The artistic allure of Waffle House, America’s most surprising culinary muse

From the Jonas Brothers to Jermaine Dupri, artists like their inspiration scattered, smothered and covered

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 2, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Waffle House in Durham, North Carolina on February 6, 2020 (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Waffle House in Durham, North Carolina on February 6, 2020 (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

"Martin Luther King had a dream, and I think Waffle House was in it," musician John Mayer once apparently said in an interview with the restaurant's corporate magazine. 

He isn't the only artist to regard the 24-hour diner chain as a kind of creative muse. Hootie and the Blowfish released a 2000 cover album called "Scattered, Smothered and Covered," while Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper meet there in the 2018 film "Mule." As Eater pointed out, at least one rap music video has been filmed in a Waffle House parking lot and, in the track "Welcome to Atlanta," Jermaine Dupri raps, "After the party it's the Waffle House/If you ever been here you know what I'm talkin' about."

And now, the Jonas Brothers have a new album coming out this month (called "The Album," their first since 2019) that was supported by the single, "Waffle House." It's a frothy, slick song made for summer that champions hot nights and "deep conversations at the Waffle House."

'"Waffle House" was born from a simple but powerful idea: When you sit down with the people that matter most, anything is possible," the group wrote on their social media. "This song isn't about a restaurant, it's about coming together with the people you love and making your dreams come true.'" 

I would argue that the statement should actually read "this song isn't just about a restaurant" because there's obviously something creators find alluring about it. So, what makes Waffle House such fertile ground for inspiration and why do we, as audiences, find ourselves drawn to art that's smothered and covered in the allure of America's favorite road trip stop?

A lot of it, I think, can certainly be attributed to the relative ubiquity of Waffle House — at least in certain parts of the country. Waffle House is headquartered in Norcross, Georgia, in the Atlanta metropolitan area, so the bulk of its 1900 locations are scattered across the American South, where the chain itself has become something of a cultural icon. 

The best demonstration of this is actually one of my favorite photography books, "Waffle House Vistas" by Micah Cash. The book itself was born from an essay Cash had written in 2019 for The Bitter Southerner. It begins like this: 

Let me get the most important thing out of the way first: I like my hash browns scattered and covered. My preferred accompaniment to that crispy mass of potatoes is a two-egg breakfast, scrambled, with wheat toast, a side of bacon, crispy, and black coffee. Now, let me address the other question: What compelled me to spend the better part of 2018 traveling throughout the southeastern United States with the sole purpose of visiting Waffle House restaurants?

Cash wrote that the project was, in part, inspired by his own affinity for the restaurant, but also because Waffle House served as the ideal vantage point to capture scenes across the region. In total, Cash sat in the booths of about 125 Waffle Houses and took photos of the environment outside of their windows, asking viewers to "look up from their hash browns and acknowledge the institutions and structures that create real, yet rarely acknowledged boundaries that feel impossible to break through for much of this country." 

Why do we find ourselves drawn to art that's smothered and covered in the allure of America's favorite road trip stop?

The restaurant is the perfect place to hold that discussion, Cash said, because it's for everyone.

"Waffle House does not care how much you are worth, what you look like, where you are from, what your political beliefs are, or where you've been," Cash wrote in the opening to his book, "so long as you respect the unwritten rules of Waffle House: Be kind, be respectful, and don't overstay when others are waiting for a table."

In addition to its ubiquity, Waffle House's sheer lack of pretension is another of its greatest virtues. I'm particularly fond of the episode from the sixth season of "Parts Unknown" when South Carolina chef Sean Brock takes Anthony Bourdain to Waffle House. 

While there, Brock explains to Bourdain — who is slathering syrup-drenched pecan waffles with butter from flimsy plastic packets — that this was the only restaurant he'd ever visited as a kid where we could actually watch the food being made. 

"You don't come here expecting the French Laundry," Brock said. "You come here expecting something amazing."

"This is better than the French Laundry," Bourdain replied. 

In his narrated description of the restaurant, Bourdain went on to say that it "is indeed marvelous — an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation is welcomed." 

Now, that wry "degree of inebriation" line underscores something that any true Waffle House aficionado knows: Anything can happen at a Waffle House. It is this liminal space that feels both incredibly familiar, yet a little devoid of time and place. Its staff are tough enough that they have taken on an almost folk hero-like status; for instance, the Waffle House closest to the University of Kentucky was rumored to have a line cook who put six rowdy frat boys in their place with a frying pan — and didn't drop the cigarette out of her mouth to do it. 

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It's no surprise that with every new video-sharing platform — from YouTube to TikTok — a genre of "Wild Waffle House" videos quickly forms. 

The writers at "Saturday Night Live" recently played with this idea in a sketch starring "Wednesday" star Jenna Ortega who plays a high school senior. She is ready to break up with her boyfriend, played by Marcello Hernandez, and this very serious, emotional conversation takes place in the parking lot of a Waffle House. 

Behind the glass windows, however, it's a different story: Waitresses are fighting. A dog has somehow gotten on top of the diner counter. A shirtless man (Mikey Day) is tased by cops, but is unaffected by the shock. Meanwhile, a woman who has been dancing on top of the counter alongside the dog swipes the taser and makes a run for it. Then, someone walks in with a torch. The chaos continues. 

Put another way, Waffle House is the wild west of chain breakfast restaurants. Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, once famously said of disaster areas: "If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That's really bad." 

You might have to flip on a generator or two, but you can't keep a Waffle House down — and as long as its doors are open, people will stream in. 

It's not all just drunk mayhem, however. 

"Whether you like it or not, Waffle House is your neighborhood diner, replicated thousands of times over."

Waffle House has had its real problems. As Cash wrote for The Bitter Southerner, he began his "Waffle House Vistas" project in the spring of 2018, amid a string of racially charged incidents that occurred at Waffle Houses throughout the South. The weight of those incidents even prompted the Rev. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, to call for a boycott of the beloved chain at the time. 

However, Waffle House remains enmeshed in our physical environment and continues to appear in our art; its unique combination of ubiquity and unpretentiousness imbues the restaurant with a kind of accessibility that results in people feeling a kind of creative ownership over it. 

As Cash wrote, "Whether you like it or not, Waffle House is your neighborhood diner, replicated thousands of times over." 

That's why when the Jonas Brothers sing the line "deep conversations at the Waffle House," many listeners are probably left thinking about the moments they've shared over cheap hash browns and a decent cup of coffee — from the sticky, hot summer party nights to the early road trip mornings. 

Sounds like the beginning of a new song to me.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Analysis Jermaine Dupri John Mayer Jonas Brothers Waffle House