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After 65 years, Portland’s Original Pancake House is still the temple of butter and batter

STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NOLAN CALISCH

At Portland’s The Original Pancake House, the fragrance of butter permeates the dining room. A pink-aproned waitress passes by, carrying a fragrant Dutch Baby that might double as Mount St. Helens’ crater. A couple ensconced in a corner booth tucks into a pile of buttermilk pancakes.

“Low carb?” asks Jon Liss, the restaurant’s former “chef, waiter, and bottle washer” and now general counsel and corporate chef. “What’s that?”

The Original Pancake House doesn’t bend to dietary trends. It doesn’t have to. Since its opening in 1953 and its recognition in 1955 by James Beard as one of America’s 10 best restaurants, a steady flow of visitors — many of them regulars — line up to wait for tables as they read the paper and gaze at framed photos of breakfasting Eisenhower-era dairy princesses.

“This place is like the Hotel California,” says Jon. He’s not the first customer to discover that you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave. His first visit to the restaurant was in 1978, when he came from New York City to visit his sister at Reed College. He chose to attend Lewis & Clark Law School in part so he could eat at The Original Pancake House regularly. And he did. Every day. For 10 years.

He often sat at the restaurant’s community table, where regulars still chat over apple pancakes and coffee. “Little did I know that I’d eventually marry that 12-year-old girl chopping apples in the kitchen,” Jon says. That girl was Ann Highet, granddaughter of the restaurant’s founder.

“We like things old school,” Jon adds. That means no credit cards or advertising — and don’t even think about asking for substitutions. Despite The Original Pancake House’s downhome feel, it’s the home base of a franchise of 140 restaurants throughout the United States, as well as in Japan and South Korea. “We’re ‘mom and pop’ times 140,” Jon says.

Lester Highet and Erma Hueneke opened The Original Pancake House. Les had been chef at Spokane’s Hotel Davenport before spending 17 years running the kitchen at downtown Portland’s now-defunct Towne Tavern. Erma had worked in a school food program. Les and Erma set their sights on a building — by chance, a closed restaurant that once served pancakes — along what was then Portland’s main north-south highway, Barbur Boulevard. Erma bought the building for $5,000, and Les supplied the kitchen know-how.

Their approach was simple: open a fine-dining breakfast restaurant. Instead of everyday diner fare of fried eggs and hash, they designed a menu of internationally inspired pancakes. Incidentally, this was five years before the International House of Pancakes launched.

The core of The Original Pancake House’s success was Les’s secret recipe for buttermilk pancakes. Jon is close-mouthed about what sets their pancakes apart, except for two factors. First, the recipe involves a room-temperature “sour starter.” The state health department pondered from 2006 to 2009 before deciding to approve a variance to the health code for the starter, since no other local restaurant used one.

The second clue he drops is that the recipe contains enzymes that allow the restaurant to use high-protein flour yet still make a “light, flavorful, and easily digested” pancake. The enzymes were the brainchild of Les’s wife, Doris, an M.D. and Ph.D. biochemist at Oregon Health & Science University.

Les instated a few other principles. First, “the customer is never right,” as Jon puts it. “We teach them what quality is. You want the pulp out of your orange juice? You better bring your own strainer.” How about maple syrup on your Dutch Baby? Risk the peril of staff wandering by and pointing out that “it’s not supposed to be eaten that way.” (Per Jon, the proper method is to apply whipped butter, squeeze a lemon wedge over it, and then sprinkle with powdered sugar. “Butter, lemon, sugar,” Jon says. “You’ll remember that. It’s alphabetical.”)

Another of Les’s principles is to use fresh ingredients — and lots of butter. The Original Pancake House’s Portland location consumes 350 pounds of Grade AA butter (the highest USDA grade) each week, much of which is clarified in-house. Portland’s Sunshine Dairy provides the restaurant’s dairy, including the 36% fat cream you’ll find in the tiny pitcher next to your coffee cup.

Speaking of coffee, The Original Pancake House’s blend is proprietary and has been roasted since day one by Portland’s Boyd’s Coffee. The restaurant’s apple pancakes require nearly 500 Granny Smith apples weekly, each cut by hand for the slightly uneven texture that gives the pancakes their signature texture. In sync with the season, The Original Pancake House serves pancakes laden with local peaches, blueberries, strawberries, and marionberries.

The concept of a fine-dining breakfast, combined with Les’s recipes, spelled success. Changes in the restaurant’s menu have been insignificant. The clam pancake and the kosher salami eggs disappeared, and the green chile-pepperjack omelet and gluten-friendly pancakes were added. The Palestine Pancake was renamed the Continental Pancake “because we didn’t want to argue about whose Palestine it was,” Jon says.

But that’s about it. If Zsa Zsa Gabor, who visited in the late 1950s, returned today, she’d find the interior’s knotty-pine paneling, fireplace, wood floors, and decorative plate-rail largely unchanged.

From its opening, The Original Pancake House did so well that it inadvertently found itself in the franchising business. First, Erma’s nephews and a few of the restaurant’s earliest managers launched outposts in Salem, Bend, and Eugene. Then, seeing the demand, The Original Pancake House began welcoming potential franchisees ready to adopt the restaurant’s principles. Each franchisee spends three weeks in the Portland mothership restaurant, working side by side with its chefs, before opening their own doors.

Without advertising, over the past 60 years, The Original Pancake House multiplied to its current 140 locations. Jon estimates that, combined, the restaurants serve 30 million meals each year.

In the late 1960s, Erma died, and her family sold her interest in the restaurant to the Highet family. Les’s son, Ron Highet, joined the family business. Today, Les’s grandchildren run The Original Pancake House, along with Jon Liss.

Although The Original Pancake House won’t divulge its recipes, Jon is willing to share some tips:

  • Cook with clarified butter. It has a high burning point, and since the milk solids are removed, it’s safe for lactose-intolerant eaters.
  • Don’t compromise quality or standards. Don’t be afraid to serve a meal your — not their — way.
  • Service starts with a smile. A welcoming attitude goes a long way toward setting the stage for a good meal.
  • Keep everything fresh. Dump leftovers.

The Original Pancake House has locations in Bend, Eugene, Portland, Redmond, and Salem. Visit originalpancakehouse.com

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