By outside appearances, Waffle House #411 (325 Savannah Highway, Charleston) isn’t all that special. It looks like virtually every other Waffle House in America — a yellow-and-black shoebox on the outskirts of town. The Savannah Highway Waffle House is different, though. It’s famous.
Celebrity chef Sean Brock brought Anthony Bourdain here in 2015 to film an episode of Parts Unknown, highlighting the joys of drunkenly devouring pecan waffles and scattered, smothered, and covered hash browns. Stephen Colbert, a Charleston native, shot an episode of his late-night show here, too. He convinced singer Sturgill Simpson to record “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Knuckleheads” for the Waffle House jukebox. Good times have been had at this place. And that’s what you hope to encounter when you pull up here.
But what happens at the Waffle House will be up to the 24-hour diner gods. Sometimes you can stop in here for lunch on a Saturday afternoon and be greeted by a happy, smiling staff, the jukebox playing tunes, a regular customer tipping the entire crew just like he always does.
The waitstaff, perhaps buoyed by that guy’s generous tipping policy and the looming shift change, gives you a friendly welcome, save for the one very tired waitress who sits down at the counter and rests her head on her arms. And when you ask if they still have cheesy eggs and raisin toast, which used to be your favorite, but no longer appears on the picture menu, the waitress says you can order it if you want.
The vibes at this point are all-American diner — or perhaps all-Southern diner, because the Waffle House was born and raised in the South, where grits or hash browns come on every plate. The cook works the grill like an aspiring Rockstar Grill Operator, the name they give their very best cooks, the ones who have mastered the Waffle House short order system, which has taken down many a celebrity chef at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s annual Waffle House Smackdown event.
At 1 p.m., the lunchtime staff cheers, celebrating the fact that they made it through their shift — several of them had started at 9 p.m. Friday night. This means they survived a post-Friday night bar scene, when the downtown bars disgorged drunkards looking for food to soak up the alcohol. No wonder the waitress is resting her head. She just lived through it.
As you eat your breakfast for lunch, you look at the colorful photos of Brock and Bourdain and Colbert and Simpson on the wall above the kitchen area and think, wow, this #411 is a special Waffle House. And you eat your cheesy eggs feeling a part of it all. You swear you can feel the community. This is the place, after all, that stays open during hurricanes to feed the first responders and the folks who ride it out.
But sometimes, on the way home after a night at the bars, the vibes are different. More defensive. The stools at the counter are blocked with plastic bags and Cambro containers. The four empty tables are covered in dirty dishes, and when you look expectantly at the waitress, hoping she’ll clean one of the tables off for you, she says flatly, “This section is closed.” So you stand around awkwardly, waiting for the other waiter to be nice and welcome you and clean off the only available table in the not-closed section. Which he does. Eventually. And you sit down, right beneath those pictures of celebrities having a blast at the Waffle House.
As you wait (and wait) for your food, more people come in and stand awkwardly, hoping they can be seated. At this point, the fun photos seem to mock you. Yeah, good times were had here, but tonight, it’s just another late night at a Waffle House. You put a $5 bill in the jukebox to see if music will liven the mood, but it immediately shuts down, as if someone flipped a switch so they didn’t have to hear another dumb Waffle House song. You watch a rowdy crew of bar-goers walk in and be disappointed that no tables are available. You see a pair of sheriff’s deputies come in and scarf down a couple of hash brown bowls. Your food arrives, and you look at the undercooked-yet-somehow-burnt bacon on your plate and feel deflated. But you eat it anyway because what else are you gonna do? It’s bacon. And you’re at the Waffle House. You can’t really expect it to be perfect every time.
As you leave, you notice the waitress has officially closed down the section with a chair barricade and is sitting at a now-cleaned table with her head down, resting. You can’t really blame her. You heard some grumbling about someone not coming in for their shift, and you imagine she’s been working since 9 p.m. the night before. So you cut her some slack as you leave the bright interior of the Waffle House and head home into the night, knowing you’ll be back before too long. Because the Waffle House is still special, even when your experience isn’t.