — Late-night shift waitress Ms. Shirley - BESHA RODELL
  • Besha Rodell
  • "Every night is different. We get a lot of drunks; you just have to know how to handle them. You gotta have a go-get-them personality. And you've gotta pray." — Late-night shift waitress Ms. Shirley

The breakfast rush is fast, and barely a rush at all. By now I have friends coming in to eat with me, a new person every hour or so, to make sure my presence as a paying customer doesn't require me to personally eat 23 waffles throughout the day. With each new order, Melissa calls out to the cook in Waffle House shorthand — "pull" which is the meat, "drop" which is the hash browns, and "mark" which is where the customer sits.

There are no paper tickets at Waffle House — everything is done verbally. The cooks have a system whereby they mark on the plate with ketchup packets and other condiments, a kind of visual code for each order. But at the height of the breakfast rush, with around 20 orders in front of him, it's hard to see how the cook is keeping everything straight, visual code or not. The tight economic movements and dance of the cook's hands over the griddle is stunningly impressive. I once heard a well-respected chef say of his hiring practices at his fine dining restaurant, "If a cook comes in with Waffle House on his resume, you hire that cook."

After 9:30 a.m., the restaurant empties again. Occasionally a hungover-looking couple comes in, eats quickly and leaves. It seems to be a popular spot for tough conversations, quietly desperate moments. A place you can come to feel anonymous, and therefore to have public moments that are basically private. Neutral ground.

At 11 a.m., a person comes in whose gender is hard to identify until Melissa and the other waitresses call out, "Hey, Donna! How are you today?" Donna has a magnificent mullet — very short and gelled on top, quite long in the back — and is wearing a white headband, like a 1980s tennis player. She's dressed in baggy light jeans pulled up high with a white T-shirt tucked in. She's as ageless as she is genderless. She could be 30 or 50, and she moves in slow motion, without any obvious signs of difficulty but more as if in some sort of trance.

She spends a long time in front of the jukebox, picking out songs with great thought and sadness on her face. Classic, heart-wrenching soul begins to play, changing the feel of the restaurant entirely. Donna takes a seat at the bar and listens intently as the songs progress from one heartbreak to another. When all her songs have played, about five or six of them, she gets up slowly and leaves. "OK, Donna," the waitresses call to her. "Have a good day at work!"

When Melissa gets off work, at 2 p.m. after the lunch rush, I have her tally my tickets for the last seven hours. Nine people fed at my table comes to only $50. I tip Melissa $20, which seems completely cheap for the amount of work she had done on my behalf. Just two nights ago, hadn't I tipped some waiter $30 for treating me with disdain for an hour and a half?

Second shift is the training shift, the first shift you work when you're hired. After Melissa's bright efficiency, my next waitress seems unsure. And though many people are still coming through to eat with me, and the restaurant is basically empty save a few very elderly customers who show up in the 1 to 4 p.m. hours, it's hard to get an order in or a refill of coffee during second shift.

My friends are showing up and staying much longer than they planned. They are falling into the Waffle House vortex. Perhaps I'm starting to get tired, or just a tad insane after sitting in one place for so long, but I feel as though space-time kind of doesn't exist inside the Waffle House. You sit and you talk and you drink coffee and the hours stretch on forever but also zip by quickly. All the conversations I've had throughout the day meld into one long conversation, one of scattered and smothered humor, musings on the Tao of Waffle House, and the ever-present surprise of how good those pecan waffles actually are.

I foolishly order a chicken salad in the middle of the afternoon. This is not the thing you should eat at Waffle House. The allure of lettuce seduces me, but as soon as the words leave my mouth and my waitress asks to make sure she heard me right, I realize my mistake. I barely touch the salad and it sits on the table for hours, until I am rescued at 9 p.m. by Ms. Shirley.

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