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Southern diners, where the gossip’s as hot as the biscuits—and the wisdom is just gravy.

By Rick Bragg
January 19, 2020
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Diner Counter Top with Coffee Pot
Credit: Terry Vine/Getty Images

Sometimes, you just need to sit in a corner booth at two or three o’clock in the afternoon and have a good breakfast. And I’m not talking about a hangover breakfast—I’m too old for that foolishness. No, I’m talking about on a Tuesday.

I’m a late sleeper; nothing good has ever happened to me before noon. If the phone rings, it’s bad news or a telemarketer in Sri Lanka apprising me of my car warranty. If my alarm goes off, it means heading to the Atlanta airport or traveling somewhere on I-59 or going to doctors. Just about all surgeries occur in the gray dawn. I had a kidney stone retrieval once at 7 a.m., which was just mean. I might even have more religion if it weren’t for the timing; I spoke at a prayer breakfast once and am still largely unaware of what I said.

So I finally decided to just write off mornings. If I wake up at 11:59 a.m., I go back to bed. A lot of misery could happen between then and 12. But after a while, I did get to missing breakfast.

Thank you, Huddle House, for setting my world back to spinning once more.

I can’t speak for all outposts, but the one in Jacksonville, Alabama, is a reason to live. It’s not just the fact that you can get a fine Western omelet as the sun begins its downhill slide, that a pot of grits is always bubbling, or that sausage gravy is considered an acceptable accoutrement to a chef’s salad. It’s that all of this exists in a wider time warp. You hear a lot of philosophy here (one bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit at a time) and glean plenty of wisdom too.

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This is one of the last places I know of where gray-haired old men don’t talk politics or football but reminisce about work—the third shift at Goodyear or the pipe shop or a life spent swinging on a ladder with a paint bucket in their hand. You learn that Dodge makes a nice diesel and that it’s okay to cry over a good dog. Old women talk about machines at the cotton mill that liked to have killed them and how ole so-and-so at the beauty shop ought to have her license taken away after how she burnt up their mama’s hair—and she was just goin’ in for a curl. 

The waitresses know everyone’s name, their order, and more. The old men try to flirt with them, but not very well, as they go through a Marlboro or three waiting for their Smokehouse Platter or their 12th cup of coffee. This is one of the last smoker-friendly restaurants around, though that is changing, I’m told, with a planned remodel. I’m not a smoker, so it’ll be easier on me. I won’t have to worry that someone will sit next to me and fire up a stogie as long as a Philly cheesesteak. But that’s about as much change as I’m willing to allow. I’d rather choke down some blue haze than lose all the insight.

How else will I find out who quit drinking or who got saved and who’s been stealing boat motors on Lake Wedowee?