The concept of "the backup" is a pretty familiar one in sports, electrical generators and dating, but you don't usually see it applied to restaurants. But the International House of Pancakes is my idea of the perfect backup restaurant: It's not a first choice for dining, but it's a suitable replacement when I'm too lazy to make pancakes and eggs for myself at home or a massive kitchen accident has rendered my stove useless.
IHOP is usually an option rather than a priority -- unless I'm stumbling in for a 2 a.m. booty call plate of pancakes.
The first IHOP store went up in Los Angeles in 1958 with what was then a fresh concept: breakfast foods from around the world, done American-style. The menu had blintzes, crepes, French toast and pancakes with syrups other than plain maple -- cool for the times -- and in the 1980s it followed Denny's and expanded the offerings to blue plate-type lunch and dinner dishes. In 2008, IHOP bought the then-sales-slumping Applebee's chain in 2007 and formed DineEquity.
My recent visit to Applebee's inspired me to try its sibling. When I stopped by the Westminster IHOP last week, I learned from the window-sticky ads that it now has flavored hot chocolates and coffees. My last visit to an IHOP was years ago, in the Midwest, and I remember the coffee being of the black, gritty, summer road-tar variety. I ordered a Swiss mocha coffee, and it came twirled with whipped cream that quickly dissipated into globules of yellow oil dotting the same lackluster coffee I remembered, except with a squirt of Hershey's syrup.
The service at IHOP isn't the friendliest, but it's always fast. My server really wanted to refill my supersweet coffee, and seemed pained when I refused multiple times.
I had higher hopes for IHOP's 7 for $7 menu than for the coffee. There were several mildly appealing options -- and most of them included fried meat. I had to choose between crepes; banana bread French toast; a western omelet; a crispy chicken, bacon and ranch sandwich with fries; a bacon-wrapped sirloin steak and eggs; chicken and waffles and something called a "spicy triple meat scramble." I picked the last two, because I can't pass up any restaurant's chicken and waffles, and the "spicy," " triple," "meat" and "scramble" are all lovely words, especially in that order.
No western omelet for me, but at least IHOP took "Denver" out of the name: I get really, really tired of people making lame jokes about the-omelet-I-didn't-like-before-I-moved-to-Denver. With all the incredible Colorado exports -- marvelous lamb chops, perfect peaches and even a few above-average bottles of local wine -- sticking us with a rep for green pepper-poisoned egg pillows is grotesquely unfair.
My food came fast -- and I instantly regretted ordering the chicken and waffles. Those poor, tortured triangles of batter, with their holes and tattered edges, looked like the waffle iron had been set on stun rather than kill; they had a disconcerting damp sponginess that boysenberry syrup couldn't fix. The chicken was fingered, and not the good kind. (Yes, there are good ones out there, with light, airy tempura breading surrounding strips of juicy, subtly-seasoned white meat.) These were gristled, uneven wedges clubbed with over-peppered batter and fried to paralysis, and the honey mustard sauce was unpardonably runny.
The spicy triple meat scramble, on the other hand, was a fluffy, soft-scrambled hill of eggs, crisp pork sausage link cuts, rough-chopped bacon, diced grilled ham, jalapeno slices and mealy hash browns -- all smothered in melted cheddar. The side order of two pancakes was far less distressed than the waffles; they were a bit tough around the edges -- probably a heat-lamp hold thing -- but after a few seconds of syrup rehydration therapy, they were pliable. A half-dozen ropes of hot sauce also helped my pile of eggs -- every bite studded with meat -- and I polished off the plate while fending off my server's repeated attempts to foist more coffee upon me.
When I ordered a Coke, he finally relaxed.
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IHOP is no Original Pancake House -- not by any stretch of the imagination. But as is the case with most backups, it's cheap, convenient and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's the restaurant I don't want my friends to see me walk into, but when it's the last restaurant standing at closing time, I'll be back.