The most unique cafe in the world

I had a perfect Sunday morning. My wife and I did what we’ve always done on Sunday. We find coffee and a copy of the New York Times.

When we’re lucky we end up at Waveland Cafe in Des Moines. When we’re in San Francisco that typically looks like Le Garage.

If you’ve been to both you already know these are drastically different places. If I had to pick one I’d always pick Waveland.

The experience at Waveland is like none other. There’s no reservations, there’s no waiting list, there’s no place to put your name down and there’s always a line.

That line is always run by the patrons waiting, which through some shared respect we’re all dying to show one another, the line functions seamlessly as if there is some silent overture quietly guiding us to act the way people are supposed to act.

Through some odd series of events the patrons of The Waveland Cafe seem to organically understand and mutually respect the rules of the universe:

  • Customers are seated by one another in the order they arrived.
  • Customers pay an appropriate price for what they receive.
  • When you finish your meal, you leave.
  • While you’re there, be kind.

Customers self-moderate the line and many times allow larger groups to sit down first to wait for a smaller table if one of the few 5-tops in the place frees up.

The anxiety you’ll feel every time you get closer to the front or find yourself at the back is palatable no matter how many times it happens.

That anxiety always has a resolution. You’ll find the average outcome is probably:

  • That patron is meeting someone.
  • That patron is ordering something to go.
  • That patron is checking the line and they’ll come back outside.

When you get to the front you’ll police the line a little bit while the other people eating tend to point out the next available table as reliably as the staff that is now waiting just for you.

Rest assured. If you just take your place in line and don’t act a fool you will get a table.

No names. No system. Just respect of an implied process because that’s how it is at the Waveland.

I can think of no good way to describe the staff that honors their version of service that I wish more establishments had. I say that while appreciating that I don’t think that the culture is portable.

The staff, irreverently unaware to whatever rules apply to any other restaurant anywhere else in the world are as colorful as the clientele and every bit as delightful.

I can think of no other place I’ve ever been where the house rules are so obvious and everyone carries a mutual respect for one another regardless of race, religion, economics, dress, or language.

I know we’d all like to believe this is how the world does operate but silently we’re all perfectly aware it that it just doesn’t.

Those house rules aren’t written down. You just adopt them as you enter and exit the universe that resides at the intersection of Polk Ave. and University.

Waveland Cafe

Whether or not Michael Jackson, Van Halen, Nirvana, Lady Gaga, Neil Young, or Tiffany are this morning’s soundtrack, it somehow melts perfectly into whatever Sunday may start at The Waveland.

The Waveland will never be a publicly traded company, a global powerhouse of influence, or the city’s hotspot and that’s precisely why I love it so much.

I get my coffee and I read the paper while we eat breakfast. When we’re done we simply leave.

All of these undeniably predictable things that don’t need to be written down are always matched with a simple meal. The menu is filled with meals that arrive just as you’d envisioned it in your mind as you read the description. The midwest version of how everything is supposed to be cooked and served.

The food is made as you request it. It’s all served as a meal that is meant to be consumed in a style that conveys it’s delivery from the kitchen and nothing more.

Eggs are eggs and sausage arrives 4 links at a time without fanfare. Biscuits and gravy are precisely that and the coffee is reliable the best cup of regular black coffee anywhere in the world.

Your meal will not be accompanied by surveys or requests for your e-mail addresses. The staff doesn’t want to up sell you but they may ask about your kids.

I’ve often said that big banking conferences have reliably the best black coffee but what I’ve failed to point out is The Waveland is actually better.

Whether it’s the atmosphere that I’m tasting or just my general affinity for the experience is irrelevant. At least to me.

The waveland is reliable. When I’m there, I feel home.

I know that someday this place will change but until it does my family and I will always be patiently waiting in line, enjoying our breakfast, and leaving a little better off than when we arrived.

With a little luck we’ll carry the house rules into the rest of our lives and so will others.

I don’t know who owns The Waveland or how all of this occurred but I’d like to say thank you. Whoever you are.