By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
Pancakes make people happy. Arriving at the table in the form of short stacks or lofty towers, or fanned out like a haul of soft gold medallions, they are a simple indulgence that demands sweet syrup and defies seriousness. In a too-complicated world, a plate of pancakes is an uncomplicated joy for children (pancakes’ biggest fans) as well as adults who crave a little comfort. The exuberant pianist Liberace, who was also an accomplished cook, once declared, “Waffles and pancakes have to be kept coming as fast as they are eaten.”
A good measure of pancakes’ simplicity is the fact that they have long been considered a dish especially suited to otherwise uneducated male palates and to the talents of otherwise incompetent male cooks. Making pancakes for the family on Sunday mornings tends to be a culinary task dads do with panache. This phenomenon was explained in The Complete Cook Book for Men (1961), which observed that preparing good griddle cakes requires a knack similar to that needed for broiling steaks (another professed male forte): “No words can quite tell you the precise time when a flapjack should be turned, or the exact amount of butter that should be in your pan or on your griddle.” Many of our vintage cookbooks aimed specifically at men are rich with pancake recipes that are generally introduced with guy-to-guy words of encouragement such as these:
Some fellows take inordinate pride in the pancakes they make. And, mister, I’ve set incisors into some that would stretch like a tire patch…but a flapjack made right is as much an overture to a grand day in the open as a rosy sunrise. —The Outdoorsman’s Cookbook by Arthur H. Carhart (1944)
Flapjacks have more aliases than a life-termer…but no matter how you flip them, they are still flapjacks. They have their place in a civilized home as well as on camping trips. — The Groom Boils and Stews BY Brick Gordon (1947)
The Gun Club’s appetite cannot be appeased by such things as marshmallow whip or light confections….Flannel cakes are the great American breakfast food…with them is usually supplied ham and eggs, coffee with sugar and cream, hot rolls and jam, fruit, and maybe for the growing father, cereals with cream and sugar. —The Gun Club Cook Book by Charles Browne (1946)
Pancakes are especially appreciated by travelers in search of significant breakfast; unfortunately, though fair to middling ones are on the menu virtually everywhere across the nation, four-star flapjacks are rare. As we search the land for regional foods, we consider it our responsibility to seek out, to sample, and to praise extraordinary pancakes wherever they may be.
We are not the first culinary pilgrims to sing hoecake hosannas. In the 1940 edition of his pioneering guidebook, Adventures in Good Eating, Duncan Hines rhapsodized about a new place he had discovered in Portland, Oregon, called, simply, The Pancake House: “No fancy menu, but the best homemade food. Pancakes, served two at a time, piping hot, as long as you can sit and eat, for thirty cents.” The price has gone up in the last fifty-nine years, but THE ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE—located just down the street from Hines’ s defunct favorite—is now the city’s pancake-lover’s beacon for its unstinting use of fresh butter and heavy cream, and for its roster of plain and fancy griddle-cooked cakes as well as baked pancakes made from an egg-rich batter that rises high and light in the oven. The Oregon formula was so successful that there are now dozens of “Original Pancake Houses” all around the country. We’ve never been to a bad one but are particularly fond of WALKER BROS. ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE, in Wilmette, Illinois, for its magnificent baked apple pancake, which drips buttery cinnamon sugar and would make an ample breakfast for Paul Bunyan’s entire family.
Our own little black book is particularly pancake-rich in California. On Powell Street in San Francisco, where the cable cars trundle past, SEARS’ FINE FOOD has become a breakfast landmark for its “Swedish pancakes”—a plate of eighteen silver-dollar cakes so delicate you can almost see through them. Although better known for its fancy egg dishes and lush scones, DOIDGE’S—the Bay Area’s premier breakfast café—also makes exquisite featherweight pancakes with a frail surface that yields at the first touch of a fork. North of the city, in the wine country town of Yountville, a homey roadside oasis called THE DINER offers short and tall stacks of buttermilk pancakes, crisp cornmeal pancakes, and scrumptious egg-battered potato-herb pancakes served with applesauce; in the summer during berry season, the kitchen adds fresh raspberry pancakes to its menu.
With its well-established coffee-shop culture, Los Angeles has always been a pancake city. Those made by DU-PAR’S in the Farmers Market are so admired that the batter is available in containers to take home and pour onto your own hot griddle. And yet, tasty as these classic short-order cakes may be, the true joy is to eat them while sitting at the counter or in a booth at the restaurant, where veteran white-uniformed waitresses keep the chatter brisk and the coffee cups filled, never missing a beat even if the couple getting “Alaska hotcakes” (pancakes topped with ice cream and either boysenberry or blueberry syrup) are semi-incognito movie stars. But the most famous pancakes in Hollywood are those served at MUSSO & FRANK GRILL. This venerable chophouse, haunt of Hollywood’s elite for eighty years, is known for its motherly chicken pot pie, impeccable Martinis, and the simple, satisfying, plate-wide pancakes that go by the name of flannel cakes because they are so thin and tender.
New England boasts prolific sugar maple trees and a tradition of basic grain cookery; ergo, good pancakes. POLLY’S PANCAKE PARLOR, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was opened in 1938 by Polly and “Sugar Bill” Dexter, who thought a tearoom would provide them the opportunity to show passersby all the good things that could be done with the maple harvest from their farm. Now run by their progeny, Polly’s remains maple paradise. To gild masterful griddle cakes made of buckwheat, corn, or whole-wheat flour—all stone-ground on the premises—and available with nuts or blueberries, each table is set with fancy-grade syrup, maple sugar, and butter-thick maple spread, all made from local tree sap.
Blanche Toth of BLANCHE & BILL’S PANCAKE HOUSE, in rural Vermont, makes pancakes from a secret recipe, but she did reveal that part of the process is aging the batter for three days. The result is a lacy cake with a faint bite reminiscent of sourdough but not as tangy: an elegant flapjack! Vermont maple syrup is provided, or you can use Blanche’s own tart wild-blueberry sauce, served warm. Within her quirky diner, one wall is plastered with Red Sox memorabilia as well as dozens of felt-penned signs, some announcing specials of two, four, or six cakes with ham, bacon, or sausage, others posted just for humor’s sake: “Free directions any time. Accurate directions, 77 cents.” One sign says, “Ignore all signs!” And out in the parking lot, the car that belongs to Tina the cook boasts three bumper stickers: I VERMONT, I JESUS, and I ELVIS. Breakfast of all kinds lures crowds to GAIL’S STATION HOUSE, on Main Street in Ridgefield, Connecticut—eggs served in their skillet, bulky hunks of French toast, and fresh muffins. The dish we cannot resist is Cheddar corn pancakes. Lumpy with sweet corn kernels, the batter is supercharged with enough sharp Cheddar so that each cake develops a mottled crust that is alternately cake-tender and cheese-chewy.
Rhode Island’s johnnycake zealots are loathe to admit that their unique creations, made of finely ground flint-corn batter and served morning, noon, and night, are even part of the humble pancake family. Hereabouts, the making of johnnycakes is considered high art, with at least two distinct styles: wide and lace-thin, like those on menus east of Narragansett Bay in such town cafés as COMMON’S LUNCH, in Little Compton; and silver-dollar–size and plump, more prevalent on South County tables such as those of JIGGER’S DINER, in East Greenwich. There is little agreement even on how to spell the word—”jonnycake” is the most popular variation—and absolutely no common understanding of how the name came to be—perhaps from “journey cake,” because it traveled well, or from “joniken,” a Native American term for corn cake. Regardless of the differences, all good johnnycakes share a fine, earthy corn texture that offers the purest kind of griddle-cake satisfaction.
In too many southwestern cafés the pancakes are sodden and bland, but Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an oasis of griddled excellence. In particular, we recommend the big whole-wheat flatcars served with eggs and bacon in the lively corner eatery CAFE PASQUAL’S, and the tawny buck-wheat cakes studded with blueberries and accompanied by celestial apple-smoked bacon in the serene dining room of the ANASAZI RESTAURANT. But the most interesting hotcakes in town are the ones on the encyclopedic breakfast menu at TECOLOTE CAFE, a popular local gathering spot a few minutes south of the Plaza. Pale blue because they are made from the region’s beloved blue cornmeal, they come studded with luxuriously smoky roasted pilion (pine) nuts.
Pancakes are in season year-round, but their warmth and substance are especially welcome when it’s cold outside. It is our belief that the very best ones are made in places where the winters are severe. During the cold months, the windows of AL’s BREAKFAST, a minuscule diner in the Dinkytown district of Minneapolis, near the University of Minnesota—cloud with warm, breakfast-scented steam that makes this a most inviting morning destination. Buttermilk batter is poured onto Al’s well-seasoned griddle, forming thin, fragile plate-size pancakes with a savory tang. The loquacious short-order cook will add berries to the batter or sprinkle corn kernels or walnuts into partially cooked cakes; and, as an alternative to the syrup, sour cream is available to slather on top.
The town of Story, Wyoming, is a fresh-air destination for many tourists in the summer but home to a handful of stalwart High Plains citizens throughout the year. Its focal point is a multipurpose log-and-stone building called the Piney Creek General Store, a personable enterprise that serves as a community center and an all-purpose convenience store with groceries, video rentals, and an inspired selection of salsas and barbecue sauces. Snugged to one side of the jam-packed shelves is a little dining area dubbed WALDORF A’ STORY. It has a split-log counter and some mismatched tables at which locals gather to greet the dawn over plates of biscuits and gravy, warm coffee cake, bacon-and-egg sandwiches on grilled french bread, and stacks of especially delightful buttermilk pancakes accompanied by griddle-cooked smoked ham. Later in the day, Waldorf A’Story is a good source for takeout meals. (The menu lists the phone number as 683-2400-I-AIN’T COOKIN’.)
When Jan Drake was proprietor of THE SILVER SPUR CAFE in Sheridan, Wyoming, she used a semi scientific method to determine portion sizes. She figured that a meal was right if it was big enough to satisfy her teenage son. Mrs. Drake is gone, and Sheridan’s favorite morning meeting place is now run by Joyce Arbach, but the winning formula remains. Breakfasts are positively Homeric: strapping cinnamon rolls, clusters of steaming hot biscuits with gravy, and the piece de resistance—double-wide plates of tender blueberry flapjacks hot off the griddle. With bacon piled on the side, coffee refills that never quit, and the company of chattering regulars who occupy the front room’s horseshoe-shaped counter before sunrise, a pancake breakfast at The Silver Spur is a true taste of home on the range.
Blanche & Bill’s Pancake House (Drewski’s)
The Diner (Ad Hoc)
Doidge’s (permanently closed)
2217 Union Street
San Francisco, CA
Gail’s Station House (permanently closed)
378 Main Street
The Silver Spur Cafe
Tecolote Cafe (permanently closed)
1203 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM