Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
550 North Greenbriar Pkwy, Marietta, GA 30062 (map); 1811 Williams Drive, Marietta, GA 30066 (map); wafflehouse.com, 1,700+ locations
The Schtick: No-frills Southern diner chain
The Burger: Angus burgers get the griddle treatment and can be topped with basic add-ons
Want Fries With That? No fries, but the chain's hashbrowns are world-famous and can be customized to near-infinity
Setting: 24/7 diner with counter service and tiny booths
Price:Angus Cheeseburger, $2.75; Double Angus Cheeseburger, $4.15; toppings, 40¢ for first 2, 35¢ each additional
Granted, it's a total dive. True, the food is absurdly cheap. Yes, there seems to be one on every other corner in these parts. But I don't know a single Southerner who doesn't carry a supersized soft spot deep in their seersuckered heart for Waffle House. Today, the 1,700-restaurant chain enjoys genuinely iconic status across the South after humble beginnings in the tiny Atlanta enclave of Avondale Estates in 1955.
Sure, they've sold almost a billion waffles since then and they're notorious for attracting all manner of drunk/famous/misbehaving/otherwise colorful clientele in the wee hours, but Waffle House mystique also extends into parts of society that you might not expect. Take, for example, the Waffle House Index. That's an informal—but actual—system used by FEMA to gauge the severity of catastrophe after a natural disaster. See, Waffle House never closes. So if the FEMA guys hit the ground after a tornado, hurricane, or other nasty event has blown through and the local Waffle House's grill isn't cranked up (WHI Level: Red), they know it's hella bad and time to call for backup.
Obviously, Waffle House was built on breakfast. But they do a full menu, too, and like any respectable diner, they can plate a cooked-to-order burger for you almost as quickly as the fast food joint across the street can shove theirs into a wax paper wrapper as part of your haphazardly assembled combo meal. You may not consider Waffle House a burger place, but I submit that theirs is actually better—and a much better bargain—than what the clown, the king, and the pigtailed girl are handing out.
The menu features a very basic burger lineup: a quarter-pounder with or without cheese, a bacon cheeseburger, a double-patty cheeseburger, and a $1 hamburger. Waffle House uses 100 percent Angus, and all burgers come standard with pickles, mayo, and your choice of lettuce, tomato, and grilled onions on a grilled and buttered bun.
My Double Angus Cheeseburger ($4.15) sported lovely char from the griddle, with a satisfyingly gooey melt job on the single slice of cheese between the patties, and a tangy bed of grilled onions underneath the bottom burger.
Of course, the thin patties (not frozen, but pre-shaped and slapped on the flattop right out of the fridge with no seasoning that I could see or taste) are cooked grey all the way through, but my burger hit my placemat within 20 seconds of coming off the grill. Hot, steamy, melty, with real grease dripping off of it here and there—this is fast food without everything that makes fast food cringeworthy.
I defy you to take $4.15 into your go-to megachain and come away with a better double cheeseburger. With this burger, I ordered a side of hashbrowns, got a sweet tea with free refills, enjoyed some chitchat with my waitress, and left a tip—all for a ten spot.
Fries aren't part of the deal at Waffle House, but that's only because they've perfected the art of the hashbrown to the nth degree. Arguably the most famous thing on the menu, Waffle House's shredded potatoes can be customized over three million ways, according to the company.*
*The chain factors in possible tweaks that aren't listed on the menu, like ketchup, Tabasco, an egg, bacon, etc., as well as different prep methods and donenesses to arrive at this figure. For a really nerdy but entertaining look at one guy's search for just how many ways Waffle House hashbrowns can be done, check out this site.
Using their diner lingo, the classic order (and my usual) is "scattered, smothered, and covered," but for the truly adventurous (and/or blindingly hungover) with four bucks and no sense of self-restraint, there's "All The Way."
That's a mess of hashbrowns scattered on the grill, smothered with sauteed onions, covered in melted cheese, chunked with grilled ham, diced with grilled tomatoes, peppered with jalapeños, capped with grilled mushrooms, topped with chili, and then given country status for good measure with a heavy ladling of sausage gravy. Okay, okay, I opted out of the chili...but only after this exchange with my waitress:
"Do you really want the chili AND the gravy?"
"I don't know. Do people really do that?"
"Some people do...but I think it looks like someone threw up on the plate."
"Let's skip that, then."
Instead, I put the chili on a single-patty Angus Cheeseburger. Waffle House will let you build your own burger with add-ons like mushrooms, jalapeños, and sausage gravy. Bert's Chili, a recipe developed by an actual 30-year WH employee, is a little runny for my tastes and contains beans (fine by me, but a little shocking, considering Bert is a Texan!). It made for a sloppy sandwich—one you don't necessarily want other people to actually see you eating, but one that you're not sorry you ate afterward. I can think of far worse ways to spend $3.55.
And that's Waffle House in a nutshell for a lot of folks. It's certainly not glamorous or fancy, but it's solid, hearty fare, served up in a friendly and no-frills atmosphere at more than reasonable prices. And while their burgers may not win any Best-Of competitions anytime soon, if I have ten bucks and a half-hour to spend, a burger craving, and am stuck with a choice between Waffle House and just about any fast food outpost I can think of, I'm eating where the FEMA guys eat.