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It’s tough for me to not drop everything and jump in the car when I hear of a charmingly outdated chain restaurant 500 miles away, but the prospect of such a place a little more than an hour down the road was too much to resist.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.

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  1. They should add a Kenucky bourbon pecan pie short stack and they might unbreak chain.

  2. Ah, my scenic hometown of Toledo! Nice to see a part of it get some love. I have only been to The Original Pancake House, which is within spitting distance of Uncle John's Pancake House. Instead of the Hammock District, Toledo gets the Pancake House District.

    1. You know there's a little place called Mary Ann's Pancakes. The nice thing about that place is Mary Ann eats pancakes with you.

  3. That was an enjoyable podcast! I think all of us have that restaurant that meant so much to us as children. Mine's all the way closed, but because I wondered one day "hey, whatever happened to..." my life changed. No lie! Can't wait to see where you go next.

    1. You flatter me. Thanks for reading, and listening!

  4. Don't worry, you'll never run out of Broken Chains! You got me curious and I found that Houston had their own Uncle John's which closed sometime in the 70s. Also, I'm excited to hear the podcast when I get a chance, congrats on that!

    1. Thanks! Cool that Uncle John's had a presence in Houston. That's not a market I knew they were in.