“You write too much about Waffle House,” writes John, from Hoboken, New Jersey. “I’m sick of reading about stupid Waffle Houses, they can’t be as good as you purport. We don’t have them here where I live.”
“You write about Waffle House like it’s the afterlife,” writes Carol of Clearwater, Florida. “For crying out loud, move on. It’s just grease and waffles.”
In response to my critics, I have three words: T-bone.
It’s 11:27 p.m. I walk into the Waffle House in Hampton, Georgia. The place is full tonight because it’s the only place open. And it’s the only place in America that serves a T-bone steak and a few eggs for under $15.
There are truckers with sagging eyes. College-age kids who have been out late, drinking too much Ovaltine. A table of young women in nursing scrubs, speaking rapid-fire Español. A four-top of guys in neon road-crew vests, eating hash browns.
My server tonight is Robert. He is young. His skin is the color of mahogany. His eyes do not focus on me directly. At first, I’m not sure whether he’s looking at me until he speaks.
“How are you tonight, boss?”
My grandmother’s vision was impaired all her life. His mannerisms remind me of hers.
“Know what you’d like to eat?” he says in a friendly tone.
So I place my order: T-bone. Hash browns. Coffee. The trifecta.
Robert writes this down with painstaking carefulness. I can tell he is straining to see his own text as he writes. He holds his nose only inches from the notepad. But nothing slows him down. This kid is a real talent.
Meanwhile, Robert has a full house of customers constantly calling for him, asking for this and that, and just generally being giant pains in the Blessed Assurance.
Moreover, I can tell Robert is working against his own eyesight. This young man has every right to be aggravated tonight, maybe even a little cranky. Because some of his troublesome customers are barking orders like brass hats in the heat of combat.
But this kid isn’t even fazed. He manages to make me feel like the most important customer on planet Earth.
I wish you could meet him. This young man is so cheerful, dutiful, and outgoing that he makes Santa Claus look like a jerk.
After writing my ticket, he calls out my order to the cook. And here is where Waffle House stands above the finest Michelin five-star restaurants in the world.
Watching a Waffle House server call orders is like watching someone work in oils or clay. Like watching the cliff swallows gather in San Juan Capistrano. Like seeing a sunrise in Waipahu. Like watching old Larry Welk strike up the orchestra.
The server stands on his or her mark. Then, using a special vocabulary, they communicate to the cook using the “Pull, Drop, Mark” calling system. A system based on three basic but elegant steps.
And it is a thing of beauty.
“Pull one T-bone!” he calls out. “Drop one in a ring!”
The cook gets to work.
And now, Robert’s job has just become considerably more involved. Because now it’s time for the “magic marking” portion of my order.
This is where each plate is marked by the server in an elaborate secret code, a visual code which relays custom orders to the cook.
This coded system is so complex, so finely tuned, so nuanced, that learning the code is not unlike trying to memorize the periodic table in Norwegian. It takes some servers months to get it right.
For example, if the server sets up your plate with a jelly packet atop a mustard packet, this means the customer wants an extra egg.
If the condiment packet, however, is turned horizontally at the top of the plate, this means the customer wants an omelet with ham.
If there is a ketchup packet in the middle of a plate, it means sirloin, medium. If the packet is at the bottom: sirloin, rare. Packet at the top: sirloin, well done.
If there are two pickles at the bottom of a plate, this means a sandwich with bacon. But if you move those pickles left or right, you indicate different meats.
A mayo packet atop a butter packet, placed atop the cook’s board means a light waffle. If the mayo is facing up; a dark waffle.
If there is a butter packet, mayo packet, mustard packet, jelly packet, three pickles, four nickels, a Saltine cracker, and one shoelace twisted into the shape of the Virgin Mary, this means call for help, the server is about to have a nervous breakdown.
Robert calls my order perfectly. The cook prepares my order with precision agility. My coffee never falls below the rim.
And even though this dining room is chock-full of difficult customers incessantly asking for more stuff, I receive my food from Robert in four minutes and eighteen seconds.
The guy beside me at the counter receives his chicken melt in less time than that. And if this doesn’t impress you, then you can go back to Taco Bell and starve.
The guy next to me finishes his meal and points to Robert.
“Man,” he says, “I am so impressed with this kid. He’s incredible, ain’t he?”
That he is.
Grease and waffles my foot.