Walking into the newly renovated Original Pancake House on University Avenue, regulars may feel surprised. The welcoming and family style pancakery used to resemble an old-fashioned restaurant. Now the eatery flaunts a modernist, ruby red décor.
Despite the change in scenery, the kitchen is still serving up piping hot pancakes and breakfast food seven days a week to regulars and newcomers alike.
This Madison branch of The Original Pancake House opened in 1987 on Midvale Boulevard under the ownership and management of Mary Ann and Bob Zownir and Mary Ann’s parents, Jeri and Ed Ruskamp. The restaurant began as a family business and remains that way to this day.
The Original Pancake House became a part of customers’ weekly routines and provided a true sense of community. About a month ago, Bobbie Malone self-published a history of this particular pancake house. “The World According to Pancakes” has photos by Mark Golbach, available for purchase at the restaurant for $10.
“Both customers and staff consistently and independently reported that breakfasting at the OPH is like being part of a family,” Malone wrote.
The Zownirs made it a point to memorize customer’s names. That same family value resonates with current owner, Drew Fleming, whose daughter Charlotte is on the cover of Malone’s book.
Fleming began his pancake journey as a cook at the OPH in 1990 and purchased the restaurant in 2015. While he did not change the menu, some cosmetic and structural issues needed to be resolved, prompting a renovation in September of this year.
“The ceiling was collapsing, and I knew it needed help when I bought it,” Fleming said. “It felt like an old Italian restaurant. It had arches on the windows, stucco on the walls. It was pretty ugly.”
After getting inspiration from downtown’s Lucille, Fleming contacted that restaurant’s designers, OPN Architects, to get the ball rolling on the renovation. Now with an updated dining counter, additional 12 seats and red accents, the restaurant is as attractive as the food it puts out.
“We tried to make it feel the same, but a little more welcoming and cozy,” Fleming said.
The Original Pancake House is part of a franchise, so individual owners have no discretion as to the price of food. That doesn’t stop them from introducing specials.
“They [OPH] are super flexible with whatever you want to do. Regionally people do different things and it’s nice because you don’t have to have a strict menu,” Fleming said.
Seasonal specials at the Madison restaurant include chorizo scramblers, Nutella crepes, seafood crepes made with king crab, scallops and shrimp, and pumpkin-pecan pancakes.
I tried two of their specialties, the apple pancake ($10.50) and the strawberry waffle ($9).
The apple pancake is oven baked and topped with cinnamon and brown sugar glazed Granny Smith apples. The texture is extremely light, but the pancake itself is enough to fill you up and save some for later.
The strawberry waffle may seem simple, but it’s the exact opposite. The fluffy, golden brown waffle is topped with fresh whipped cream, powdered sugar and dozens of fresh, sliced strawberries, served with strawberry syrup on the side. The simplicity of the menu makes these dishes satisfying.
“We have a lot of regular people who somehow feel connected to us because they see how well adapted we all are to the job,” said one staffer, Daniel Mendiola. “We talk to them like they are part of this place and not as if they are just coming to spend their money. I guess the food connects us.”
“In the fall a lot of people get the pumpkin-pecan pancakes and I love our corned beef hash. I also love our bacon and eggs,” Fleming said. “A good breakfast restaurant is hard to beat. Since we have had staff here for so long, you don’t have to worry about having bad experiences with staff.
“Same with the food. It’s coming out good and it’s coming out fast.”