Monday, December 31, 2018

Tiny Narratives

In gathering experiences to share here, I encounter a good many interesting phenomena that fit the Broken Chains theme, but for various reasons, do not warrant an entire dedicated blog post. One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible, which explores the history and design of the unnoticed elements that shape modern society. The staff of that show run into similar problems when doing their research. Occasionally they find something interesting, but there's not enough to say about it to fill a full episode of their show. In order to share these smaller stories with their listeners, 99% Invisible does an annual "Mini Stories" episode at the end of every year, combining their smaller stories into a viable podcast episode. This post is shamelessly ripping off inspired by the 99% Invisible Mini Stories episodes, and represents my attempt to share my own mini stories tiny narratives. 

Lum's: Home Edition

Following my trip to Ollie's Trolley earlier this year, I got curious about Lum's. Since there are no Lum's restaurants left open, I went online looking for a copycat recipe for their hot dogs steamed in beer. What I found exceeded my expectations. Ollieburger Spices USA is a website run by a former Lum's manager. For a reasonable price, you can purchase authentic Lum's recipes there along with the spice blends used to make Ollieburgers, special Ollie sauce, and the distinctively seasoned Ollie Fries. 

Ollieburger marinade

I decided to use the recipes and spices I bought to host an informal dinner for me and ten of my closest friends. The Ollieburgers I cooked were very close to the ones at the Louisville Ollie's Trolley, and steaming hot dogs in beer is my new favorite way to prepare them. The food was a hit with my friends. It was nice to share a little real life Broken Chains experience with them. I even went on to host a taco night where I served copycat versions of Taco Tico's meat and refried beans a few months later.

What? Don't you like Bonanza?

Until recently, my various adventures saw me in a hyperbolic function, constantly getting nearer to, but never reaching an operating original concept Bonanza Steakhouse. I visited four related Ponderosa Steakhouses one weekend this spring, and later dined at the only operating Bonanza Steak and BBQ, an attempted revamp of the original Bonanza concept. My plans to visit the Lincoln, Illinois Bonanza were thwarted when reports of a roach infestation scared me away, and sadly that location closed a few weeks later. At the time of this post, there are only eight original concept Bonanzas left operating in the continental United States, a mere fraction of Bonanza's one-time imitator and current sister brand Ponderosa, which is still hanging on with around 60 continental U.S. locations. (I say continental US because both Ponderosa and Bonanza are still hugely popular in Puerto Rico.)

I would hang this tray on my living room wall if it were mine...

...and this rug would be on the floor right below it. 

I had to visit an OG Bonanza while I still could, so while on a trip to Minnesota that you'll hear more about in January, I stopped by the Bonanza in St. Cloud, which is still doing a booming business out of an old Bonanza barn-shaped building, not unlike my local Ponderosa which began life as a Bonanza. While I had a wonderful meal in delightfully outdated surroundings, the whole experience wasn't significantly dissimilar from dining at an especially well-run Ponderosa, a chain which I've already discussed at length. Still, if you're looking for buffet dining in the Gopher State, you could do a lot worse than the old Bonanza in St. Cloud.

The food was great, but decidedly Ponderosa-y.

Imitation Sliders

Fast food history is full of imitators. The roast beef boom started by Arby's in the late sixties gave us Rax, as well as countless other forgotten chains like Neba, Heap Big Beef, even Kentucky Beef, a KFC venture. McDonald's early success inspired Sandy's, Henry's Hamburgers, Burger Chef, and Mr. Quick. Even my beloved G.D. Ritzy's shares more than a few similarities with Steak and Shake. Much of American Fast food history can trace its lineage to the original hamburger chain, White Castle which had plenty of imitators of its own, a few of which survive today. White Tower was one of many restaurant chains that sprang up in the 1920s and 1930s seeking to emulate the White Castle model. Royal Castle and Krystal are also examples of White Castle imitators. The folks at White Castle generally tolerated the knockoff chains unless they attempted to expand into existing White Castle territory, which is exactly what White Tower did, resulting in a lawsuit by White Castle, which dragged on for years. The eventual result was that White Tower had to change their building designs and pay royalty fees to White Castle. The chain fell apart in the 1970s, and today there's a single White Tower left open, located in Toledo Ohio. I had lunch there early this year with Bo-Luke Coyvance of Uncle John's Pancake House fame, and found essentially no resemblance to White Castle or the original White Tower concept.

That's a 1970s-era White Tower sign. It was by far the most interesting and authentic thing at the Toledo White Tower.
Rather than a fast food format, it was a full-service restaurant with printed menus and servers waiting tables. The menu was several pages long offering a selection of sandwiches and breakfast foods. I expected the burgers to bear some resemblance to those at White Castle, but found them to be full-sized, round, and completely devoid of caramelized onions. Any ties to the original White Tower chain were gone. A former White Tower in Hamtramck, Michigan operated as Campau Tower for many years before closing. I ate there once on a blind date around 2010, and found the burgers to be authentically small and oniony, if not square. I can't help but think this was the last real White Tower. The last time I was there, they still had the old Campau Tower sign up, with the Tower part being from the original White Tower sign, but these days they sell street tacos, and a second sign in the window reads "Dos Locos Tacos."

Tandy: Falling Slowly


I've always meant to cover more retail stores here, but broken chain restaurants are easier to find, and I generally have more to say about them. I've struggled to find retail stores that I'm inspired to write about. Radio Shack, an offshoot of the Tandy corporation, fits the Broken Chains theme nicely. Once a fixture of every mall, most Radio Shack locations closed at the time of the company's bankruptcy in 2015, but a handful of franchised locations remained open, the unlikely survivors of an extinction level event. I encountered one such location in Campbellsville, Kentucky, directly across the street from the last operating Druther's restaurant. I stopped by to check it out after a hearty breakfast at Druther's and found it to be operating both as a Radio Shack and an independent carpet store. The sole employee excused himself from a conversation with another customer shopping for carpet to ask if he could help me. Not looking for anything in particular, and slightly flustered, I asked if he had a car charger for my iPhone. (I didn't need one, but it was the first thing that came to mind that a Radio Shack would be likely to have.) It turned out they didn't have any iPhone car chargers in stock. Without any reason to linger in the store further, I thanked the employee for his time. He returned to his carpet customers and I left, taking a couple surreptitious pictures on my way out. 

When Blue Lights Fade

Just as I perceived Taco Tico and Taco Bell as equals during my early 1990s childhood in Central Kentucky, I saw Walmart and Kmart in much the same way. At the time, Kmart was the undisputed champion of discount stores, and Walmart was still the young up and comer from small-town Arkansas. Each chain had a store at opposite ends of Nicholasville, Kentucky which were roughly the same size, each offering a store full of clothing and homegoods with a few token grocery aisles. I'd get dragged to both stores on the regular as a kid. As the '90s progressed, however, Walmart's presence grew with larger and more numerous stores opening seemingly at every major intersection in and around Lexington, while the aging Kmart stores, most of which were 1970s builds, closed one by one. The Nicholasville Kmart closed its doors right around the time Walmart started building its new Supercenter across town, which remains open today. The Kmart has since been demolished and replaced by a Kroger.

Major suppliers have stopped doing business with Sears and Kmart, fearing that the bankrupt company won't be able to pay for their merchandise. The lack of merchandise has led to shelves that once held electronics being stocked with pillows and mattress covers...

...And bare shelves as beverage distributors stop supplying inventory. 

When I moved to Billings, Montana in 2012, I rediscovered Kmart, preferring to shop at the never-crowded, heavily dated Kmart in town rather than the more modern and popular local Walmart and Target locations. The old Billings Kmart was just as I remembered the Kmart in Nicholasville from two decades earlier. I was a regular there until its closure in 2014 or so. The distinct lack of updates in most of their stores is what attracts me to Kmart. With no budget to modernize stores, most Kmart locations feel exactly as they did 20 or 30 years ago. It's that time capsule feeling that keeps me seeking out Kmarts that are still open for business. 

Operating Kmart locations are increasingly rare specimens, and may soon be extinct. Kmart was bought out of bankruptcy in 2003 by ESL investments, a hedge fund controlled by Eddie Lampert, who became the de facto CEO of Kmart. Not long after Lampert also acquired Sears and merged the two brands, and generally proceeded to mismanage them, resulting in massive financial losses. Lampert has been trying to recoup these losses for a decade or so by selling off company assets little by little, effectively very slowly liquidating the company. Each new financial hardship has brought about a new wave of store closures. Sears Holdings, the company that controls both Sears and Kmart, declared bankruptcy in October.  

Prior to Lampert's takeover, the Kmart corporation, a descendant of the old S.S. Kresge department store chain, was based in Detroit. In fact, the very first Kmart, which opened in 1962 and closed in 2017, is located not far from my metro Detroit home. As a result, Kmart had a significant presence in and around Detroit well into the Lampert era. These days, there are more empty Kmart buildings around than operating ones. With the long term survival of the Kmart and Sears brands as we know them looking increasingly unlikely, I've spent the last few months visiting as many Kmarts as I can, mostly in Michigan, but a few elsewhere as I encounter them. While Sears isn't as close to my heart as Kmart is, I've visited a few of their stores too.  I don't have much to say about the decline of Kmart and Sears that the mainstream press isn't already saying, but I have shopped at, and taken a lot of pictures of their surviving stores this year. I'll close by sharing a few of my Sears/Kmart pictures. 

Warren, Michigan, a former Sears Essentials store

Waterford, Michigan, The brick columns make me think this used to be something else. If you know what it was before it became a Kmart, comment below.

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, a very nice, modern-feeling store, just up the road from an operating Ben Franklin

Grayling, Michigan, perhaps the last operating unmodified prefab pole barn Kmart

Oscoda, Michigan, I'm told this store started out as a pole barn similar to the one in Grayling before being expanded into its current form.

Clio, Michigan, a '90s build store that's starting to show its age

Marine City, Michigan, wearing the distinctive curved top facade that I refer to as the Kmart tiara. 

Belleville, Michigan, this is the closest Kmart to me. I shop here once every couple of weeks. 

Marshall, Michigan, another '90s Kmart. This one feels the most vibrant of all the stores I've visited. It's pharmacy, and in-store Little Caesars are even still open. 
Grayson, Kentucky, This store is now in the process of closing... is this store in Lake Orion, Michigan

Peru, Indiana, This is the smallest Kmart I've ever seen. The absence of the word "Big" from the sign was very fitting. 

Longtime Broken Chains readers will remember the Midland, Michigan Kmart from my Retro Roadtrip back in February. 

A Meijer in Lincoln Park, Michigan that's clearly a former Super Kmart. It still feels decidedly Kmartish on the inside. 

Sears, an anchor store of the Fashion Square mall in Saginaw, Michigan. This store is in the process of closing. 

A 1950s vintage Sears in Lincoln Park, Michigan, also in the process of closing. I hope they keep the logo on the water tower. 
Thanks everyone for your readership and suggestions. This silly blog project of mine has led me to having a solid year of adventures in 2018. I'm looking forward to another year of Broken Chains, and I'm excited to see where 2019 will take me. Wherever I end up, I'll be sure to tell you all about it here. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Alone at Bennigan's

For my entire life, I've always been content to be by myself. As a child, I didn't much care for other kids. I found them to be immature. At the same time, as a child, I found adults to be overly condescending. My mother used to pay me by the hour to motivate me to socialize during play dates. I've become slightly more social as I've aged. These days, I have a small group of close friends that I try to see at least quarterly. I find great fulfillment in my romantic relationship with Esmeralda Fitzmonster, and it's great when she can come on adventures with me. Unfortunately, our work schedules frequently result in one of us working while the other is not, meaning I'm often on the road alone visiting the endangered businesses that inexplicably intrigue me. This isn't a big deal to me. While I enjoy Esmeralda's company, I also enjoy my own. Most of the restaurants I visit are glad and able to accommodate a lone diner, but I recently visited three locations of a broken chain that doesn't seem to know what to do with a party of one.

Bennigan's and its vaguely Irish theme were developed by Norman E. Brinker, who, at the time was an vice president at Pillsbury following their acquisition of Steak and Ale in 1976. Brinker had founded the Steak and Ale chain a decade earlier, and would go on to acquire and expand the Chili's brand, as well as the ill-fated Spageddie's chain after leaving Pillsbury.

In the late '80s/early '90s both the Bennigan's and Steak and Ale chains were acquired by Metromedia, then parent company of the Ponderosa/Bonanza chain. The recession of 2008 was not kind to the Metromedia brands. Their bankruptcy forced the closure of all Steak and Ale locations, and 150 corporate-owned Bennigan's locations. The remaining 138 franchised Bennigan's slowly closed over the years, making the brand increasingly scarce. Today, there are 15 Bennigan's locaitons open in the U.S, plus a bakers dozen more in Latin America and the Middle East. As luck would have it, three of the 15 surviving American Bennigan's are in my home state of Michigan, and when I hear of a broken chain open for business within a (semi) reasonable driving distance I can't stay away, especially when it's a brand I for which I have a preexisting affinity.

I first moved to Michigan in 2008, just as Bennigan's locations were closing en masse, but a few nearby franchised locations remained open. I'd often take a drive to Ann Arbor for lunch or dinner at the Bennigan's near Briarwood Mall, and more often than not, I'd order the Monte Cristo sandwich. Depending on where you order it, the Monte Cristo may be served on French Toast, battered and deep fried, or both. It may be served with raspberry jam or maple syrup. It almost always contains ham and cheese, and may also have turkey. Regardless, it's a rare combination of savory and sweet that works perfectly when well executed. Bennigan's interpretation of the Monte Cristo is deep fried with ham, turkey, and cheese, and comes with raspberry jam. It's long been my favorite version of the Monte Cristo, the calorie-laden offspring of a sandwich and a doughnut. Of course, nearly as soon as I discovered Benngan's and their Monte Cristo, the locations near me all closed. My go-to location at Briarwood Mall is a Red Robin now.

It had been a solid eight years since I had eaten at Bennigan's when I discovered a cluster of them open for business a couple hours north of me, in the metacarpophalangeal joints of my palmated home state. I decided to visit all three of them, stopping by each location on a different day, to see how Bennigan's is getting on post-bankruptcy under their new corporate parent, Legendary Restaurant Brands, LLC. Longtime Broken Chains readers know what's coming next.

Meal #1
Location: Bennigan's 3095 Tittabawassee Road, Saginaw, Michigan
Order: Monte Cristo sandwich, steamed broccoli, water

It had been nearly ten years since I had been to a Bennigan's when I found my way to this one in Saginaw, but the entryway at the apex of the V-shaped dining room surrounding an elevated bar area immediately felt familiar. It was nearly identical to the layout of the old Ann Arbor Bennigan's. When I told the hostess I'd be dining alone, I could see her take a minute to attempt to process that information, as if her brain was a laptop from 2005 with too many browser tabs open. My penance for coming to this Bennigan's by myself was being seated at the rearmost booth on the right side of the dining room, where the building's outer wall and the wall separating the dining room from the corridor to the restrooms form a tight acute angle. The booth was situated in the tight gap between these walls, and as if that wasn't enough of a claustrophobia trigger, a large television hung from the ceiling immediately over my head.

A nice plate of healty and unhealty

My server stood in contrast to my sub-par table under the Samsung flatscreen of Damocles. She was pleasant and attentive without being overbearing, and had no problem substituting broccoli for fries as the side for my sandwich. (I had already eaten at Maryland Fried Chicken that day, and was quickly growing weary of fried foods, a condition from which I have since recovered.) My meal came out quickly, and my sandwich was just as I remembered it, golden brown, dusted with powdered sugar, and cut into four pieces. I smeared on some jam, and took my first bite, then another and another until the sandwich, and broccoli were gone. Something wasn't right. Somehow my deep-fried sandwich tasted dense, greasy, and generally unpleasant and left me feeling nauseated and lethargic. Maybe the broccoli was the wrong pairing, maybe it was the fried chicken I'd had earlier in the day, or maybe it's because I'm not 22 anymore, but the Monte Cristo magic was gone. I decided then and there that I was done eating Monte Cristos for the foreseeable future, and that I'd use my remaining visits to explore the rest of the Bennigan's menu.

Meal #2
Location: Bennigan's 6603 Eastman Avenue, Midland, Michigan
Order: Steak and Ale Kensington club with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts (the default sides) water

 "Open during construction" is a phrase that evokes visions of sawdust in your food.

Dead chain within a broken chain

This location seemed to be in the middle of an exterior refresh while I was there, as outer panels all over the building had been stripped away to reveal gypsum insulation panels, which sat exposed waiting to be covered by some decorative trim. A couple windows at the rear of the building had been hastily covered with particle board, as if a construction mishap caused their breakage. It's business as usual inside, though. Here, my penalty for dining alone was being seated at the bar, at the not so gentle suggestion of the hostess. I rarely drink alcohol, and abstain when I'm driving multiple hours by myself as I was on this trip. I'm also not a fan of high-top tables, which, is of course where I ended up. My perch made it difficult to scoot my chair without feeling as if I was about to tip over. I could barely handle it sober. I shudder to think about sitting at a high top table after a couple of drinks. Despite my precarious chair, I'm comforted by the small hexagonal tiles covering the floor. They are the same style of tiles that covered the floor at my dearly departed Ann Arbor Bennigan's. Additionally, I was inadvertently conditioned to have positive associations with hexagonal tile from an early age. The G.D. Ritzy's locations of my early childhood, as well as the corridor that led into the Lexington, Kentucky Children's Museum also had the same small six-sided tiles. I knew that whenever I saw that style of floor covering, a fun time was about to happen. I was a weird kid.

I'm either about to get an Itzy Ritzy kids' meal or blow a giant soap bubble. I can sense it. 

Heartened by the floor decor, I order from the bartender, who was also acting as my server. Bennigan's new corporate overlords are working on relaunching the Steak and Ale brand. While all Steak and Ale locations closed during Metromedia's bankruptcy, Bennigan's offers a handful of Steak and Ale items on their menu, and their website advertises both Steak and Ale and Bennigan's franchises as being available. We may soon see new dedicated Steak and Ale locations opening soon, but in the meantime, I thought I'd use this Bennigan's visit to experience a little Steak and Ale flavor. My order, the Kensington Club was a signature offering at Steak and Ale.

Decent steak, odd sides

Like an Ollieburger, the marinade seems to be what makes the Kensington Club unique. It's base is a thick cut sirloin steak of decent quality, not unlike what you could get at any steakhouse, but the blend of sweet, tangy, and salty flavors imparted by the marinade make it a steak experience that makes it stand out a bit. The default sides on the other hand were lacking. For an allegedly-Irish inspired restaurant chain, this Bennigan's seemed to have trouble with potatoes. While the mashed potatoes were made from scratch, and not flakes, they were inexplicably both overly runny and dense. Likewise, the Brussels sprouts had been doused with so much sugar and butter they resembled a dessert more than a vegetable, which is to say they were pretty good, but they barely qualified as Brussels sprouts.

Meal #3
Location: 2424 South Mission Street, Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Order: Apple pecan salad with grilled chicken, French onion soup, Diet brown soda (I don't remember if it was Coke or Pepsi)

I was overjoyed and then immediately disappointed when I was seated at a real table in the center of the dining room at this Bennigan's, but quickly realized that my server was also taking care of two large groups, each consisting of eight to ten people each seated near me. He was already overwhelmed before I got there, so I resigned myself to receiving poor service. Once he had time to direct his attention toward me, my server took my order, brought my drink, and disappeared. He returned 15 minutes later with several bowls of potato soup on his tray which he distributed among the larger groups. When he tried to give me a bowl, I reminded him that I had ordered French onion, he removed the offending soup from my table, and disappeared again. Just as I was regretting not accepting the potato soup, a second server returned with a second bowl of potato soup, which he sat before me. My regret vanished as I explained, more exasperated this time, that I had ordered French onion soup, and that this was the second time someone had tried to bring me potato. He sheepishly apologized and vanished. My original server returned immediately after, miraculously carrying my salad and correct soup, which he apologetically set on my table.

This is fine.

Hazardously cheesy

The salad was the typical mixture of nondescript greens, nuts, apple slices, and bleu cheese crumbles topped with a grilled chicken breast. It's fine, nothing spectacular, on par with what you'd get at Panera or make at home if you happened to have the ingredients on hand. Under the cheesy top, the French onion soup is mostly broth with only a couple token onion pieces and chunks of soggy, bread. When the bill comes, this simple, light meal somehow costs $20 before a tip. I paid, tipping more than I should have for the level of service I received, and concluding that Bennigan's doesn't know what to do with people like me who are content to dine alone.

"Mmm... soggy bre..."
"Don't say it Homer! This is not the time!"

Every Bennigan's I visited was full of groups of people. Often large groups of families, friends gathered to watch sports, or elderly women in large red hats. All seemed to be enjoying each other's company, and more often than not, were drinking. As a nondrinking loner, I can't help but think I'm not in their target demographic, and that I would have been given better seating if I were in a larger group. Likewise the promise of a larger tip that a big group brings would have gotten me better service. A few beers would have made me care less about the inflated prices. I also can't think of anything that would be better drunk food than a nice greasy Bennigan's Monte Cristo. It's something that most people, myself not included, wouldn't dream of eating sober, but would start to sound increasingly palatable with increasing levels of inebriation. As for me, I won't be back to Bennigan's alone, but I would consider a meal there with Esmeralda, or in conjunction with my quarterly close friend gathering, preferably with a designated driver.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Uncle John's Stand

I occasionally fear that I’ll run out of new places to visit that fit the broken chain archetype that I like to experience and write about. Indeed, I’ve often found myself traveling increasingly long distances in pursuit of experiences with the surviving outlets of diminished and defunct brands. In an attempt to stave off the day that I run out of undiscovered broken chains, I constantly keep an eye out for new places to visit, both nearby and thousands of miles away. Almost a year into this ridiculous endeavor of mine, I was encouraged that I was far from running out of material when I heard of a nearby broken chain that I didn’t previously know existed.

I often find myself in Toledo, Ohio, hanging out with my friend and fellow Ford Festiva enthusiast, Bo-Luke Coyvance. It was Bo-Luke that tipped me off when he found out through a Facebook post that what he thought to be was an independent breakfast and lunch place in Toledo was indeed a holdout location of a broken chain. Uncle John’s Pancake House sits just off I-475 in Toledo, on Secor road. (I always get a giggle when I see signs for Secor Road since it shares its name with the fictional laxative manufacturer from Mad Men.) Information about Uncle John’s history is scant, but I pieced enough together to know the first location opened in Santa Barbara, California in 1956 before expanding nationally. I also found passing references to former locations in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. There’s not much information about what caused the brand’s downfall, but I like to think the chain’s decline came when Uncle John abandoned the restaurant business to start a band, which often played both by the riverside and to the tide. Near as I can tell, there are two Uncle John’s Pancake House locations open today, the one on Ex-Lax Avenue in Toledo, which opened in 1963, and another in Campbell California which seems to have opened in the past few years in an attempt to revive the brand on a local basis.

A relic from the good old days when men wore plaid, and children had facial hair.

It’s tough for me to not drop everything and jump in the car when I hear of a charmingly outdated chain restaurant 500 miles away, but the prospect of such a place a little more than an hour down the road was too much to resist. I left the house at 5 AM this past Saturday so I could beat the weekend breakfast rush to Uncle John’s and appreciate a little living history without the din of a crowd. Thanks to it being mid-December, it was still well before sunrise when I arrived, and I was able to see the original neon signs (almost) completely lit. A framed stained glass portrait of Uncle John greeted me in the building’s entryway. He stood, exuding avuncular style in his plaid suit and handlebar mustache, among his various young niblings who all held balloons and had mustaches of their own. I would come to find out that in the chain’s heyday, they’d supply children with their own false mustaches so they could emulate Uncle John.

Page 1: Just Pancakes

Page 2: Mostly French toast and waffles

I stood around the small lobby for a while before a busy waitress told me I could sit anywhere. I followed the long racing shell rowboat hanging from the ceiling to a quiet booth near the center of the dining room. The place was decorated in the “nail random crap to the wall” style that you might see at a Cracker Barrel or TGI Friday’s, but something about it feels more authentic here, as if many of the items on the wall were acquired over the course of the restaurant’s 55 year existence.

I sat under the stern of the ceiling boat. 

Random crap on the walls.
Random crap continued, even a different Uncle John

The same busy waitress, came by with a menu and took my drink order shortly after I sat down. I was impressed with the selection of pancakes offered, which occupied the entire first page of the menu. Likewise, the second page was mostly taken up by other syrupy breakfast delights like French toast and waffles. I read no further because I didn’t need to after I saw pecan pancakes, which I ordered along with a side of bacon.
Classic syrup caddy.

The table had four different syrup containers with IHOPesque flavors, maple, butter pecan, boysenberry, and strawberry. I intended to try all four, but I didn’t make it past butter pecan when my order came. The sweet and rich butter pecan syrup was the perfect compliment to the warm pancakes with pecan pieces both inside and on top. It was the symphony of pecan flavors that I imagine a Stuckey’s pecan milkshake to have been. The bacon was a bit of a letdown. While of a decent quality, nicely cooked, straddling the line perfectly between chewy and crispy, it was cold, perhaps even a bit colder than room temperature, as if it had taken my overworked waitress too long to pick it up from the kitchen. Regardless, it was better than the bacon at my local IHOP, which usually comes out of the kitchen not only cold, but also overcooked. 

Excellent pancakes, thermally challenged bacon.

If the other patrons are receiving cold bacon, they weren’t complaining. Everyone here seems to be in a great mood. A group of about ten well-dressed young adults behind me is laughing uproariously at an unironic Borat impression by a member of their group. (It was far from “Very niiice!”) An elderly couple sits near the door, and appeared comfortable and content, as if this has been their Saturday morning routine for decades. A man I took to be at least down on his luck, if not homeless sat in another booth and seemed pleased when the one and only waitress told him that another patron had already paid for his meal. Short staff, cheesy decor, and cold breakfast meats aside, something about this place put everyone in a good mood, myself included. 

I’m drawn to places that offer memorable and unique experiences. It’s why I love the Art Deco aesthetic of G.D. Ritzy’s and the time capsule that is Sign of the Beefcarver. The upbeat atmosphere and touches that date to the chain’s heyday make Uncle John’s Pancake House a place I’m glad to have experienced. I’m glad to have visited, and will be back often. I’m continually surprised at what still exists out there, and I’m immensely thankful I was able to experience the last continuously operating link in an under-documented and nearly forgotten chain.

I was recently a guest on episode #0487 The Stuph File Program, a podcast hosted by Peter Anthony Holder. You can hear the episode I was on here, or on your podcatcher of choice.

Be sure to like the Broken Chains Facebook page to receive updates about new blog posts and see additional content occasionally.