The hostess is petite with a cute dimpled chin. She has pink hair, but the blonde is growing back in underneath and it flashes when she turns her head, and she’s complaining that she smells like cigarettes after an unknown ‘he’ has left. The atmosphere is very friendly and conversational. The other hostess, tall, skinny, black, wearing glasses, is bantering back when Pink Hair sees Peter and me and assumes her official posture to welcome us and ask how many.
‘Welcome to IHOP. Is it two?’
‘Are y’all here?’
‘Oh, no, our friend is on his way.’
‘Oh, well we can’t seat you until you’re all here.’
Peter goes into drawn out mock-protest – his birthday was yesterday, and he’s been running on pure whimsy the whole weekend. I knew he would jump at the idea of a nice sit down meal at IHOP where he can get a mound of hearty breakfast food and, frankly, get down among the weirder elements of Lower Manhattan society.
I am seated on a plastic waiting area bench watching Peter when he outs me.
‘Ok, well my friend is writing an article about your restaurant’s fry smell machine.’
‘Our fry smell machine?’
‘Or…Andrew, can you help me out here? It’s a…bacon smell machine. Because of the bacon smell.’
‘Well, you go home smelling like bacon if you work in the kitchen,’ the hostess says. She is confused.
‘Did you install an anti-bacon smell machine?’
‘Here? At the restaurant?’ She apparently has no idea about any such machine. I chime in – I don’t imagine I’ll gain any distinct journalistic leverage by being undercover, but just the idea that I’m here doing some sort of exposé on an IHOP is ludicrous to a woman who, though she clearly takes her job seriously and wants to dispense with her tasks at least faithfully enough to not get fired (‘My boss will fire me,’ she says when Peter asks her why we can’t be seated without our en-route friend Jason), also understands that most see IHOP as the bottom rung.
‘Yeah Peter, I’m actually a spy from Denny’s. I’m stealing IHOP trade secrets.’
With my assurance that Jason will be here in a few minutes, and those minutes could be well-spent watching the foot traffic in the IHOP waiting area, Peter sits down next to me.
‘That rule doesn’t make any sense,’ he says.
The IHOP on 14th street is easily recognizable by its light blue awning and the many signs adorning the exterior: one on either side of the awning leading from street to door, a smaller sign next to the door, a large neon-lit sign on the storefront lintel, and a twenty foot vertical sign running skyward along the brick exterior. The signs are the same as ones you’ll find on all fifteen hundred IHOP locations spread throughout the fifty states, District of Columbia, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This familiarity is a fundamental tenet of corporate success, i.e. to build brand loyalty, one must have an easily recognizable sign which usually includes a proprietary color/font mixture fashioned into a visual pun. Here, the bowl of the P is perfectly circular and identical to the O, meant (I assume) to resemble pancakes.
The first IHOP was opened in 1958 in Toluca Lake, California, by Al Lapin and his brother Jerry, who was fresh off a tour in Korea. Really, it was a community affair. Al borrowed the money to open the restaurant from his parents and recruited his next door neighbors and two other neighborhood couples to be partners in the venture along with Jerry and himself. The pancake recipes were perfected in mother Viola Lapin’s kitchen; the buckwheat pancake was deemed market ready after a taste test by a handyman working on the Lapin home on the day of the pancake’s creation. Trudy Kallis, partner/wife, coined the name ‘International House of Pancakes’ to emphasize the neophyte restaurateurs’ intention to serve recipes from around the world. Also, ‘House of Pancakes’ was too generic to trademark. Her husband Al Kallis, a graphic designer, designed the original menu. Viola made the curtains for the restaurant and Jerry took charge of the Coffee Time business that the Lapins had previously run serving coffee and sandwiches to local construction sites and offices. Marilyn, Al Lapin’s wife, was the cashier at the first restaurant. She would serve customers with newborn Randy in a bassinet under the counter. It was Marilyn who insisted that each table always have a pot of coffee awaiting customers.
Jason arrives, and the three of us are shown to a booth. Jason immediately wonders aloud where the waitress is to order coffee. The pot on the table is a fat brass-colored teardrop with dual-spigot black screw-on top and DECAF stamped on its head. I was here by myself last night, Saturday, and had a bacon-peppers-onions omelet, side of hash browns. Jason declines the decaf, saying he wants real coffee. This location has a glassed-in fishbowl waiting area, twin rows of booths running the main length of the restaurant receding from the street, with beige tables near the front. There is some restaurant art on the walls: framed images of vegetables mounted on construction paper with re-filled silhouettes of those vegetables on either side, so like a picture of broccoli set between a broccoli-shaped mass of staticky white texture and a broccoli-shaped mass of what looks like red and purple tissue paper. Way down on the back wall are parallel strips of wavy-cut wood angled slightly down from left to right.
Does this sound familiar: weekend morning outings for a dreadfully early breakfast or a brunch with grandparents and/or other family members at some mystical place that has every manner of breakfast food imaginable, somehow producing pancakes and waffles and French toast and also every sandwich and dinner entrée you’ve ever heard of (as an eightish year old person). Somebody else must share this memory. I can clearly remember other large parties, families come from church with bemused babies in high chairs and slightly older children making messes, fat couples sitting kitty corner at four-person tables glancing across stickily glistening pancake knolls, a smocked woman retreating to confirm orders at the open air grill near the back. There were witnesses, I mean. Is there a period when new parents take their children to chain restaurants with low quality food because they (the kids) won’t know the difference, or because it’s easy? Because it’s cheap? Is IHOP even cheap? Is the food of low quality? I also remember eating a lot of Burger King and McDonalds. Were IHOP and Burger King de rigueur at some foggy point in the mid-90s, was it perfectly natural to take your family out for a round of pancakes after a hard morning at the pew? At eight o’clock on a Saturday every family in here is so unnerved they glance about covertly and intercept my own covert glances. Maybe I am simply adrift between my ‘being too young to care about eating at/being seen in an IHOP’ phase and my ‘taking the easy way out and resigning myself to IHOP’ phase.
The bespectacled hostess – who is apparently also waitress – has come to our table to take our drink order. Jason wants to verify that a story he told earlier about simply ‘appearing’ here at four thirty a.m. after a night out was plausible, so he asks the waitress if they’re open that late.
‘We’re open twenty-four hours, seven days a week,’ she says while smiling sheepishly into her collar.
‘Time, Jason. Heard of it? They’re open during it,’ says Peter.
Residents in the building began complaining about the pervasive smell of bacon soon after the IHOP opened last fall. Apparently, the complaints were enough to prompt the installation of a forty thousand dollar ‘smog hog’ – an industrial fume extractor that transports smells from kitchen to the open air above the city. Installation of the machine is pending the amendment in city records of a stop work order related to soil on the roof that was once part of a garden. Presumably, once the order is rescinded, the machine can go in and the smell will dissipate. This issue is my supposed reason for being in the IHOP, but between a general fondness for bacon smell, the lack of actual bacon smell in the restaurant (understanding, with the aid of Pink Hair, that the kitchen is where it’s most likely to be sensed), and some good company, I pretty much forget the whole issue the moment I sit down. There is the larger issue of smell in New York. Of all the smells I’ve experienced since moving here approximately two months A.I. (After IHOP), bacon would be about the most welcoming. I routinely catch wafts of wet dog, gasoline, subway must, sewer mist, fart, burp, not to mention mountains of literal garbage lining the streets…and I haven’t even been here in the summer. It makes me wonder what reaction the upstairs tenants of 235 East 14 th Street would have if it were a chic brunch joint run by flannel-and-artisanal-pomade hipsters specializing in bacon cuisine that they lived above. Would Le Gros Chocon, with its oak-paneled benches and five house specialty cocktails and its gutters running brown with porcine grease have prompted a five-figure outcry?
The music in the IHOP is primarily 90s R&B, with some alt rock standards of that golden decade interspersed. Right now the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme is playing, Peter is singing along, and Jason is examining the menu between sips of hot, watery coffee.
Jason says he’s not even hungry: ‘I’m not even hungry.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I had some Thai delivery earlier.’
‘But we came here because you didn’t want to go to Brooklyn. You’re not even eating?’
‘I don’t know, I might have something.’
‘You’re an idiot.’
The IHOP menu is large and laminated, about sixteen by ten inches all folded up. They have four pages of breakfast not including the specials menu, plus an additional six or so pages of lunch and dinner items. The menu is crammed with images of many of the dishes all lovingly garnished and steaming. There are also decals of the latest new offerings in the windows facing the sidewalk. The whole place sort of just screams at you that delicious food is inside, though most people don’t even look at the restaurant when they pass it. What catches my eye – and I’m not a pancake person, generally – are the Red Velvet Pancakes, prominently displayed atop the specials menu. Cream cheese frosting drizzled on top. Huge dollop of cream. Comes with eggs, hash browns, bacon, and sausage links. Peter and I have identical orders, and Jason, he of the full stomach, decides to get some French toast monstrosity piled high with bananas and strawberries. Even if you’ve been on a few roller coasters, you still go on Splash Mountain when you get to Disney World…
New York is renowned for having one (or more) of everything. The Clinton Street Baking Companies and High Lines, every niche is catered to, spoiled, and eventually blown away to make way for something else. Until recently, there actually was only one IHOP in Manhattan, and it was all the way up on 125th. You’d think there would be room for a couple of them in the city. But New Yorkers are protective of their eating and drinking establishments. Based on the reactions, there seems to be little tolerance for this baby blue eyesore – bacon or not. They were supposedly going to hire a bouncer to sit in front of the place after 11 p.m. to ensure that no unsavory elements made late night waffle stops part of their East Village bar hop routine – apparently a move to preempt neighborhood concerns.
‘Do you ever get weirdos in here?’
‘Yeah, people are drunk all the time. Last night a couple of guys came in – real drunk. They were funny though, people are nice.’ Our waitress reaches across the table setting down plates. The velvet pancakes are as deeply red as advertised. I spread the melting cream around, then cut up all the bacon and eggs and hash browns and sausage and dig in. IHOP hash browns – I remember loving them back during those early visits to the many IHOPS dotting South Florida. Even then, when I was always on the lookout for complaint-worthy defects, I couldn’t get over the balance of saltiness, butter, oil, the crunchy top layer, the softer pulp of shredded potato beneath. It’s not easy for a restaurant chain to remain consistent in any of its operations over time, but I think IHOP, and specifically its hash browns, are in that hallowed pantheon along with heavy hitters like Chick-fil-A and Chipotle, places that get it right the first time, and seemingly every time. It’s almost trite to ask oneself if mass-food is somehow dirty or – seriously – injurious to the human soul. Corporation is a dirty word. We associate companies with alienation and a disregard for the welfare of peoples. The fact that thousands of people are sitting in similar booths across the country eating the same flesh cooked in the same fats and oils is, officially, disheartening. Variety seems to be a requirement for rising above the grabbing claws of capitalism and superficiality. And yet we can’t completely avoid eating at these places, especially living in even mildly urbanized areas. And I have no insight into the accounting acrobatics and backroom deals and cackling men in suits and ties with wallets fattening on all of my fellow man’s fattening. But my tongue knows delicious food, my eyes, happy people, my ears, happy voices.
IHOP has come a long way, I think is my point. It went public in 1961, was incorporated as International Industries in 1963 and began buying franchise brands, including Orange Julius, was bought out by a Swiss company called Wienerwald in 1979, went private in 1981, went public again in 1991, was first traded on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999, survived its founder’s death in 2004, and acquired Applebee’s in 2007. Yes, IHOP and Applebee’s sail under the same corporate flag. IHOP is a restaurant. It’s a series of restaurants, almost all owned by different people, run to the same minimum standards, serving mostly the same food. It’s this weird mix – indeterminate familiarity, local elbow grease, good breakfast food (has anyone ever had dinner here?), and, as it turns out, it’s not dirt cheap. From the outside, it’s cookie cutter. But if you tore down the signs, threw some spackles of black paint around the place…I mean, it’s just a waffle joint. A pancake joint. And it’s pretty good.
Jason has hardly touched his fruit-draped French toast.
‘This is like eating candy. I now have diabetes.’
‘I think you need to have more than one bite of it before you’re at risk.’
‘I thought you weren’t hungry. Why did you even order anything?’
‘I don’t know.’
And here come the waitresses with a small ice cream sundae for Jason. Peter told them it was Jason’s birthday – ‘his belated birthday, his actual birthday was yesterday’ – and Pink Hair actually sings ‘happy belated birthday, dear Jason.’ Everybody is laughing and singing, but Jason won’t have any of the ice cream, it’s basically the last thing he wants at the moment. After the waitresses disperse and we realize we want the check, on comes ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,’ that 90’s Aerosmith hit speaking at once of undying love and the apocalypse. Eventually we get Pink Hair to the table, and Peter asks her to dance, right there, in the middle of the restaurant.
‘You want to dance? Here?’
‘Yeah, like a slow dance.’
She laughs. ‘Like prom?’ Jason and I nod in assent.
‘No, I don’t want my boss to see.’ She has her purse around her arm, her shift is over, she’s ready to leave.
‘That’s too bad.’
After sitting with the check like morons for about ten minutes, it occurs to us to pay the bill at the register near the front of the store. Peter leaves his number with Glasses, asking her to pass it along to Pink Hair. I keep the receipt for the message the IHOP employees wrote on it.