When I think of a place like Mel’s Diner, I think of The Pancake Shop.
No, I’ve never heard a waitress there tell a customer to kiss her grits, and there’s no grumpy cook hollering at folks. But the food is good, it’s decently priced, there are regulars that come through on a schedule, and you won’t find a better cuppa joe in Hot Springs National Park.
The Pancake Shop’s big thing is breakfast, and that’s what you come to order. The choices are simple -- pancakes, French toast, breakfast meats, eggs, and omelets, drinks, and fruit. Almost everything is served with toast, and toast is served with grape jelly and apple butter in individual services. Apple butter is so extraordinarily Arkansan, and it’s so fitting here.
It's very easy to over-order here. But that's okay, there's no hurry. The furnishings are straight out of the early 60s -- Naugahyde beige benches, green cushioned wooden chairs, and melamine-topped tables. Locals and celebrities also have eaten here. You'll see pictures obscured by large flourishes of autographs and thanks. Lots of horse racing memorabilia, too.
It’s just one more item that’s normal here, where it might not be normal elsewhere. You can have any meat you want, as long as it’s pork -- but there’s also lots of fruit and juice choices. Where else can you get bananas and blueberries, stewed prunes, or grapefruit? Oatmeal, cream of wheat, or cereal? Your choice of five types of toast? Buckwheat pancakes? Buttermilk or chocolate milk? These are the staples of a good Southern breakfast buffet, yet here they’re all available and for a reasonable price. And yes, there are grits.
My favorite? Banana pancakes -- real bananas in the batter, too. Pancakes are thick, hearty, and the size of a dinner plate. One is enough for a side, two for a complete breakfast, yet it’s not unusual to hear a neophyte order a stack of three and see the same customer give up halfway through his food. Gargantuan gobs of grub, indeed.
Another favorite -- because you never can just have one -- omelets, fluffy and fresh with a hearty offering of American cheese. Some folks want to add in things like ham or sausage or sautéed onions -- I like mine simple, and could dine on just omelets with glee.
It may sound like I’m in love with the restaurant. Perhaps I am. There’s just something about the simplicity of a place where the most expensive thing on the menu is ham steak and eggs ($7.85). And where the wait staff still refers to customers as “sir” and “ma’am,” with the honest respect that good businesses try to foster.