America's Best Pancakes
My favorite pancake story as a young girl was the one about Paul Bunyan. The mythical lumberjack was famous for eating “hungry man” stacks from a giant griddle greased by 20 cooks who skated across the surface wearing whole hams strapped to their feet. Because of my fascination with this story, pancakes were the first thing I learned to make in the kitchen. I’d whip some up misshapen hot cakes every Saturday morning for my parents, who always ate every bite.
My story is hardly uncommon. Despite the global appeal of the pancake, Americans have given this simple treat—made with flour, eggs and milk—iconic status. And different regions of the country have made the pancake their own, adding local ingredients and inspired touches. Today, sitting down to a plate of flapjacks often gives you an insider’s look at some of those regional tastes.
Sure, America has also spawned national restaurant chains devoted to this iconic treat. The International House of Pancakes was founded in 1958, and remains a favorite of college students craving high carb-and-sugar doses during late-night cram sessions. In Portland, OR, the unrelated Original House of Pancakes, which first opened in 1953, was more recently designated a regional landmark by the James Beard Foundation. The famous food critic once called it one of the 10 best in America, and we still agree.
Travel + Leisure’s favorite pancake houses were selected for their creative recipes and toppings, sugary or savory fillings, and regional sides. And we made sure the pitcher on the sideboard was filled with genuine maple syrup (or the regional equivalent).
Yes, you’d expect real syrup almost anywhere in Vermont, but at the Farmers Diner in Quechee, the pancakes are surprisingly delicious. Here, organic wheat flour and Cabot sweet cream butter are whisked into buttermilk pancakes with a mission. Owner Tod Murphy is known for his dedication to regional farmers and small-batch purveyors (honey, jam, syrup) from the Green Mountain state. That means every ingredient, from the free-range eggs to the maple-cured sausage, is delivered to this updated diner’s door fresh every day.
But the northeast isn’t the only region to find top cakes. On Hawaii’s Big Island, the Hawaiian Style Café is famous for its platter-size pancakes. This homey joint with booths and counter service on the outskirts of Waimea is owned by Guy Kao’o, who has been mixing pancakes from scratch every day for the past 18 years. His are topped with a fried egg and served with side of fried Spam.
From the East Village to West Hollywood, cooks are flipping flapjacks, Johnny cakes, hot cakes, hoe cakes, or Dutch babies. Here, 10 spots across the U.S. where Paul Bunyan would be happily show up with Babe the Blue Ox for breakfast.
The Farmers Diner, Quechee, Vermont
[Now closed.] This retro-style diner in the Green Mountain State is a crunchy granola advocate of the burgeoning localvore movement: founder Tod Murphy’s mantra is “Food from Here.” So his short order cooks only use ingredients (milk, eggs, bacon, cheese, and even tofu) sourced from regional farms and purveyors. Naturally, real Vermont maple syrup and sweet Cabot butter comes with an order of the Gleason Grain’s organic wheat flour buttermilk pancakes. Ask for a cup of Vermont Liberty Tea Company’s fruit-lavender brew or, during harvest season, a cold glass of Champlain Orchard’s apple cider.
Best sides: Vermont Smoke & Cure ham steak or maple sausage.
Stanley, New Orleans
This new eatery on Jackson Square in the French Quarter is local chef Scott Boswell’s wake up call. (It’s just down the lane from Stella!, the other half of his homage to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.) What you will desire here, however, is to sit at the soda fountain counter on a swivel stool and order the short stack of pancakes served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and Steen’s Cane Syrup, Louisiana’s traditional sweetener with a molasses kick. And if you have a Big Easy appetite, save room for the Eggs Stella: cornmeal-crusted soft shell crabs atop poached eggs with Creole hollandaise.
Best sides: After a night on the town, order the eye-opening Bloody Mary or a spicy bowl of P&J’s oyster, shrimp, and andouille sausage gumbo.
Hawaiian Style Café, Big Island, Hawaii
Wins hands down for biggest pancake in the tropics. In the market town of Waimea, this breezy diner is the favorite stop for locals who love their breakfast Loco Moco (white rice topped with hamburger patties, grilled onions, fried egg, and brown gravy) on the XXL side. In fact, pretty much everything on the menu can be smothered in the housemade gravy or a fried egg, including the platter-sized Pancake Sandwich, a two-stack served with a generous scoop of whipped butter and coconut syrup. Just get here early, because the owner closes to go fishing when the kitchen runs out of ingredients.
Best sides: Fried rice, Spam and Portuguese sausage.
The Original Pancake House, Portland, Oregon
Before IHOP, there was Original. In downtown Portland, this is the original Original location of the national franchise now famous for its air-filled, oven-baked Dutch Baby pancake, which resembles a sugar-powdered volcanic crater slightly smaller than Mount St. Helens. The choice of batters is comprehensive: choose from buckwheat, sourdough, and even wheat germ. The Swedish pancakes are served with lingonberries and potato latkes come with sour cream or cinnamon applesauce. Try the “Three Little Pigs in a Blanket”: sizzling links encased in buttermilk bliss.
Best sides: Sugar-cured hickory smoked ham and corned beef hash.
Hominy Grill, Charleston, South Carolina
Chef Robert Stehling may not be a Lowcountry local, but his “highrise” biscuits and breakfast shrimp are as authentic as Nana used to make, and the buttermilk pancakes are paired with apple maple syrup and pecan butter. On a corner of Rutledge Avenue in an up-and-coming district of this genteel Southern city, Hominy Grill has been serving a gracious plenty to Dixie diners since 1996. Other regional brunch specialties include a fried green BLT or she crab soup. And you can’t beat the pitchers of sweet tea poured by waitresses with equal doses of Southern charm.
Best sides: Sausage gravy and cheese grits.
This hip Windy City café is another big supporter of fresh ingredients from regional markets and farmers. There’s always a “griddle cake” on the menu, but the ingredients change according to season and whim. In winter, they might be paired with stone fruit preserves, candied pumpkin seeds and maple sabayon; as summer arrives in the Heartland, you can expect grape jam, poached raisins, and spiced creme anglaise. Healthy breakfast standards (scrambled tofu with miso sauce, oatmeal studded with dried cherries) are served daily, but the weekend brunch menu is when the kitchen stops counting calories and indulges regulars with specials such as lemon and pistachio bread pudding with strawberry rhubarb preserves or a grilled pork sausage plate with focaccia, soft boiled egg, and Michigan ramps.
Best sides: Apple-maple-sage sausage and nitrate-free Gunthorp Farms bacon.
Lake Placid Lodge, Lake Placid, New York
In the Adirondacks, the buttermilk pancakes—served here overlooking Whiteface Mountain at rustic tables handcrafted by woodsman Barry Gregson—are as light as the crisp mountain air. Maybe it’s due to the free-range eggs from Lake, Meadow, and Mountain Farms and the locally tapped South Meadow Farms maple syrup.
Best side: Farmland cider-cured, applewood-smoked bacon.
The Downyflake, Nantucket, Massachusetts
A weathered gray shingle diner, popular with the summer crowd that waits for the housemade doughnuts, gets equally high marks for its plain Yankee pancakes. Since this is New England, you can choose flapjacks made with tart cranberries and fresh blueberries. Order a short stack and save room for a serving of raisin bread French toast. Pure maple syrup is a premium so expect to pay extra.
Best side: Hot cinnamon doughnut.
Prune, New York City
Gabrielle Hamilton’s gutsy food at her hole-in-the-wall café on the Lower East Side is inspired by classic American dishes. Don’t miss the “Dutch Style” jumbo blueberry pancake baked in the oven—it’s paired with Canadian bacon, sour cream, and powdered sugar. Sample some of the 10 different Bloody Mary cocktails (love the Bullshot) and try the prime dry-aged rib eye grilled with shallot-parsley butter to accompany two eggs any style. Just be prepared to wait: Prune is always crowded for dinner, and snagging a table for brunch on the weekends is tougher than getting an audience with the Pope.
Best sides: A plate of smoked sturgeon, sable, and salmon from Russ and Daughters.
The Griddle Café, West Hollywood, California
On Sunset Boulevard, wake up with a breakfast suited for champions, not carb-conscious celebrities. There are 18 over-sized hotcakes to choose from on the all-day menu, from basic buttermilk to sugar bombs topped with whipped cream, streusel, and caramel. The “Saturday Morning Fever” is swirled with Baileys and Kahlua, while “Scotch on the Rocks” is filled with coconut, pecans, and butterscotch chips. And French toast fans have just as tough a decision to make when ordering. Don’t leave without a trucker hat, apron or, even thong undies graphically emblazoned with the Griddle’s signature stack.
Best sides: Cinnamon apples or bananas baked with brown sugar.