So it was with some trepidation that I decided to visit the Original Pancake House, which opened last fall in Chesterfield, the first Missouri outpost of a Portland, Oregon-based chain with more than 100 locations in 28 states.
Two factors convinced me to risk the journey:
First, the original Original Pancake House in Portland won the James Beard "America's Regional Classic" Award in 1999. Not that this award confers greatness on a restaurant, especially a chain restaurant. Then again, you don't see Applebee's or Red Lobster boasting any James Beard Awards, now do you?
Second, pancakes rule, and I don't have an opportunity to write about them very often. What's more, the Original Pancake House serves all sorts of pancakes, from your basic buttermilk with whipped butter and maple syrup to an apple-cinnamon confection that's basically like having an entire cake for breakfast. Of course, I ordered it with a side of sausage.
The Original Pancake House's exterior resembles a large farmhouse, its "look" all the more ridiculous for being plunked down in the middle of suburban sprawl. Inside are wood-paneled walls, a fireplace and, often, a crowd. And I say that having avoided the restaurant on the weekend, when its family-friendly nature must be especially appealing.
(While every restaurant critic has a masochistic streak, you couldn't pay me enough to visit a suburban restaurant called the Original Pancake House late on a Sunday morning after church services have ended.)
There is also a counter where solo diners or those not fussy about wanting a table can sit. This looks through a busing area and the pass into the large kitchen. I sat here on most of my visits, sipping strong (but not flavorful) black coffee while watching Headline News on the flat-screen TV set mounted on the wall above the counter. The TV is an incongruous touch in a restaurant where the décor, the menu layout and even the logo — a creepy cartoon chef flipping what I assume is a pancake but actually looks like a thick slice of country ham — are meant to evoke the 1950s, when the Original Pancake House was founded.
On my first visit, I or-dered the buttermilk pancakes. I figured if a restaurant called the Original Pancake House couldn't get these right, there wouldn't be much point trying anything else. These were a simple pleasure, light and fluffy but with enough body to support a slathering of butter and generous pour of maple syrup.
Assuming they aren't burnt or made with sawdust in the batter, buttermilk pancakes can only distinguish themselves so much. Still, it was the little details that set these apart: the rich whipped butter, the syrup warmed to the ideal temperature, neither too thick nor too runny, the pancakes' surface a light brown rather than the chocolate brown of pancakes yanked from the skillet too late. Another favorite: the properly humble potato pancakes, thin and crisp-edged, paired with either sour cream or applesauce.
Many of the pancakes are variations on a theme. You can get pancakes filled with blueberries or bananas, coconut or pecans, bacon — how I resisted these I honestly don't know — or chocolate chips. You can have pancakes made out of buckwheat or pancakes made out of wheat germ. You can even have "Pigs in a Blanket," link sausages rolled up in pancakes.
The range of choices is overwhelming — and that's not even counting the selection of waffles, crêpes and omelets. Still, the gluttonous or curious (or, in my case, both) among you will likely be tempted by the Original Pancake House's two oven-baked house specialties: the apple pancake and the "Dutch Baby."
I'm not exaggerating (much) when I say the apple pancake is like having an entire cake for breakfast. It fills the large plate on which it is served and must be a couple of inches tall. Basically, it's composed of wedges of Granny Smith apple in a cinnamon glaze suspended in thick layer of batter. The apples are scorchingly hot, tender and delicious, but I could take or leave the batter. The texture was like a very thick custard or even a quiche, and I quickly grew tired of eating it.
As servers hurry it to other tables, the "Dutch Baby" looks equally impressive, seemingly as big and tall as the apple pancake. In fact, it's a hollow bowl, a thin, soft pancake with its edges curved upward and browned. The flavor of the pancake is delicate, with hints of vanilla and citrus fruit. On the side you get whipped butter, powdered sugar and lemon wedges. Doctor to your liking. I found a little bit of each enhanced, rather than covered, the pancake's light flavor.
The "Dutch Baby" alone sets the Original Pancake House apart from low-rent, breakfast-focused chains like IHOP or your favorite local short-stack-serving dive. And again, the little things suggest why the Original Pancake House might earn the respect of foodies (or at the very least some influential people at the James Beard Foundation), while IHOP and Denny's generally earn our scorn. Bacon is cut thick and cooked to a happy medium between crisp and chewy. The yolks of my over-easy eggs were a rich, fresh orange rather than a pale yellow. Only the sausage patties, thin, desiccated and generically spicy, were a disappointment.
For me, though, the Original Pancake House represents something of a dilemma. It's a very good breakfast spot, and — especially rare nowadays — it's a restaurant where the entire family, parents and kids and grandparents and kids' bratty friends, can enjoy a decent meal.
On the other hand, having seen the crowds the Original Pancake House is attracting, I find it troublesome that an out-of-state chain is raising the bar, however slightly, on something as simple and universally loved as pancakes. Almost exactly a year ago, I reviewed Rooster, the downtown crêperie whose success (it recently expanded its tiny Locust Street location) suggests there is a market for higher-quality, locally sourced breakfast.
Without more local options, who can blame the chain restaurants from meeting market demand? I already have to look forward to an eternity of Rachael-Ray-sounding ogres forcing me to order the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's. I'd hate for the rest of my earthly days to be more or less the same.