Photos: Carter Oswood
For many, breakfast is a sacred ritual of sorts, sometimes involving coffee, a newspaper or maybe just good conversation.
The Waveland Café, which has been in operation since the mid-’80s, is the perfect breakfast nook where locals can not only find coffee and conversation but also may encounter color, characters and calorie-rich comfort food.
“I think it’s kind of a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere,” said Katie Hider, a waitress who has worked at the Waveland Café for the past six years. “Even if you don’t know someone, you can sit down and talk with them and walk out with a new friend.”
Most days the café is only open from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m., leaving the perfect window for early risers and brunch lovers alike to stop in, sip a cup of coffee and catch up with friends.
“If you want crazy, come here,” said Hider with a laugh.
Though crazy seems a bit extreme, the crowd at Waveland, located at 4708 University Avenue, is what Hider refers to as an “eclectic group.” The popular breakfast spot is the temporary home to families, students and older regulars alike.
“You come here and they kind of become part of your extended family,” said Des Moines resident Roger Fouche. “You can always get a joke, a smile, a laugh. There’s nowhere else in town where you have waitresses like this.”
With mismatched coffee cups, the snarky charm of its waitresses and a line that oftentimes winds out the door of the tiny restaurant, the venue can feel like a bustling family kitchen, packed with all sorts of estranged relatives.
“You get to know everybody and their kids and families,” said Sam Orr, who has been working at Waveland since 1992. “Some of them are only back for Christmas or summer vacation. It’s neat to see them come back year after year.”
Photos of the owners’ friends, workers’ families, customers and anyone in between collage the restaurant’s back wall, comprising what the waitresses refer to as the “Waveland family.”
Consequently, the atmosphere of Waveland is intimate and familial as waitresses heckle the regulars who line the counter, asking about families, jobs and scolding about straying from diets.
“See?” said Fouche as Hider laughs at his breakfast selection. “You can’t get that anywhere else, where the waitresses harass you.”
Another aspect of the café that cannot be found anywhere else in town is the restaurant’s unique décor.
Almost 20 years ago, local artist Andrea Kraft, a waitress at Waveland at the time, adorned the restaurant’s walls with the murals that regulars today have come to know, Orr said. From an imitation “American Gothic” on one wall to proverbs about raising children, the walls of Waveland could occupy any diner’s attention over multiple mealtimes.
“There’s been a few changes in faces, but for the most part, there are a lot of customers here that have been coming here as long as I have,” Fouche said.
After even a single visit to Waveland, it’s easy to see why veteran diners come back.
Among the reasons to be a frequent diner is, of course, the food and the restaurant’s intergalactic claim to have the “best hash browns in the galaxy.”
The Everything Hash Browns feature a medley of crispy hash browns with ham, green and hot peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese — a mixture that more than one waitress is willing to admit is her favorite item on the menu.
But locals aren’t the only ones who seem to enjoy the restaurant’s charms.
Signatures of CNN’s John Roberts as well as a number of this year’s presidential hopefuls are scrawled on the walls, left over from the 2012 caucus season when Waveland was the landing base for a number of political commentary programs.
“What can I get you, honey?” Hider asks as a new group of customers sits down at the counter.
The greeting is not uncommon at Waveland. After being open for less than 20 minutes, the room is already packed, with a line of hungry patrons forming at the door, scouting the next available table and waiting to pounce.
When it comes down to it, though, the atmosphere and the social climate are what keep regulars and waitresses coming back year after year.
“It’s like a dysfunctional family,” Hider said. “That’s why I’m still here.”