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Breakfast in Myrtle Beach: 18 of the Grand Strand's pancake houses, ranked best to worst

Like most places with a respectable number of residents and tourists, the Grand Strand could have ended up with just an IHOP or two. Instead, there are now upward of two dozen independently owned pancake houses between Pawleys Island and Little River, in part because Dino Thompson in 1966 was put off by the price that International House of Pancakes charged its franchisees.

Thompson had been involved in the Myrtle Beach restaurant business since he was 3 months old, when his parents set out from Newport News, Va., for their share of Florida’s post-war boom. They stopped for lunch at Kozy Korner, and within an hour owned the cafe and an apartment upstairs. Twenty years later, Thompson had spent enough time around swearing cooks and sizzling eggs to know IHOP was on to a winning formula when he visited a location on Atlanta’s Peachtree Road.

“I thought it was a cool place, and I knew Myrtle Beach didn’t have anything like that,” Thompson says. “I contacted IHOP and they wanted a lot of money, and I didn’t think it was worth it so I just did my own.”

Most Myrtle Beach-area pancake houses have a circa 1980s "Price is Right" Showcase Showdown aesthetic, although carpet patterns and upholstery…

At short-order speed, Dino’s House of Pancakes on Highway 17 had competition. Thompson doesn’t recall which pancake house opened next, but soon after his Cyprus-born father started telling the guys who took their coffee at Kozy Korner about Thompson’s success, a number of fellow Greek immigrants did the math and decided they might as well sell breakfast, too.

“Like all fads in the world, if something’s doing well, people are going to copy it,” Thompson says. “That’s why we have lots of putt-putt golf courses. That’s why we have lots of beachwear stores. People come down in the summer, and they see things that are packed, and they think, ‘This is great. I need to come down here.’ ”

'We do have quite a few'

As the region’s acknowledged pancake pioneer, Thompson is allowed to scoff at his followers’ naivete. They didn’t realize that 1,400-customer days in July were counterbalanced by 80-customer days in January. They didn’t appreciate that good help was so hard to find that in 1969 he eliminated Dino’s second shift just to get back at four servers who didn’t show up one day. (Fifty years later, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. remains the standard Grand Strand pancake house schedule).

“Nobody got rich. You weren’t buying three-story homes on the ocean with a pancake house,” he says.

Somehow, though, the restaurateurs made it work. Pancake houses are now a defining element of Myrtle Beach, which is alleged to have even more independent pancake houses per person than Gatlinburg, Tenn., the only other U.S. city with a comparable concentration. Unfortunately, there are no official statistics since scholars have a bad habit of sidestepping both places.

“Jeepers, I don’t know, hon,” Thompson says when asked whether the rumor’s true. “For a small area, we probably do have quite a few.”

In fact, Thompson estimates there are now more pancake houses along the Grand Strand than at any other time in history. And he’s not counting the area’s three IHOPs or breakfast venues with names touting their waffle mastery.

But owners say the number of pancake houses is likely to plummet in coming years. As Northern retirees displace Southern vacationers, land prices are going up. And the demand for affordable pancake stacks, packed with enough carbohydrates to see beachgoers straight through to dinner, is waning.

“It’s going to be tough,” says Spiros Steiner, who opened Spiro’s Pancake House in 1973.

Magic in the mix

Pancakes are absurdly simple. All it takes to produce a pancake is liquid and starch. Water and wheat flour is the basic Western recipe. But if fat and a leavening agent are added to the batter, it’s still a pancake, so long as it’s poured and cooked flat. (Roundness isn’t a requirement. If it’s shaped like a heart, embellished with chocolate chips and topped with glazed strawberries, it’s just a pancake dressed up for Valentine’s Day). Today, what most Americans consider a pancake is made with milk, eggs, flour, baking soda and, sometimes, sugar.

It sounds straightforward, but a pair of Missouri businessmen in 1889 wanted to further streamline the pancake process. They introduced Aunt Jemima Ready-Mix, named for the character in a minstrel song. Four years later, the milling company behind the mix hired Nancy Green, a domestic worker who was born into slavery in Kentucky, to portray Aunt Jemima at the Chicago World's Fair.

For a nation barely three decades removed from the Civil War, the company’s mangled depiction of the Old South was a point of fascination. According to Karen L. Cox, author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture,” fairgoers who listened to the upbeat plantation yarns that Green was paid to spin ordered 50,000 boxes of pancake mix.

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In 1945, the ad agency charged with selling Aunt Jemima mix found that “public familiarity with Aunt Jemima’s picture was highest in the Midwest and lowest in the South.” In other words, people who knew little of the region were apt to associate it with flapjacks, along with front porches and slow drawls. That link was sealed by Disneyland, which in 1959 opened the Aunt Jemima Pancake House in Frontierland.

Racist sales strategies

From the time that Aunt Jemima’s pitchmen articulated a strategy to make “the appeal and glamor of the Old South” a selling point for pancakes, African-Americans protested the brand. In 1937, a black newspaper in Cleveland launched a drive to “take the bandanna off ‘Aunt Jemima’s head,' ” arguing that a symbol of grinning servitude was “no longer acceptable in good society.”

Northern vacationers, though, weren’t adverse to a side of racist imagery with their Southern breakfasts. Although it preceded the era of dedicated pancake houses, Mammy’s Kitchen opened in Myrtle Beach in 1953 beneath a giant sign with Aunt Jemima’s picture on it. The sign came down when trademark holder Quaker Oats Co. complained, but the name stayed and Mammy’s Kitchen is still in business today, along with two unrelated Plantation Pancake Houses.

Also still extant in North Myrtle Beach is Tar Baby’s Pancakes, which advertises its breakfast buffet with a logo featuring a crude rendering of a big-bellied black character in a straw hat, reclined and licking his lips. The sign caused a brief social media stir in late 2017 after a California visitor posted a picture of it to Twitter.

“No way this should still be around in 2017!!” wrote Damien Perkins, who later gave an interview to The Sun News. According to the paper, Perkins was rebutted by Twitter users who claimed the restaurant is staffed and patronized by African-Americans.

Like most pancake houses off the U.S. Highway 17 strip, Tar Baby’s appears to be closed for the winter. Multiple calls to the restaurant also went unanswered.

Pancakes were enormously popular from coast-to-coast in the 1950s. In 1956, food writer James Beard listed The Pancake House in Portland as one of the nation’s 10 best restaurants, putting it in the company of Le Pavilion and The 21 Club. And in 1958, Al and Jerry Lapin opened the first International House of Pancakes outside of Los Angeles, paving the way for Dino Thompson’s entrepreneurial epiphany.

Can pancake houses survive?

When Thompson opened Dino’s House of Pancakes, the average guest check was $1.15, which translates to $8.83 in 2019 dollars. That was a comfortable figure for Myrtle Beach visitors, who tended to travel on tight budgets. Thompson used Kraft pancake mix because he believed it made the fluffiest cakes, but he was well aware that many of his customers ranked value as the most delicious item on his menu.

Since the 1960s, menus at pancake houses have grown dramatically. At some of the houses these days, pancakes are outsold by sandwiches, skillets and salads. Sister restaurants Plantation Pancake House and Woodhaven Pancake House boast of 71 signature omelets, including a chipped beef omelet, a Cajun chicken omelet, and an omelet stuffed with Swiss cheese and half a pound of hamburger.

Otherwise, though, about the only noticeable differences between then and now are the names on the leases. Many pancake house founders have sold their restaurants to younger Albanian immigrants.

That means Grand Strand visitors are seldom more than a few blocks away from tabletop carafes of hot coffee, indefatigable servers and children’s pancakes with faces drawn atop them in whipped cream. But Spiro’s Pancake House owner Steiner suspects change is in the offing.

Steiner knew something was up when Blueberry’s Grill opened. Pancake houses around Myrtle Beach have never shunned fancy touches. Even the most conservative kitchens offer blueberry pancakes, peanut butter pancakes, pineapple pancakes and pecan pancakes. Pumpkin pancakes have lately attained fixture status.

Blueberry’s, though, took an entirely different approach to impressing guests. At its Myrtle Beach location, opened in 2017, it serves pesto-and-brie omelets with gluten-free toast, smoked salmon benedicts, GMO-free fried chicken and egg whites with kale and avocado crema.

Thompson doesn’t name names, but says of the new crop of restaurateurs: “A few of them are getting a little uppity now.”

And with good results, apparently: Blueberry’s last year opened a second store in North Myrtle Beach.

In just three years, Steiner will qualify for Medicare, which will be his cue to retire and go for a very long sailing trip. He has no plans to change his menu in the meantime.

But pancake house owners trying to catch up with monthly $8,500 rent payments by serving imitation syrup and downgrading their pancake mix will need to make more significant adjustments to woo the Northeasterners flocking to Horry County. The problem posed by demographics and economics isn’t one they can cover up with whipped cream. Like Blueberry Grill, they might have to serve roasted granola and lactose-free cheese.

Steiner has been thinking he might sail for the Greek Isles.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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