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Original Pancake House [Moved from the Manhattan Board]

[Note: This started as a response to a post on the Manhattan Board. You can see the original thread at: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... --The Chowhound Team

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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 originalpancakehouse.com 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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  1. I haven't eaten at OPH often enough to try a wide variety of their items. Usually I choose their 49ers, which are thin like crepes and Swedish pancades, but with a chewier texture. I can make a passable immitation of their other pancakes, including the dutch baby, but the 49ers are unique (at least in my experience).

    paulj

    1 Reply
    1. re: paulj

      I agree -- the 49ers are both unique and delicious. They're the one OPH pancake that I dress only with butter.

    2. There is one out in South West Broward county, Fla -- near the Lowe's off I-75. (I can't tell if that is Pembroke Pines, but I think so). Love it. Love the Swedish Pancakes, and I'll certainly try the 49'ers next time!

      1. I once enjoyed eating at the San Jose (CA) OPH daily. I'd start my morning off with a Jr. Bacon and two cups of wonderful coffee before joining the other lemmings on our commute north. Often enough a mood to try something different would hit. I tried the flagship of OPH, the Apple Pancake (a monstrous item 14" across and an inch-and-a-half high). The German pancake was also wonderful with the zing of fresh lemon cutting through the dusting of powdered sugar. The 49'ers, crape-like and delicate in taste, required little more than butter while the hearty Sourdough pancakes were best drowning in a giant puddle of that fresh-whipped butter. I never did get up the courage to sample the clam pancake, though, often wondering if anyone had ever tried one.

        The San Jose branch changed ownership. I felt it lost touch with its customer base because service and food both took hits. I found another morning stop along my extended morning march and took OPH out of my regular restaurant rotation.

        I've attempted to go back with my daughters on several ocassions. Each time, food quality was an abyssmal C, service was a D, and decor was still a B. I've noticed an expanded menu each time (and prices that have not remained static, either.) I'm still of the opinion that the San Jose branch does not understand its customers' needs.

        My visits to the first OPH, the Los Altos branch, and one in Sandy Eggo show that the core values are still there so I will continue to visit the chain in other areas.

        If you have a hearty appetite, I recommend the apple pancake. If you like to share, there's enough for three, but still bring that hearty appetite...

        6 Replies
        1. re: The Ranger

          You guys with the apple pancakes are amazing. I've never been able to finish one at the restaurant, but it does make a great dessert the rest of the week. In fact, more than once I've ordered an apple pancake to take home for just that purpose.

          I sympathize with The Ranger's depiction of the San Jose branch. I lived in Saratoga less than a mile from the De Anza location for four years and finally gave up on it for similar reasons.

          I'm also very familiar with the Sandy Eggo branch on Convoy. In fact, Sandy herself was once my waitress, and we had the following exchange:

          Me: "Are we in San Diego, or is this a suburb?"
          Sandy: [Quizzical look.] "I'm sorry??"
          Me: "Is this a suburb?"
          Sandy: [As if I had said something in a foreign language.] "SUB-urb?? I don't know what that means."

          That's a true story! But the food and coffee were quite good, and other servers have generally been competent. Too bad the Sandy Eggo County OPHs don't open at 6 a.m., as in Orange County, where I verified recently (at the Yorba Linda location) that the food is wonderful and the service is very good, but the coffee is the worst I've ever had in my life.

          1. re: Mel Gee

            I was at the one in San Diego at 6 am last Saturday....I only go at that time...no crowds...

            1. re: Cathy

              Cathy, which SD County location do you mean? I was at the one in the city of San Diego (on Convoy St.) recently, and it opened at 7. I just called, and they confirmed that their hours haven't changed.

              1. re: Mel Gee

                Well, they let us in and fed us...there were others in there also...we were out of there by 7:15 and there was a line then.....

          2. re: The Ranger

            This is the one on S. De Anza, right? Your story explains why I thought it was nothing special. You should have gone farther north on De Anza (a bit north of 85), there's a place called Holder's Country Inn that has killer omelets.

            1. re: aynrandgirl

              Yes, the very one.

              I once again gave them [the De Anza OPH branch] another shot and regretted my choice. <sigh> How can one place drop so badly?

              As far as Holder's Country Inn, I have one more convenient to me on Saratoga Avenue. Daughter-units Alpha & Beta, Spawn, and I all enjoy it. The waitresses work to make us feel comfortable and the foods hearty for a good price. SWMBO just doesn't enjoy it so it's not a regular on our restaurant rotations.

          3. At my local OPH, service is always lightning-fast, even when the place is super busy. I love the one-line concept in the lobby-everyone stands in one line, like at a bank, and you are seated in the order you arrive.

            I've tried many of the pancakes and waffles. The apple pancake can keep me full for the rest of the day. My new favorite is the Swedish pancakes w. lingonberry preserves. The cubed fried potatoes are a meal unto itself.

            I do wish OPH offered daily specials - the menu is very extensive but it would be nice to have some different options.

            Going out to breakfast is one of my favorites things to do. OPH is several notches above IHOP, and on par (in my opinion) with my two other favorite regional breakfast/lunch places - Le Peep and Hobees.

            1. I've never had a service issue at the Redondo Beach, CA location.
              My favorite dish is the homemade corned beef hash served with an over easy egg and a side of thin potato pancakes. Close to $10 but worth it.
              Assuming the one in Las Vegas is still going, it's a welcome relief from the Strip buffets and other chains.