The Original Pancake House – 2621 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open Monday through Friday, 7am to 2pm, Weekends 7am to 3pm.

A national chain restaurant that doesn't really feel like one, the Downer Ave. Milwaukee location of the Original Pancake House is in a low-key location with a sign that is so subtle you will almost surely miss it if you don't know it's there. I knew it was there and missed it, asked a local, who started going on about the “Coffee Trader”—an apparently beloved local hangout that was in this location from, I believe the 1970s until it closed sometime in the '90s. It must have been pretty special to a lot of people, because they won't stop commemorating it. Anyway, TOPH is squeezed into this block of storefront businesses, between BelAir tacos and a physical therapy place, all of which are between a drug store and a hardware store, and is a block north of the Downer movie theater. If you were moving to Milwaukee, you could do worse than to end up in this neighborhood.

The Original Pancake House is immensely popular, which you will discover if you try to visit on any weekend morning, though there at least is ample space for waiting, inside, as it's a deceptively big space. (Though, this location is perhaps not as busy as the one in Brookfield. I tried to eat breakfast there on a Saturday, just after moving here, when I was staying at the Country Inn, and the estimated wait was three days.) I first visited this Downer location on a weekday when it was much more low-key, but still bustling. It's only open until 2pm on weekdays, and 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays, so this is strictly breakfast, or breakfast for lunch (though there are some lunch items on the overly extensive menu). The odd thing, to me, is that they don't open until 7am, which makes sense on weekends, but on weekdays, that pretty much means that no one working in an office job can eat breakfast there before work. (As you know, nine to five jobs typically start at 8am or 7am.) Maybe eating a gigantic, sugary breakfast isn't a good strategy for office work, anyway, but I don't know, it would be for construction jobs (which start even earlier). What I'm saying is, I think quite a few of these people eating here on a weekday morning aren't going to work, and it's not the cheapest option out there.

I am happy it's busy because I want them to stay open, as this is one of those perfect environments for sitting in a booth, meeting with someone, people watching, or writing. It's the kind of place that I'll make into a regular spot, even though I'm not generally fond of chains. When I spent time in Portland, Oregon (nearly 20 years ago) I occasionally visited the original Original Pancake House, which was in an odd location that I had to drive to, in an actual old house. The first one opened in 1953, so it has some history. There as another pancake place in Portland, called the Original Hotcake House, that the internet indicates is still around, that is a much grittier, diner-like, 24 hour joint, great in its own way.

The menu could take several visits to fully appreciate. Even if I had the budget (keep dreaming, Skiller) to taste a smorgasbord-like sampling of the options here, it's against my core values to waste food, and I'm trying to overeat less these days, so my modus operandi is to order one thing (like a normal person) (though not necessarily the most normal thing on the menu, or the “signature” dish). If a place is good enough to return to, I'll return, and probably many times, and if inclined, write another article about what I ate next, or other developments, changes, improvements, or the slow slide to extinction.

On this visit I tried something new, not even on the regular menu (I don't think)—their “gluten-friendly” French Toast. I asked the waiter what that meant, “friendly,” and he assured me it was made with gluten-free bread and ingredients, but cooked in a kitchen (and on a grill) with other wheat items. I think it's kind of a legal thing, using the “friendly” rather than the “free” tag that some establishments adhere to—so it's up to the gluten conscious customer to know the extent of their gluten sensitivity. Regardless, it was excellent (I haven't had French toast in a restaurant in a while), and there was no downside to the nature of the gf bread—and I ordered a side of over-easy eggs, because I like to have a halfway savory breakfast before I pour on the fake maple syrup. The whole mess came to about $11. I've had coffee here before, and it's not cheap, but it's good, and they bring you a little pitcher of half & half, rather than those infernal little tubs. As usual, the wait staff here, mostly young people, are very friendly, and the whole place makes you feel kind of homey and warm on an advancing fall day. And like I said, you don't feel like you're at a chain restaurant at all.

Richard Skiller, 11.15.17