I moved to Boston from Atlanta around a year and a half ago, pre-vaccine, when stepping foot in a grocery store still had a post-apocalyptic feel to it. So when I finally got the shot and Boston started opening up again, you can imagine my shock at finding out that the city I had lived in for months at that point, despite being overrun with students, had very, very little to do past 10 p.m.
Yes, there are a handful of clubs that blast the whitest of white people music until 2 a.m., complete with hordes of slack-clad undergrads attempting—and usually failing—to dance to the beat, but that’s never really been my scene. As an aging millennial, though, “going out” in that sense has lost some of its appeal anyway, especially as my ability to consume more than two drinks in a single night without experiencing a truly gut-wrenching hangover fades to oblivion.
For me, the real tragedy of Boston’s nightlife lies not in the lack of any remotely danceable music but rather in the lack of late-night eateries. I mean, yeah, you can get late-night McDonald’s anywhere, and there are a few small spots that stay open late to feed those who do straggle home from the club in the wee hours of the morning. (Looking at you, Ajeen in Allston: You have my heart.) But there are few establishments open late that offer the absolute, uninhibited magic you will find at Atlanta-area Waffle Houses.
For those yet unacquainted with the restaurant, Waffle House is a diner chain that’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It serves mostly breakfast food, but you can also snag burgers, fries and even T-bone steaks there as well. To be clear, the quality of the food is not great, but Waffle House is notable not for its actual waffles but rather for its late-night atmosphere. Fluorescent lights beat down on heavily lidded, bloodshot eyes attempting to scan the overwhelming, laminated menus. Cooks, fully visible to the whole restaurant, shout orders at each other over the frying sounds of hashbrowns and bacon. A pair or small group of patrons are always getting into an alcohol-fueled disagreement or going through a tearful breakup over strong, bitter mugs of coffee.
While Waffle House is dotted all over the Southern U.S., Atlanta boasts a disproportionately large number of locations: As of 2019, there were 263 locations in the metro area alone. And any young person who has gone out in the Peach State has probably found themselves at a Waffle House in the middle of the night at some point. It’s an experience, it’s a rite of passage and it’s a must-see spot for all those who fantasize about the gritty diner aesthetic so prominent in early 2010s indie films.
But a successful trip to Waffle House takes some knowledge and preparation. Order an egg white omelet, for example, or visit at noon on a Tuesday, and you won’t get the experience beloved by locals. So, without further ado, here are some rules you should follow when you visit a Waffle House:
This should go without saying for any restaurant, but it’s worth making note of, especially when it comes to a spot like Waffle House. Working at a late-night diner is not for the faint of heart. Workers there face difficult hours, low pay and sometimes belligerent customers. They’re often both taking orders and working over a hot, greasy griddle. And still, the vast majority of the time, they provide fast, friendly service. The food is also relatively inexpensive, so their tips don’t add up as fast as those at a typical sit-down restaurant do. In this case, a 20% tip is the absolute bare minimum. If you tip less than that, I hope you slip on the fresh vomit of a drunk college freshman in the bathroom.
Waffle House serves breakfast food, so many poor, unsuspecting victims decide to actually eat breakfast there. This is a mistake. Brunch? Absolutely not. That’s even worse. In reality, Waffle House should only be enjoyed from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. These are the only times you can expect to truly appreciate the restaurant’s food and the character of the customers. At this point in the night, the slightly soggy blueberry pancake is transformed into the hybrid breakfast-dessert of your dreams. The small, square jelly packets seem like invaluable jewels fashioned from high-fructose corn syrup. And you don’t care that your fried egg comes out technically scrambled.
Most importantly, it’s prime time for people-watching: the quiet old man who visits every night and orders nothing more than a black coffee. The high schoolers who obviously got too high at the night’s football game. The rowdy frat boys fighting over which song to play next on the jukebox. You will see something strange, which is kind of the whole point of being there anyway.
I’m usually not one to police people’s orders at any restaurant, but at Waffle House, I will always stand by one order and one order alone: The All-Star Special. If you know, you know. This order gets you basically everything on the breakfast menu, but it’s totally customizable. Choose how you want your eggs cooked, what kind of waffle you prefer and whether you want white bread or cinnamon-raisin for your toast. You’ll get a massive amount of food, and it gives you an opportunity to sample a little bit of everything from the menu. It comes with a waffle, two eggs, toast, hashbrowns or grits and bacon, sausage or ham. It’s definitely shareable, but hopefully, you came with a ravenous-enough appetite to order it all for yourself. (Take-out boxes available upon request, of course.)
Waffle House may attract unsavory characters from time to time, but it also attracts the best people from every corner of society. Pretentiousness is not permitted at Waffle House, and the late-night folks who frequent the restaurant tend to be fun and down for an adventure. Befriend your middle-aged server and listen to her chat about her kids. Connect with the other group of young adults and ask them where they’re headed next. Tell the obviously drunk girl in the bathroom she looks great despite her smeared makeup and weather-inappropriate outfit.
I can personally attest to the magic of making connections at a Waffle House because I was with my friend five years ago when she met a hot Italian guy in the parking lot of a Waffle House and gave him her number. They’re now married and live in a rent-controlled one-bedroom with super-high ceilings in the middle of Chelsea in Manhattan that they pay only—I kid you not—$1,400 a month for. This could be your future, but only if you’re brave enough to say hi to the other Waffle House-dwellers.
Waffle House may be a place where ruckus is caused, but that doesn’t mean you have to cause the ruckus yourself. Sobriety certainly isn’t a requirement to get through the door of a Waffle House, and you’ll be welcomed even in your less-than-lucid state, but that doesn’t give you a pass to be rude to your servers, make a mess or, you know, commit any crimes. Too drunk to stand? Go to bed and order to-go Waffle House in the morning to cure your hangover.
The best WaHo customers are friendly, hungry and ready to have a great time at Waffle House—not at its or its workers’ expense.
Samantha Maxwell is a food and wine writer, editor and occasional oyster slinger based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.