We tried Cracker Barrel to see if it’s better than Waffle House — and the winner is clear

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Hollis Johnson

Two roads diverge off an exit ramp on a Southern interstate.

One leads to Waffle House.

The other, Cracker Barrel.

It’s a common conundrum amongst hungry travelers: which to pick? The 24/7 late-night haunt serving up diner classics, or the faux-nostalgic Americana chain known for its country fixin’s?

On a recent road trip, we dined at both iconic establishments. Here’s which highway pit stop comes out on top.


Cracker Barrel has 645 locations in 44 states. According to the company, roughly 60% of customers are travelers — just like us when we arrived. We found a Cracker Barrel in Richmond, Virginia, on an ominously dark and stormy evening.

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Hollis Johnson

Cracker Barrel is known for its “Country Store”, but after a long day of travel, we had one thing on our mind: food.

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Hollis Johnson

Cracker Barrel’s wall are blanketed with with what can only be described as decor one would find raiding antique shops and grandparents’ attics across the country. It’s American tchotchke galore.

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Hollis Johnson

At every table, Cracker Barrel provides a wholesome diversion for antsy families, grouchy from a day spent on the road. The infamous peg game looks simple yet is tricky enough to keep you busy until your food arrives.

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Hollis Johnson

But you needn’t wait long — the biscuits and cornbread arrive fairly quickly. The biscuits are salty and dense, but serviceable. There are certainly better biscuits to be had — no need to fill up on them. The cornbread is similarly decent. They outshine the biscuits, but that’s not saying much.

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Hollis Johnson

When we visited the restaurant, the summertime “Campfire Meals” were on the menu. Cracker Barrel claims that slow-cooking the campfire chicken and veggies in a foil bundle will result in a dish that would “stir our senses”, but we remained unmoved. The chicken is tender but salty, and the veggies are bland.

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Hollis Johnson

The Cracker Barrel Sampler is supposed to showcase the best of the chain’s menu, but in our experience, it was closer to the bottom of barrel. The carrots were sweet, albeit mushy. The “country ham” is merely a heated up hunk of ham, and the meatloaf is distressingly dense and under seasoned. Their damp dumplings taste primarily of salt and not much else. The hash brown casserole, however, is a golden beacon of hope — what country cookin’ should be, heartily embracing both starches and dairy.

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Hollis Johnson

The highlight of the menu seems to be the country fried steak, a signature dish of the chain. It’s a meal that isn’t ashamed to be what it is: a deep-fried slab of steak, smothered in gravy.

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Hollis Johnson

It’s timelessly fatty and rich, and cooked quite well. The mac and cheese side is so-so, while the fried okra avoided the gelatinous trap that the vegetable invites.

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Hollis Johnson

After a long trip, a rustic and welcoming restaurant with a solid yet forgettable menu is like bumping into an old flame — you know what you’re getting into, good and bad. Sometimes you think that’s the best you can get. However, Cracker Barrel isn’t the only chain with locations dotting the Southern landscape.

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Hollis Johnson

Waffle House was founded in 1955 by Tom Forkner and Joe Rogers in Atlanta. Today, the chain has over 1,800 locations in 25 states. As with most Waffle Houses, the outside appearance of the location we visited in Charlottesville, Virginia, wasn’t much to look at — but we were more interested in what was inside.

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Hollis Johnson

Inside, Waffle House has a classic diner feel. Subway tiles, vinyl booths, and the ubiquitous jukebox lend a comforting timelessness. The chain avoids jumping on the latest dining trends — no raw wood or industrial lighting fixtures here.

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Hollis Johnson

Our order was a fair sampling of the menu: an All-Star Breakfast special, which includes a waffle with pecans, eggs, toast, hash browns, and a protein side, plus a steak melt with more hash browns on the side. Everything arrived lightning-fast, even with our friendly waitress’ banter.

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Hollis Johnson

It should come as no surprise that Waffle House can serve up a mean waffle. Make no mistake — this is no Belgian waffle, but a staunchly American take. It’s soft and fluffy, but not too thick, close to a pancake in texture but maintaining the crucial grid of the syrup-collection system.

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Hollis Johnson

The eggs are cooked to order — in this case, over easy — and we had no complaints. The toast is what one would expect: crucial for sopping up the yolk, but nothing special. The hash browns, however, are a different beast entirely.

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Hollis Johnson

When it comes to hash browns, you have options. Feel free to order them smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, or country — or, if you’re feeling really feisty, “all the way.” We went with smothered and covered, and it was incredible, an extravaganza of potato, cheese, and sautéed onions.

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Hollis Johnson

We almost didn’t order the steak melt, but our affable waitress said it was one of her favorites and not to be missed. Thank God we listened. We’ve thought about this melt every day since — the gestalt of its harmoniously greasy, cheesy, perfectly tender, and masterfully toasted creation nearly drove us to tears.

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Hollis Johnson

And that’s the difference between Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. While Cracker Barrel has more of a sit-down, stay-a-while vibe, Waffle House’s food is indisputably superior. It lingers in the subconscious; to eat at Waffle House is to yearn to return. To eat at Cracker Barrel is merely a pit stop on the road.

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Hollis Johnson

So, next time you find yourself seeking some sustenance on a long and winding road, think to yourself: do you want to be full, or do you want a meal to remember? If you want a meal that’s truly unforgettable — perfect in its humble simplicity — take the exit with the Waffle House.

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Hollis Johnson