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In the Beginning...

The Original Pancake House brings breakfast back to basics.

The International House of Pancakes seemed like the obvious choice for breakfast. I had friends in town -- non-foodie friends who couldn't pick a head of endive out of a lineup even if I spotted them three food groups -- and the IHOP was walking distance from their hotel. We could meet there in the morning, grab a little something to eat and a whole lot of coffee, then be on our way with no fuss. Simple.

I'd never been to an IHOP before, and yes, I know how weird that sounds -- like saying I've never heard of Florida or asking what's this thing called television that everyone's always talking about. Still, this was my first time, and after one visit, I'm never going back.

It's hard to say what pissed me off the most. The watery coffee? Our shuffling server with the Thorazine smile? The fact that, as an adult, I should never be required to utter the words "rooty-tooty fresh and fruity breakfast" just to get some friggin' apple pancakes? The applesauce was sour, the bacon burned, the potato pancakes tasted like skinny hockey pucks woven from hay and dried onion flakes, and the scrambled eggs were so miserly portioned and overcooked and ugly and brown that they were barely recognizable as food. This breakfast was so bad that the only thing that got me through was the knowledge that living in a free society means no one can ever make me eat at a place like the International House of Pancakes twice against my will.

Rise and shine (and stand in line): Kitty Hunt serves 
up breakfast at the Original Pancake House.
Tony Gallagher
Rise and shine (and stand in line): Kitty Hunt serves up breakfast at the Original Pancake House.

Breakfast -- and I'm talking an American breakfast here -- should be easy. Its assembly -- similar, though not identical, to an English breakfast, only without so many kidneys and blood sausage, and second only to the French breakfast of three espressos and a half a pack of Gitanes on my list of worldly favorites -- is a lot like putting together one of those sectional bookcases from Kmart. It's workmanlike, plain and done without flourish, within the constraints of limited resources. There's not much innovation in the breakfast field, very little in the way of wild experimentation. That's because in the kitchen, the breakfast (or brunch) line is punishment detail -- a culinary purgatory. Once you find yourself there, odds are you're not going to be leaving anytime soon. If cooking were boxing, the breakfast shift would be the speed bag and the jump rope -- where a new guy goes to get his timing down. If cooking were football, breakfast would be coaching -- where your go-to guy goes when he can no longer hit as hard or run as fast as he used to. There he can lord his veteran status over the line, show the rookies the ropes, scout fresh talent for dinner and age with some measure of grace.

But as your mom always told you, breakfast isthe most important meal of the day. In three-a-day kitchens, breakfast is offered mostly because a case of eggs -- thirty dozen, that's 360 individual huevos -- can be gotten for less than twenty bucks. Figure two over-easy to a plate at 36 cents, a nickel's worth of hashbrowns and two pieces of bacon that'll run you maybe a quarter each, then do the math. Bacon and eggs almost anywhere will cost the diner $5.99 minimum -- at a food cost of, what, ninety cents? That's not counting wrap and labor or any of that, but still, that kind of raw per-plate profit would make any chef grin with unabashed pecuniary glee. A good exec is like Snoop: He's got his mind on his money and his money on his mind. And that dull breakfast his kitchen serves is what's covering the debt the dinner crew racks up with all that foie gras and lobster. It's simple economics, and the last thing a chef wants is some culinary Michelangelo on the brunch line trying to stick arugula and truffles in everything and messing up his P&Ls.

So that's why most American restaurant breakfasts are the way they are, why the International House of Pancakes can boast something on the order of 13 zillion locations while still being a big black hole of suck, and why -- as a former chef and current critic -- I generally shy away from reviewing breakfasts. But there are exceptions to every rule, and the Original Pancake House is that exception.

From the outside, the Original Pancake House on Belleview Avenue in the Denver Tech Center seems all wrong. For starters, it's part of a chain with a second location here in Greenwood Village, ninety outposts in 23 states, and one of those "find a location" maps on its website that looks like a Republican Party battle plan: states already conquered marked in red, those not yet turned just outlines waiting to be filled by the inexorable tide of pancake imperialism.

Worse, at first glance it appears to be a half-cutesy chain with an open-plan dining room packed with tables and a decorating style that's like Midwestern-homespun Marie Callender's-lite. There's inoffensive and eminently forgettable art on the walls, a small-town Saturday Evening Post vibe cut to fit the suburban pre-fab space, and a whiff of gingham about everything. The silver is electroplated and strangely heavy -- made to look and feel antique, but giving me the strange impression of eating in someone's doll house. And the servers and front-house staff are always uncomfortably happy. They wear smiles pinned back to their earlobes, like every morning at the Original Pancake House is the best morning of their lives -- and frankly, I find this sort of happiness disturbing. It makes me wonder what goes on in the back, out of sight of the customers.

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