In Search of Seattle’s Most Utterly Adequate Pancake Breakfast

IHOP, you hop, we all hop for pancakes.

In the 1950s, back when tiki was classy and Ray Kroc was hatching his Napoleonic plots, the pancakes of the world began gathering together in houses, much like medieval artisans organized into guilds or Jerome Robbins dancers into Sharks and Jets. The original pancakes, for instance, set up in opposition to the international pancakes, both shunned by the family pancakes, always the most conservative of the lot. Seattle in particular was home to many splinter houses that, over the years, resisted being swallowed up by their now-franchised brethren. Though the pancake houses' influence on American gastronomy may have dimmed over the years, they have kept growing, silently expanding across the nation, placing great strain on the nation's reserves of buttermilk and corn syrup. While McDonald's now tries to keep up with the times by introducing white-chocolate lattes and fruit salads, the houses of pancakes have no need to change. Yet neither do they symbolize a Seattle that was but is no more. These restaurants are all busy, all of the time, most particularly before and after Sunday services. I visited five houses of pancakes in six days, tasting close to two dozen flapjacks and sucking down just as many cups of weak coffee. Some were good, some mediocre, but none are going away anytime soon. Original Pancake House Basic stats: 8037 15th Ave. N.W., 781-3344, NORTH SEATTLE Pancakes served: Breakfast and lunch only, seven days a week. Date of origin: Chain founded in Portland in 1953; this house (one of about 100) has been in existence about five years. Average age of patrons: 45. Number of syrups: One (good ol' corn). Decor last updated: Knotty pine paneling and decorated plates never go out of style. Basic pancake: The buttermilk pancakes are slightly too ethereal for my tastes, barely in your mouth before they melt away. Oddly enough, though, these were the only buttermilk cakes of the five versions I tried that actually tasted of buttermilk. A short stack with perfectly scrambled eggs, the boiled-and-then-grilled kind of hash browns, and sausage links costs $8.99. Specialty items: The flagship of the OPH franchise—its raison d'être, its chef d'oeuvre—is the Dutch baby ($9.50), a baked pancake as big as a dinner plate, with crisp 4-inch-high sides and an eggy, poofy center. Truth be told, the baby's good enough to build a chain around, especially when you squeeze lemon juice on it and then dump a high drift of powdered sugar on top. It was worth the 20-minute wait, unlike the bacon waffle ($6.25), which scored three stars for ingenuity, two stars for bacon, and one star for undercooked, mealy waffle. Service: Our server probably made a third as much as a waiter at a high-end bistro and provided four times more genuine warmth. The kitchen messed up our order, and she automatically took money off the bill. How often does that happen at three-star restaurants in Seattle? Not often enough. Family Pancake House Basic stats: 23725 Highway 99, 425-775-6300, EDMONDS Pancakes served: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. Date of origin: Chain founded in 1963; six locations in the area. Decor last updated: I'd estimate 1996, but they employed a decorator who'd seen her heyday in 1983. Plastic-laminate surfaces, etched glass, and beige everywhere. Airy but chain-restaurant charmless. Average age of patrons: 65 before 10 a.m., 50 after. General stickiness rating: Slick as a whistle. Basic pancake: Buttermilk or corn, six to a platter, fluffy as all get out, and cheap ($4.75). There was no taste of residual baking powder, no cheap margarine from the grill. All in all, the best basic pancakes of the five houses I visited. Number of syrups: One (corn), warmed and served in a creamer. Specialty items: FPH has hundreds of pancakelike options—ham or pecan waffles, buckwheat pancakes, rolled French pancakes filled with sour cream or fruit, blueberry-studded pancakes, all priced to sell. The "country roll-ups" ($6.75) took herbed pancakes fluffed up with mashed potatoes and then rolled them around sausage links. Good all by themselves, they came with applesauce, a combo that would appeal to dip-your-bacon-in-syrup types. Service: Rocky at the start. When I asked the host how big the pancakes were and she said, "You're going to have to ask your waitress that," eyebrows were raised. But our waitress turned out to be a pip (for the record, the pancakes were the size of CDs). International House of Pancakes Basic stats: 950 E. Madison St., 322-4450, CAPITOL HILL Pancakes served: 24/7. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night munchies. Date of origin: IHOP was started in Toluca, Calif., in 1958. This location is number 612 out of more than 1,300 franchises. Average age of patrons: At 8 a.m., 40. Furnishings by: Central warehouse. Basic pancake: Buttermilk pancakes (three for $4.49) were all "made with farm-fresh buttermilk for authentic country flavor," which was certainly true, assuming that out in the country the farmhands dump in a ton of baking powder. And it's hard to trust any pancake so fragile that it develops a crater in the spot where the cook plops a ball of whipped butter. Number of syrups: Four ("pancake," "strawberry," "blueberry," "butter pecan"). Specialty items: Dozens of items with trademark signs. I ordered the Harvest Grain 'N Nut® pancakes ($7.99) but skipped the whipped topping and fruit compote in favor of the breakfast combo, which included lukewarm scrambled eggs, see-through bacon, and a tile of hash browns soaked with margarine. The cakes had a slightly richer flavor, as if ground-up granola had been stirred into the batter. Service: She performed all her tasks in a proper manner, but our waitress only smiled once—when I pointed out that she'd forgotten to charge us for one item. It was a nice smile, though. Pancake Haus Basic stats: 530 Fifth Ave. S., 425-771-2545. EDMONDS Pancakes served: Breakfast and lunch only, seven days a week. Date of origin: 1969. Average age of patrons: 65. If you take me and my guest out of the calculations and add in the Toastmasters chapter meeting in the back room: 70. Decor last updated: Newish carpet, but otherwise, I'd say 1976. Though the sign outside is lettered in Bavarian, the inside is pretty much your average strip-mall diner with a colonial country edge and a low-key neighborhood vibe. Basic pancake: Pancake Haus offers as many pancakes as Family Pancake House, but you can order them by the stack or by the cake ($1.15–$1.75 a pop), so we created a buttermilk, corn, and pecan combo. The quality of the buttermilk pancakes was pretty forgettable, and by adding a tablespoon of cornmeal to the standard batter to create the corn cake, the cooks guaranteed it dried out. The pecan cake, the best of the three, was filled and scattered with nuts, giving it some substance underneath the fluff. Number of syrups: One (warmed maple-esque served in a glass mini-carafe). Specialty item: The "wunderbar German pancake," which you can order kleine (small, $6.75) or grosse (large, $8.25). Basically, the wunderbar was a smaller, flatter Dutch baby, but my least favorite of the three I tried as it contained almost enough nutmeg to induce hallucinations. Service: The service hit all the marks—our waiter could make a living at most of Seattle's midpriced bistros—but was not terribly welcoming. One of those places where you have to be a regular. Looks like there are more than enough of them to keep Pancake Haus going for a while. Cyndy's House of Pancakes Basic stats: 10507 Aurora Ave. N., 522-5100. OAK TREE Pancakes served: "From whenever we feel like opening to whenever we feel like closing," says the owner. Basically, 6 a.m.–2 p.m. seven days a week. Date of origin: 1958. Average age of patrons: 45. Average age of staff: 55. Decor last updated: 1972, when the house moved to this location. The interior is so magical I had to stop myself from hyperventilating: wood paneling and Naugahyde all around, giant plastic insects hovering on the ceiling, a garden of glass and wrought-iron flowers on the walls, and oversized, wing-backed Danish Modern swivel stools at the counter. Coffee refills per hour: Five offered, two accepted. Basic pancake: Buttermilk pancakes that are, according to the waitress, made from scratch ($6). Good in a middle-of-the-pack way—a little mooshy in the center. Number of syrups: Three (coconut, "warm maple," and a cherry-red liquid that tasted like Hostess jelly roll filling). Specialty items: Cyndy's "Holland babies" are flat, saucer-sized rounds with a 1-inch lip to hold the half-stick of butter melting in the center. Thanks to the use of lemon-juice concentrate rather than fresh lemons, they're not as good as OPH's Dutch babies. Get the cornmeal cakes ($6) instead—plump and tender but more substantial than the basic flapjacks. Or best of all, try a panko-covered chicken-fried steak with brown gravy, eggs, and three cakes (a deal at $9.95). Service: The cook first slipped us regular buttermilk instead of corn cakes and then disappeared on break. The waitress shuttled back and forth from the kitchen to the table, all but singing protest songs until he righted his wrong, and charmed us in the process. Bonus: The check comes printed with a trivia question of the day—ours was "What state has the seagull as its state bird?" When we asked our waitress for the answer, she sent the owner—in his 70s and shaped a bit like Humpty Dumpty—trundling over from the register to reveal it to us, chortling the entire way. It was, indeed, a doozy.

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