While talking to my friend Catherine Conte, I realized an inherent contradiction in myself that I needed to confront. I mentioned that I absolutely wouldn't eat at IHOP (the International House of Pancakes, for those of you who have lived on Mars for the past 50 years) but that I have warmed up to Waffle House. She said that she hates Waffle House but likes IHOP. I realized that I had to give IHOP a second chance---these two chains really can't be that different. One reason that I've come to like Waffle House is simply that it's the hometown team.
I should explain how I came to hold IHOP in such low esteem. The final straw was in the mid-1980s at an IHOP in Bloomfield, New Jersey (as it happens, a few blocks from where the Sopranos' last scene would be filmed 20 years later). The food was so bad that my friend Bill Widen, a Wall Street lawyer, wanted to dine-and-dash, meaning not pay. I resisted that urge but I was deeply unhappy with the meal. This capped a feeling that had built up over several years. And not for any lack of chance for IHOP to prove itself. I've even been to the mother IHOP, the first restaurant on Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Which brings us to IHOP. My first impression was one of diminutiveness. The decor was, except for a slight change in color scheme, exactly what I remember from my IHOP visits in the 1960s. The booths, seats, and tables just seemed short to me, as if they had been built for a smaller generation of people. I thought about getting a waffle for a one-on-one comparison, but it is the house of pancakes, after all. I decided to go for the strawberry-banana pancakes with a rare treat of bacon. The bacon was extremely crispy, a little too much for my taste. The pancakes were fine. The strawberries were packed in syrup, despite being at the peak of strawberry season, but I really shouldn't expect anything else from a chain restaurant. So breakfast was perfectly fine, not bad even. I've been overly harsh on the big house all these years. Oh well...now I have one more choice at breakfast.
I resisted the urge to eat two breakfasts for a one-on-one comparison. (I did, however, make an accidental visit to the original Waffle House in Decatur.) IHOP does win the battle of decor, despite IHOP's diminutive impression. A single person can get a table at IHOP, whereas Waffle House etiquette demands that singletons sit at the counter. Tables are much better, particularly if you want to read the paper. However, I do find a hot, fresh waffle to be very appealing. The crispiness of a waffle gives it a dimension that a fresh pancake just can't match. So I'll call the battle a tie for now.