Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dig That Diner - The Pancake Shop in Hot Springs.

Nearly 69 years old, The Pancake Shop is still flappin’ jacks and offering a great traditional Southern breakfast cheap and with a smile.

I grew up with an idea of diners that came from prime-time TV. Diners were a world where waitresses wore matching uniforms, where chrome barstools and Formica-topped tables were the norm, where the coffee was always hot and the eggs always cooked to order.

Yes, I thought all diners were like Mel’s Diner on Alice.

When I got older, I didn’t see that when I went out for breakfast. Oh, sure, Waffle House has uniforms and coffee, but it’s not the same. Waffle House doesn’t evoke thoughts of a community, or warm feelings about the past. It wasn’t until years later that I’d find the place that met my mental image of a diner.

When I think of a place like Mel’s Diner, I think of The Pancake Shop.

No, I’ve never heard a waitress there tell a customer to kiss her grits, and there’s no grumpy cook hollering at folks. But the food is good, it’s decently priced, there are regulars that come through on a schedule, and you won’t find a better cuppa joe in Hot Springs National Park.

This isn’t some fly-by-night Johnny-come-lately trendy joint trying to take advantage of nostalgic tourists. The Pancake Shop has been a Bathhouse Row fixture since 1940. It had been located at 133 Central Avenue (where the Downtown Hotel & Spa is located today) for many years, as Mason’s Pancake Shop. Later it was bought by the Conway family of Chicago and moved across the street to its present location. Tom Ardman and his wife Ruth ran the place from the sixties onward, until Tom passed away in 1980. Ruth kept up the fantastic service and drew in even more customers. She died in 2004, but her daughter Keeley DeSalvo and Keeley’s husband Stephen still maintain the business and its great record of good food at decent prices.

I’ve had lots of chances to become acquainted with the eatery. I’ve visited many times over the years, and during my TV days even had the opportunity to bring in the morning show I worked on for a morning. The staff was splendid, opening up at an ungodly hour to allow all of Hot Springs to come in and meet our anchors and enjoy a good breakfast.

And that’s the thing -- TV news anchors are just regular folks here. So are just about every sort of celebrity you might imagine. Lots of folks have darkened the doorstep -- including generations of horseracing’s finest, musicians of the like of Liberace, and who knows who else. No matter the magnitude of your own shining stardom, you’ll always get the same warm welcome.

On my most recent visit, I arrived after the morning rush. I ordered my usual, iced tea, which was served up strong with a handful of Sweet & Low packets and a chunk of lemon in a bowl. I looked up and saw the smiling countenances of my former anchors on the wall, right alongside Barney the Dinosaur. Well, you never know what sort of company you’ll end up keeping when your face is peering down from a wall.

The Pancake Shop’s big thing is breakfast, and that’s what you come to order. The choices are simple -- pancakes, French toast, breakfast meats, eggs, and omelets, drinks and fruit. Almost everything is served with toast, and toast is served with grape jelly and apple butter in individual services. Apple butter is so extraordinarily Arkansan, and it’s so fitting here.
It's very easy to over-order here. But that's okay, there's no hurry. The furnishings are straight out of the early 60s -- Naugahyde beige benches, green cushioned wooden chairs and melamine topped tables. Locals and celebrities also have eaten here look down. Pictures obscured by large flourishes of autographs and thanks. Lots of horse racing memorabilia, too.

It’s just one more item that’s normal here, where it might not be normal elsewhere. You can have any meat you want, as long as it’s pork -- but there’s also lots of fruit and juice choices. Where else can you get bananas and blueberries, stewed prunes, or grapefruit? Oatmeal, cream of wheat,
or cereal? Your choice of five types of toast? Buckwheat pancakes? Buttermilk or chocolate milk? These are the staples of a good Southern breakfast buffet, yet here they’re all available and for a reasonable price. And yes, there are grits.

My favorite? Banana pancakes -- real bananas in the batter, too. Pancakes are thick, hearty, and the size of a dinner plate. One is enough for a side, two for a complete breakfast -- yet it’s not unusual to hear a neophyte order a stack of three and see the same customer give up halfway through his food. Gargantuan gobs of grub, indeed.

Another favorite -- because you never can just have one -- omelets, fluffy and fresh with a hearty offering of American cheese. Some folks want to add in things like ham or sausage or sautéed onions in theirs -- I like mine simple, and could dine on just omelets with glee.

It may sound like I’m in love with the restaurant. Perhaps I am. There’s just something about the simplicity of a place where the most expensive thing on the menu is Ham Steak and Eggs ($7.85). And where the wait staff still refers to customers as “sir” and “ma’am,” not in that smarmy way that teenagers sometimes manage but with the honest respect that good businesses try to foster.

The Pancake Shop is open every day from 6am to 12:45pm. You’ll find it across from the Arlington Hotel at 216 Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Check out the restaurant on-line at or call (501) 624-5720.

UPDATE: I've come back and written more about the Pancake Shop - once, when I did a cupping, once on the 75th anniversary, once on our epic Scenic Highway Seven adventure... actually, I've written a LOT about the Pancake Shop.

1 comment:

  1. Drove from Redfield to Stouts today. Great recommendation ! Enjoyed hearing you on Daves radio show.


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