Since the Lenten season of 1928, preaching and waffles have been served up at the corner of North Second and Adams avenues in downtown Memphis. That corner is home to Calvary Episcopal Church, a gorgeous Memphis landmark thought to be the oldest public building in continuous use in the city, dating to 1832.
Calvary’s Waffle Shop started in 1928, when a group of women decided to make waffles and coffee for those who had come for Lenten services. It soon turned into a fundraiser for the church’s outreach ministries, and with that, the menu expanded. Volunteers have staffed the seasonal kitchen and dining room since its inception, and on any given day, you’ll meet folks who have decades of Waffle Shop service to their credit.
Mary O’Brien has been coming to the Waffle Shop since she was just a little girl, accompanying her mother, who, she laughs, “dragged me here as a baby, when she used to wait tables here a hundred years ago!”
After years of working in restaurants across the city, Mary came back to Calvary four years ago as the parish chef. “On a really good day, we serve 900 to 1,000 people,” she says. And that’s all in the two-and-a-half hours the seasonal dining room is open.
While the Waffle Shop’s original offerings were simply coffee and waffles, the menu has expanded to include salads, spaghetti, daily entrée specials and perhaps the most popular dish, tomato aspic.
“It’s just an old Southern thing,” says Mary of tomato aspic, which she describes as a jellied tomato soup. “It’s got Tabasco, tomato juice, celery, onion and gelatin, and it’s all boiled on top of the stove. And then it’s poured into these big pans that we’ve used forever.” The aspic is chilled, then cut into generous triangles, and served up with a dollop of the church’s special mayonnaise. “People love it!” says Mary.
Open Tuesday through Friday during lunchtime and Wednesday evenings, the Waffle Shop menu is about as old-school South as you can get. There are waffles and chicken hash, seafood gumbo and turnip greens, shrimp mousse and chicken salad.
Each day has regular specials. For example, Wednesday’s offering is corned beef and cabbage, while Friday’s specials are fish pudding served up with potatoes, cornbread and slaw, or spring vegetable soup with cornbread. The kitchen serves up a delicious pair of desserts and ice cream with a choice of sauces daily. Diners rave about the Boston cream pie (served daily) and the Tennessee bourbon pie, served on Tuesdays. Many of the recipes on the menu date back to the Waffle Shop’s earliest days.
Meals range in price from $6 to $10, with waffles priced at $3 each, or $5 for a waffle and two sausage patties. The Waffle Shop does a bustling to-go business, too.
For Mary O’Brien and her volunteers, there’s never a shortage of customers. Even on what Mary calls a “bad” day, 350 diners come to the church basement for lunch. The kitchen team makes 50 gallons of homemade mayonnaise daily, while the waffle makers serve up an average of 100 waffles every day. Stop by and see why this tradition has endured for nearly 90 years!
Calvary Waffle Shop is located at Calvary Episcopal Church, 102 N. Second Ave. in downtown Memphis. The Waffle Shop opens the day after Ash Wednesday, through the Friday before Palm Sunday (this year, through March 18). Hours are Tuesday through Friday (lunch), 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Wednesday (dinner), 5:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. The Waffle Shop coincides with Calvary’s Lenten Preaching Series, which is offered every Tuesday through Friday during Lent at 12:05 p.m. in the Sanctuary. Learn more at (901) 525-6602.
Thanks to photographer Lisa Buser for her amazing images of the Waffle Shop.