Eat

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The case against Waffle House

Sean Brock's practical joke on the North

Posted by Stratton Lawrence on Tue, Dec 29, 2015 at 1:39 PM

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I love Waffle House — don’t get me wrong. Total up my visits to any single restaurant, chain, or mom-and-pop, and my meals at Waffle House rank No. 1 by a long shot. But when Anthony Bourdain buddies around Charleston with Sean Brock, — as he recently did for an episode of his travel show Parts Unknown — most viewers expect qualitative substance over quantitative visit tallies. Waffle House makes for good TV, but it’s not quality food.

It’s not bad food either. Waffle House is a Southern — hell, American — institution that should be visited, appreciated, cherished, preserved, and frequented. But in a roundup of the top five, or top 10, or even top 100 places to eat in Charleston? It simply doesn’t make the cut (and there’s hardly a chain restaurant that does).

When I first began purchasing my own meals, around age 15, Waffle House was my second kitchen table. My family moved to Italy that year, just as I’d discovered this yellow-tinted haven, and while drinking café latte con Bailey’s at streetside cafes in Rome, I stupidly waxed poetic about the virtues of Waffle House to my new international band of friends. On a 10-day trip back to Pensacola for spring break, I made a point to eat at Waffle House every day. Every single day. That includes immediately upon landing, and just before taking off. (This was also the phase where I’d request one of their paper hats upon each visit — perhaps a childhood holdover from wanting my meals to come with a prize).

My standard order? A hash brown covered and diced, and a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, plus the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” on the jukebox, the single best one-song-to-stretch-two-quarters play there is.

At college in North Carolina, Waffle House became less of a "Where should we eat today?" type of destination, and instead the staple stop when driving home from a concert in Asheville, Raleigh, or Winston-Salem. I stumbled into Waffle House in bodily and mental conditions I would never enter another restaurant in, and they welcomed me, even when I leaped from my booth at the smoke I saw rising from the floor or stared bug-eyed at the waitress as her hair appeared to melt into my coffee. We’ll call that my Fear and Loathing phase at Waffle House, both terrifying and beautiful. True, whatever race, creed, or altered psychological state you subscribe to, Waffle House welcomes you.

Once I moved to Charleston permanently in 2003, however, Waffle House fell from a once-a-week habit to a monthly-or-so incursion, stopping in across the bridge to soak up the Salty Mike’s rum in my gut after a hairy Wednesday night. Waffle House still served its purpose, but as I matured into earlier bedtimes, it began to work its way out of my schedule.

Three years ago, up late and hungry in Black Mountain, N.C., my wife and I pulled into a Waffle House, at my behest. I was shocked to learn that growing up in Charleston and being educated in the Carolinas, she wasn’t keen to my old haunt’s many virtues. Over the next hour, I implored her to order things I rarely did (like a waffle), told her stories of my high school and college days (she was not impressed), and generally tried to convey and instill the importance of Waffle House on Southern culture to her.

But when a soggy plate of potatoes and white bread with eggs, greasy bacon, and American cheese hit my plate, it was hard to keep up the argument. She saw through my ruse.

So let me clarify. I love Waffle House because it’s part of my life story. In a way, I grew up there. Like Sean Brock so convincingly explains in Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode on Charleston, it’s the first place I got to watch a cook’s process, from start to finish.

It’s the first restaurant I ever truly loved.

But is a sugary waffle drenched in high-fructose corn syrup worthy of praise by one of the more legit food reporters in the world in an episode dedicated to the specificities of the food scene in Charleston?

Recently, when Danny Bowien, the chef and founder of Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York, visited Charleston to cook Frogmore stew and face-numbing fried chicken with Brock at the Royal American (the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted, quite honestly), they concluded their evening with dinner at Husk. The next morning, Bowien and his New York-based crew ate at Waffle House.

So in a visit to one of the country’s most important food cities, one of the country’s most exciting, innovative young chefs ate at Waffle House. Sure, that’s among an array of other worthy restaurants where he ate, according to a mutual friend who joined Bowien on his visit, but what is this gospel that Brock is spreading?

In college, I’d argue stone faced that Busch was the best tasting beer in the world. Clearly I was wrong. I still enjoy an occasional Busch today — mostly for the nostalgia, and mostly when I’m on the water or outside — but it’s not what I’m going to order at a craft beer bar with 40 local IPAs, stouts, and porters on tap.

I get that Waffle House is for the everyman. The majority of us in Charleston don’t have the budget to justify frequent meals at the pricey downtown restaurants we glorify in the media. So recognizing a staple of Southern diner cooking in a real way — not in a ticketed, fancy "recreate Waffle House dishes for Wine + Food Festival-goers" way — has real value to the average viewer.

Charleston is still the South, and our Waffle Houses are important. We should all eat there, and take comfort in knowing that there’s a familiar face who will welcome us in at any hour of the night without judgment. But at the end of the day, it’s still factory-sourced, short-order, generally unhealthy grub. If foodie tourists start to line up outside the door, the joke’s on them. 

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