Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Tale of Two Pancakes

When I am on the road, the first thing I ask the front desk clerk at a hotel is: “Where is the best independent, locals-only restaurant that serves a good breakfast?”

I never miss breakfast when I’m out of town. While spending the morning in a local diner, one can learn a lot about a town or city, not to mention, have a good, non-chain breakfast.

A recent book-promotion event landed me in Nashville. During the late-evening check in, I asked the front desk clerk the standard where’s-the-best-locally-run-independent-breakfast-restaurant question. Without hesitation, he said, “Pancake Pantry.” Another clerk at the desk enthusiastically agreed.

The next morning I asked the front desk personnel on the new shift the same question. All agreed, “The Pancake Pantry.” While hailing a cab the valet asked where we would like to go, “The Pancake Pantry,” I replied.

“Lucky man,” he said, “I wish I were going with you.”On the ride over, the taxi driver gave us detailed instructions on the best time to arrive at the Pancake Pantry and which time of the day has the longest line. “There’s a line?” I said.

“There’s always a line,” he replied.

I was excited. The prospects looked good for an excellent dining experience. Never before had so many different people unanimously endorsed one restaurant.

As we pulled up to The Pancake Pantry, an older building with faux Swiss-chalet architectural features not far from the Vanderbilt University campus, there were several people standing in a line that stretched down the sidewalk. The sign inside read: “Sun, rain, or shine, there’s always a line.” My anticipation grew.

After a short 15-minute wait, we were seated. The menu boasted of made-in-house maple syrup and pancakes prepared with “specially ground flour from an Eastern Tennessee mill” breakfast was looking better by the minute.

The menu listed several pancake styles and variations. I asked the waitress which ones she recommended. “The sweet potato and buckwheat are my favorites, and we sell a lot of the strawberry,” she replied.

I figured if I were going to judge this much-acclaimed pancake restaurant on its pancakes, I would need to try the plain buttermilk variety. We also ordered the buckwheat and strawberry.

The pancakes arrived and were just O.K. — not great, but not bad. However, during the course of the meal the waitress brought by a sample of the sweet potato pancake and it was excellent.

What made The Pancake Pantry a memorable dining experience was not the food, but the atmosphere. Tables were filled with college students, vacationing families, businessmen, and women on there way to play a round of tennis. It truly felt like a community breakfast.

My next stop was Chicago. We arrived late in the evening and the next morning, in the hotel’s lobby, I asked the front desk clerk the breakfast question. Without hesitation he mentioned a restaurant across the street from the hotel.

It was Saturday morning; the theatre district of downtown Chicago was still. The restaurant— one with a Greek name that I can’t remember— had only a few tables occupied. The food was bad. It was a wasted breakfast. As I was paying the tab, I looked across the street to the bottom floor window of our hotel and a bustling breakfast business was in full swing.

I walked across the street and learned that the restaurant was connected to my hotel. The menu looked great, the people looked happy, the restaurant was packed. The “question” had backfired. In my search for a “local non-hotel restaurant” I wound up in a dud.

What did we learn from this experience, children?

Even if there is a line out the door, the food might be mediocre.
House-made Tennessee syrup tastes just like Aunt Jemima’s.
Always take the waitress’ recommendation.
Always ask the front desk clerk about the quality of their in-house restaurant, first.
Vanderbilt might not have a football team, but they’ve got a pretty good breakfast joint.

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