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Southern hospitality, 24 hours a day

Musicians compose songs about its food. People go there to celebrate the birth of their first child. Students set up Internet shrines devoted to the glories of its cooking. Couples have gotten married there.

No, not Spago's - the Waffle House.

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A Sun Belt phenomenon that's as ubiquitous as kudzu and as Southern as sweet tea, the Waffle House sparks a devotion in its regulars unseen since the grill stopped hissing at Mel's Diner.

"Every time I see a Waffle House, I have to stop," says Charlie Komes, a trucker from Gainesville, Ga., on a lunch break at Unit 1058 in Atlanta's upscale Buckhead business district.

Somehow, this restaurant chain - a marriage of Denny's and "Mayberry R.F.D" - has become a sort of icon for the South. Established in the meat-loaf days of the 1950s, it has survived, unsinged, the wheat-germ-and-tofu craze of the '70s, "nouvelle cuisine" of the '80s, and the international chic of contemporary dining.

To many, the appeal is in that unchangeable sameness of Waffle Houses everywhere - and there are 1,200 of them stretching from Arizona to Maryland. At a time when the South is growing, and its culture and sensibilities are shifting, the eatery offers a feeling of permanence.

"It's a remnant of a time when things weren't changing so fast," says Allen Tullos, editor of the journal Southern Changes and a professor at Emory University here. For aficionados, "there's a real comfort in that - a feeling of security and connectedness. [Waffle Houses] are a familiar piece of the landscape."

And they have struck a chord with everyone from retirees to college students looking for late-night refreshment to gourmet publications. This year, the Waffle House was No. 46 on Saveur Magazine's 100 things it loves.

"It's classic diner culture with a Southern accent," says Jim Auchmutey, food writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "They've taken something simple and folksy at heart and replicated it like crazy."

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Eggs, bacon, and grits

Daisy Hammond, whose elegant Southern drawl and old-fashioned cameo belong more in a formal parlor than a faux-wood booth, has ordered the same thing for a dozen years: scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits. "I've never felt the need to try anything else on the menu," she says.

A few tables over, Parisienne Aurelia Grimpard is sampling her first mouthful of grits. Make that her last mouthful. "With more salt and pepper ... maybe?" she says politely, quickly extolling the virtues of the waffle soaking in syrup on her plate.

"I always bring guests from Europe to the Waffle House," says Mark Sage, the antiques dealer responsible for Grimpard's fork-to-face encounter with the Southern staple. "It's kitschy - I like the sounds and the open grill."

The open kitchen - a signature feature of every Waffle House - means customers can watch their food being cooked in front of them. The wait staffs holler out the orders to the grill operator in special short-order lingo.

For example, hash browns come smothered, covered, chunked, diced, or peppered. The grill operators use markers to help them keep orders straight. A ketchup packet means a T-bone steak; where it's placed on the plate denotes how the steak's cooked. A butter cup means a waffle; flip it upside down to add pecans.

If eating at a Waffle House guarantees a certain dining experience, nobody knows that more than the customers at Unit 7. They are greeted at the door by the grande dame of graciousness, Lucy Shelton. Miss Lucy has been a waitress in Atlanta for so long that she counts Margaret Mitchell among her customers.

She's been with the Waffle House since 1957, making her the chain's longest-working employee.

Greg Shakir has been a customer of Miss Lucy's for 20 years. The service at the Waffle House may have dropped, but "Miss Lucy keeps me coming back. She's like a mother to me," he says. "I get my counseling and my coffee at the same time."

The eateries are open 24 hours a day - leading to a local myth that the keys to every Waffle House are buried in cement in front of the store. While that's a bit of an exaggeration, employees will tell you it takes something akin to a natural disaster for the Waffle House to close its doors.

That all-night culture helps to add to the flavor. "It's the Southern version of 'Night Hawks at the Diner,' " says Ted Ownby of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Maybe it's the closest we can come to Edward Hopper."

Matrimony at the juke box

But that doesn't begin to explain the couples who have chosen to tie the knot at the Waffle House. The latest was in Spartanburg, S.C., in June, when a waiter and waitress united in the bonds of holy matrimony in front of the juke box. About a dozen regulars pitched in and bought them a cake and decorations. A few unsuspecting diners even became impromptu wedding guests. At other ceremonies, guests have tossed uncooked grits at the happy couple.

"There's something intangibly egalitarian about the place," says Kamran Sajadi, a Duke University student and keeper of The Waffle House Shrine on the Internet. "Anyone fits in at a Waffle House; everyone feels welcome."

Not everyone agrees. Five cases are pending in federal court charging franchises with racial discrimination. The Waffle House contests the charges.

As the Waffle House continues to expand, can it maintain its essential "funky, sort of blue collar thing" - as Mr. Tullos puts it - extolled in movies like "Tin Cup" and songs like "There's Raisins in My Toast"? While employees say it's only a matter of time before the Waffle House hits Canada, some long-time regulars urge the chain to halt at the Mason-Dixon line.

"It's a mystique thing," says Floridian Tom Zane, one of the worshippers at Duke University's Waffle House Shrine. "Besides, do you really want to go someplace where people don't even have enough sense to know about grits?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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