Chain Restaurants

Original Pancake House [Moved from the Manhattan Board]


Chain Restaurants 41

Original Pancake House [Moved from the Manhattan Board]

Mel Gee | Sep 10, 2006 09:47 PM

[Note: This started as a response to a post on the Manhattan Board. You can see the original thread at: --The Chowhound Team]

The Original Pancake House is a somewhat expensive, high-quality breakfast chain with branches throughout the country. There are three in NJ not far from Manhattan, but the NY branches are all in the Buffalo area. (See for locations and other details.)

That's the short answer, but OPH is worth discussing at greater length as an illustration of a good national restaurant chain. The success of the best locations -- as with Ruth's Chris, another good chain -- comes from offering a relatively static menu of simple (but memorable) dishes prepared by well-trained cooks using high-quality ingredients.

I know jcooper's Original Pancake House on Bellvue Place in Chicago quite well, because I used to live a few doors down. Back then, at least, it was a typical OPH: food quality: A; service: B+; and decor: B+.

The small Walker Brothers subchain in the northern and northwestern Chicago suburbs is much better than the OPH average in all three categories, the primo branch in Wilmette rating, in my opinion, an A for decor (as a breakfast restaurant), A+ for service, and A++ for food. To my taste, it's the best OPH and probably the best chain breakfast-restaurant in the country. The first OPH in Portland, OR, is a solid second behind the Walker Bros. restaurants. All the others (except for a handful of locations where the service is truly pathetic -- the late, unlamented Hoover, AL, branch, e.g. -- or where the generally very good coffee is terrible -- the several branches serving percolated sawdust in Phoenix and in Orange County, CA, e.g.) are high-quality, attractive places with decent service that offer leisurely and delicious breakfast and lunch. (Leisurely takes a hit on weekends at these often-busy places.)

To expand a little on jcooper's accurate description: Again, the coffee is usually quite good. The fresh OJ ranges from very good to exceptional. The pancakes (of many different styles) are beautifully cooked and served with delicious fillings and syrups). And the meats are high quality, although I've occasionally had inferior sausage in the small Bay Area subchain. Even the butter and cream are special.

Each restaurant presumably uses the same recipes, but the Wilmette, IL, branch of Walker Brothers OPH makes a deliciously thin and eggy crepe that takes its strawberry crepes dish to a new level of food-being (I may be going overboard just a bit), and they give you their fabulous tropical (orange-based) syrup instead of the strawberry syrup. Although I haven't been to Toledo in a few years, I remember their hashbrowns as the best among the fine potato dishes at OPH, because they used very waxy red potatoes. The crepe batter at the SW 72nd St. location in Miami is not as eggy as in Wilmette, but this Miami branch appears to "fry" crepes at a high temperature in lots of that good butter, which carmelizes the sugar in the batter. "How many times did you have the Miami OPH crepes?" is one of the questions St. Peter will ask as you approach the pearly gates, so be prepared.

It's hard not to stick with pancakes, waffles, and crepes, but after a few-hundred visits you really should look into the perfectly cooked egg dishes -- including large, fluffy omelets, not the "pancake style" folded omelets (cooked on both sides before folding, to kill all traces of disease and flavor) preferred by most corporate restaurants and their lawyers.

Like everything good in this world, OPH has its detractors (and a few locations actually deserve them, primarily because of poor service but also because in some cases the kitchen staff doesn't get it -- both problems I put down to local management). Cost is often the biggest gripe, especially in Web and newspaper comments in small urban markets. An OPH breakfast is expensive for people who don't mind eating at IHOP or Denny's. It's also more expensive than good chains like Cracker Barrel and Bob Evans, and OPH lacks the really great biscuits and sausage gravy of Bob Evans and the grits, genuine country ham, and redeye of Cracker Barrel. And, of course, even the best chains fall short of wonderful local places across the country, although I'd rank the top OPH locations above breakfast at Fuller's in Portland, Lou Mitchell's in Chicago, the Frisco Shop in Austin, and the Loveless Cafe in Nashville.

That's a strong statement, and I should think it about it further, keeping in mind those pearly gates, but I do highly recommend the Original Pancake House and hope you have a chance to find the best of their best.

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