Americans worship in all manner of places. Sure, we’ve got our share of soaring churches and august mosques. But for every grand cathedral, there are dozens of storefront sanctuaries, small-town synagogues and strip-mall chapels. The setting matters less than the feeling it inspires. And on that score, consider Sean Brock a deacon in the High Church of Waffle House. Blasphemy? Not to hear the chef of Husk and other acclaimed Southern restaurants tell it. “No matter what time of day it is or where you are, there’s always a Waffle House lit up and glowing,” says Brock, who often visits one late at night, after closing his own places in Charleston, S.C. “There’s no ego, no pretension. And when you sit in a humble place, you walk out of there appreciating how good it feels to be humble.”
This is high praise for a chain of short-order diners. And while Brock is quick to rhapsodize about the menu–a tight roster of breakfast favorites and old-school classics–the food isn’t really the point. (Although the hash browns are reason enough to celebrate.) The real appeal of Waffle House is that it’s always there, just as you left it, welcoming to all.
There are some 1,700 locations across 25 states, stretching from Delaware to Arizona but concentrated in the South. And all of them are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Commuters in the morning, worker bees at lunch, bleary-eyed truckers and last-call revelers in the middle of the night–Waffle House takes all comers. Indeed, it’s so dependable that FEMA has a so-called Waffle House Index for disasters: if the locations are closed, you know things are bad.
Plenty of places, however, can be reliable. Waffle House offers a warm embrace. Spreading the gospel recently, Brock took Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, proprietors of New York City’s elite Eleven Madison Park restaurant, to his local congregation. Their reaction? “It was a reminder of how important hospitality is,” Humm says. “We just felt so taken care of.”