What is it about the Atlanta-based Waffle House chain that makes many Chicagoland residents wish the 24-hour greasy spoons existed here?
It’s not high-quality food. From the yellow homogenized vegetable oil spread used instead of butter, to the half-centimeter-thick rubbery waffles, just about everything served is the cheapest, most heavily processed version available.
Yet I’d argue Waffle House fare is kind of its own thing, and tasty. Menu items are generously customizable, and I like the arcane language used for pimping hash brown orders: “scattered,” “smothered,” “covered,” etc.
I also appreciate the cheerful midcentury logo and decor. And it’s satisfying to watch the grill cooks doing skilled, efficient triage during busy times.
But in a Parts Unknown segment, Anthony Bourdain eloquently nailed what makes Waffle House special. “Its warm, yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the south to come inside. A place of safety and nourishment, it never closes. It is always, always faithful, always there, for you.”
Back in 2005, the Onion ran the clever headline, “Mason-Dixon Line Renamed IHOP-Waffle House Line,” a play on the fact that the latter’s 2,100+ locations are concentrated in southeastern states. But in reality, there are a number of Yankee Waffle Houses—the northernmost appears to be in Austinburg, Ohio, near Ashtabula.
So why are there no Waffle Houses in the Chicago area? A spokesperson for the chain didn’t immediately respond, but I’ve got a couple theories. This sophisticated northern metropolis might not be an ideal market for the chain’s down-home cuisine, which includes southern accents like grits, sausage gravy, Texas toast, pecan waffles, and sweet tea. And maybe Chicago’s 24-hour dining niche was already filled by the many “Golden” coffee shops, including “Nugget,” “Apple,” and “Angel,” not to mention our many awesome late-night taquerias.
But northwest-suburban high school student Daniel DiBenedetto, 16, is on a crusade to change that. He launched the Twitter feed Waffle House in Chicago Movement (@WHinChicago), with over 450 followers, “because I went on vacation to Florida and we tried Waffle House, and it was so good.”
The Onion gag crossed my mind again earlier this spring, and I did a little research and found the closest Waffle House to City Hall is a 196-mile direct bicycle ride away in Avon, Indiana, a western suburb of Indianapolis. “Who’s going to go for the gold and make that trip?” I asked on Twitter.
Of course, I already knew the answer. And when a buddy invited me to his bachelor party this month at another friend’s summer house in the Indiana Dunes, roughly on the way, that sealed the deal.
I asked Waffle House if they’d sponsor my ride as a fundraiser for a righteous Chicago community development nonprofit. “We are flattered that you considered us as a potential partner,” said spokesperson Njeri Boss. “We do wish you . . . much success in your endeavor, but we are going to decline the opportunity.” Maybe the bachelor party part scared them off?
Nevertheless, on Friday, May 14, after work, I depart my home in Uptown for the 70-mile trek to the summer house in Beverly Shores. It’s going to be a late night, but about 80 percent of the route is on bike paths.
The Lakefront Trail is packed, and I’ve got a warm headwind out of the south, but the weather is so gorgeous I don’t mind. By the time I reach 63rd Street Beach, my stomach is growling, so I detour south on Jeffrey Boulevard into South Shore towards a dinner destination.
When I stop near 71st to admire a mural of jazz musicians by artist Marcus A, a friendly woman says hello and hands me a business card for the controversial Japanese Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International. Coincidentally, I know all about the group, having previously written about the monument to SGI president Daisaku Ikeda on public land in Uptown’s Peace Garden.
At dusk in the South Deering community, I stop at Hiene’s Shrimp House, an iconic shack equally famous for its fried chicken, and pick up a delicious yard bird dinner.
I ride 112th Street across the Indiana border, then roll south on a long causeway path across Wolf Lake. The misty night is lit up by steel mills and casinos, and it’s spooky in a good way.
Using the Northwest Indiana bike map, I navigate southeast on the Erie-Lackawanna Trail, and then east on the Oak Savannah, which is heavily wooded and dark. At one point a deer crosses my path.
By the time I’m pedaling northeast on the Prairie Duneland Trail towards Beverly Shores, it’s 1:30 AM and I’m getting a little delirious, but listening to the Chicagoland Transit Authority’s (later just Chicago) high-energy debut double album on earbuds pulls me through. When I arrive just before 3, my friends applaud from the porch, and it’s definitely time for me to hit the hot tub.
The bachelor party weekend is a PG-13 rather than X-rated affair, filled with beach hikes, homemade pizza, guitar jam sessions, and soft drug use by my companions. On Monday morning it’s time to leave the lakefront for my 104-mile ride to West Lafayette, the home of Purdue University.
Indiana is the less urban, more conservative mirror image of Illinois, and as I zigzag southeast on farm roads, the scenery soon resembles a typical Prairie State landscape. But Trump signs and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners are more prevalent, and in one careworn small town, a house on Main Street has a large Confederate flag in the window.
I stop for lunch by Dunn’s Bridge over the Kankakee River. The curved span was reportedly made with steel beams salvaged from the original Ferris wheel, which debuted at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.
At dinnertime, I visit the Whistle Stop in Monon, a restaurant surrounded by vintage railcars. The special of ham steak with au gratin potatoes would hit the spot, but sadly the place closed hours earlier. Instead I grab a breaded pork tenderloin, an indigenous Indiana sandwich, from a Casey’s convenience store.
I don’t have a bike map for this part of the Hoosier State. At sunset when Google Maps once again steers my relatively skinny-tired touring bike onto a farm road with coarse gravel, I’ve had enough. I backtrack to Route 421, the main highway to West Lafayette, where, infuriatingly, the paved shoulder is occupied by a rumble strip, so I can’t ride in it. Following a couple hours of dodging trucks, at 1 AM I arrive at my cheap motel exhausted, but thankfully in one piece.
After a good night’s sleep, it’s time to fuel up for my 86-mile day ride to Avon and Indy. West Lafayette’s famed, oxymoronically named Triple XXX Family Restaurant, known for homemade root beer, is closed on Tuesdays. Instead I get a toothsome savory crepe and fresh-squeezed OJ at nearby Greyhouse Coffee. As I’m eating outside, I spot some familiar Celtic-inspired flourishes on the tiny brick bank next door and correctly guess the structure, the Purdue State Bank Building, was designed by Chicago’s Louis Sullivan.
I roll across the Wabash River into Lafayette proper, featuring the stately Tippecanoe County Courthouse, and many other beautiful old buildings. The highlight of the rest of the ride is the lovely, lilac-lined Farm Heritage Trail, winding about 15 miles between Colfax and Lebanon.
During the last several miles into Avon on trails and subdivision streets at twilight, I eagerly anticipate the feast that awaits me. Then suddenly the Waffle House appears like a lighthouse in the night, looking exactly like every other branch I’ve visited on southern road trips.
Vaxxed, I belly up to the counter for my first sit-down dinner since COVID-19 hit Chicago. I order hash browns “all the way,” that is, with onions, American cheese, ham, tomatoes, jalapeños, mushrooms, chili, and sausage gravy; topped with fried eggs; plus a pecan waffle and coffee. I devour almost all of it, a meal worth riding 260 miles for.
College student Dylan Fields, sitting with friends after bowling, agrees to snap my photo outside the diner. When I reveal I’ve ridden all the way from Chicago just to visit this Waffle House, he cracks a huge smile. He later tells me, “At first, I was like ‘This guy is joking,’ but when you explained your story I was amazed. The trip required a lot of determination and is such an awesome story.” It’s heartwarming to get a hero’s welcome for completing my rather ridiculous mission.
The last 12 miles to downtown Indy on high-speed roads are nothing to write home about. But it’s transcendent when I roll up around midnight at Monument Circle, a block from my hotel. The next morning I’ll drop off my steed at the nearby Bicycle Garage shop for shipping and catch Greyhound home.
Looming before me is the 1902 Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a 284-foot neoclassical limestone pillar, flanked by statues and fountains. The crowning touch is a 30-foot bronze female figure of Victory, holding a sword and a torch, with an eagle perched atop her head.
Some people unfairly dismiss Indianapolis as “Nap Town,” a boring backwater, but there’s no public space in Chicago quite that grandiose. On that inspiring note, my Indiana odyssey comes to a close. v