Monday, August 18, 2014

IHOP, 2014

Every year, I go to IHOP.  I go twice.  So here you have it.  My two reviews of IHOP from 2014.

Visit #1, Beach Street.

I know, I know, IHOP.  Yes, that IHOP.  I'm sorry, I have a connection with the place, which you can read all about in my first review of the place, back in 2012.

I'm sure you know IHOP too, so I'm not going to discuss any generic details again, you can read about those in that first review, or in my subsequent review the next year.

This year, I again visited the Beach Street location in San Francisco, right near Fisherman's Wharf.  I went on a Sunday at 11am, so I was of course greeted by a waiting area loaded with people.  The place is seriously, seriously packed on weekend mornings, I assumed mostly by tourists, but as I later discovered in chatting with others at the counter, they were all locals.  Since I was alone, I was able to easily get a seat at the counter, which was empty when I arrived, save one diner.  (Well, it was devoid of patrons, but full of dirty dishes.  It took a good 10 minutes for any seats to get cleared so the swarm of us counter diners could get seated)

Once seated, I was immediately greeted, given a menu, and my drink order was taken.  I knew exactly what I wanted already, so tried to order, but the server taking my drink order said she'd send my real server over.  5 minutes elapsed.  Then 10.  When the original server cruised back by and saw me still with a menu in front of me she said, "he hasn't come yet?" and I said no.  She quickly rushed off to make someone else come take my order.  Besides being generally slow, service was friendly, non-invasive.
The pass and garnish station.
I really enjoy sitting at the counter because you get a prime seat to watch all the chaos.  Yes, the chaos.  IHOP somehow manages to function, but it is not a well oiled machine.  I described it in an earlier review, but the pace of the place, and the seeming disarray is so shocking that it seems worth mentioning again.  Half the staff are constantly rushing around, totally frantic.  The other half seem to move slow as molasses and look like they could care less.

Dishes come out of one side of the kitchen to the pass above.  I was again shocked at how long dishes sat there.  It seemed like no one was even trying to time the orders so full tables would come together at the same time.  I watched one plate of pancakes sit for 13 minutes.  13 minutes!  Most seemed to average 6-8 minutes, sitting there under the heat lamps.  But then it gets worse.  The slowest moving guy would come pull a bunch of plates down from under the heat lamps onto the counter to garnish them.  It is here that the butter, whipped cream, etc are applied.  (Side note: the butter comes in a giant bucket, and is served with a ice cream scoop.  Watching the massive scoops of butter get added to dishes amused me the entire service).  But back to the slow guy.  Once he pulled dishes out from under the lamps, they would sit there while he pondered them without doing a thing, occasionally wiping the plates, finally adding the butter, and eventually bringing them to tables.  I'm pretty sure most plates were more than 10 minutes old by the time they reached patrons.

This might explain why it takes so long to get your food at IHOP.  Just like I mentioned on my past visits, it took almost 45 minutes for me to get pancakes.  The man next to me got up and complained that he'd been waiting over an hour for his burger.

I also saw a ton of plates get sent back.  Several orders of pancakes were returned, with the server asking the kitchen to warm them back up, as diners complained they were cold.  No wonder.  Many other orders were sent back because they were just wrong, "she didn't want whipped cream on this", or, they had all the wrong side dishes.

Previously I somewhat felt like the staff put on an impressive show, but this time around, it just seemed like it was all falling apart.  I plan to visit the other SF location next time.
Place setting, including syrups.
As always, the counter was stocked with their 4 signature syrups.  And as always, the pitchers were sticky to the touch.  And as always, I couldn't resist trying all 4, even though I thought I knew what to expect.

The blueberry was my least favorite, it tasted sweet and fruity-ish, but the actual flavor was indistinguishable.  There were little bits in the syrup, which looked like they might be blueberry skin, so I think there might have been some real fruit in there.  Amusingly, on the first visit I wrote about, I liked the blueberry the best.  Preferences change it turns out.

Speaking of fruit, the strawberry was much better, very strawberry tasting, although not exactly like fresh fruit.  It was a very thin goo, or, perhaps thick syrup.  The flavor was actually decent, but strawberry syrup is just a strange concept to me.  Amusingly, on the second visit I wrote about, I thought it was fake tasting and my least favorite.  Maybe it does make sense to try them all each time!

My favorite was the Butter Pecan, which was very thick, and had a somewhat interesting buttery flavor.

Old Fashioned rounded out the bunch, again fairly thick, and tasted exactly like what it was, fake maple flavored corn syrup.

I also tried the Sugar Free syrup, which came in a squeeze bottle, and hadn't even been opened.  I tried to squeeze it on, and was surprised when nothing came out, until I discovered the seal still on.  It was a thinner style, which I somewhat preferred.

The best mix I came up with was the SF syrup mixed with butter pecan, it created a buttery flavor and a good consistency.  I'm sure next time around I'll have a new set of favorites.
Harvest Grain 'N Nut Pancakes.  $8.99.
But I wasn't there for the syrups, I was there for my favorite pancakes: Harvest Grain 'N Nut, which I've gotten almost every time I've visited an IHOP (except the time I went rogue and ordered the Whole Wheat).

I asked for my butter on the side, since I learned from previous experience that when the pancakes sit on the counter forever, the scoop of butter melts in way too fast, and your top pancake winds up drenched in butter (not a bad thing), but you don't ever have enough left for the rest of the stack, even though an entire ice cream scoop full was added.

Do you remember me praising the butter before for being soft, whipped, and fluffy?  It was not so this time.  Hard as a rock.  And since my pancakes were lukewarm when they arrived, it didn't melt at all.  Doh.

So far, not so good.  Barely warm pancakes, hard butter.

Now, the other thing to note is the size of the pancakes relative to the size of my plate.  No, IHOP did not get bigger plates.  These pancakes were absolutely tiny compared to what I've previously had, both in diameter and thickness.
Pancakes, 2012.
Just for reference, here are the pancakes from my first visit, literally, twice as big.  This is the same size plate.
Thin Pancakes.
Now, I don't necessarily want monster diameter pancakes, so that aspect wasn't a big deal to me.  But what was a big deal is that they were incredibly thin.  What I love about IHOP pancakes is how moist and fluffy they are.  These were not fluffy.  They were not moist.  Just look at how thin they were!  I was describing them to Ojan, and actually said the phrase, "you don't understand, they were as thin as pancakes!"  Uh ... whoops?  I guess that phrase is normally meant to describe pancakes, but IHOP pancakes are supposed to be huge and fluffy.

Anyway.  Thin, not fluffy, not moist, fairly tough.  They weren't burnt, which is about the only good thing I can say about them.  If I were anywhere else, I would have complained.  It also made me mad because I was sitting there watching all the other orders of pancakes sitting in the pass, and they were all huge and fluffy.  Why weren't mine?  Why can't IHOP get pancake size consistent, isn't this what they are known for?

Grumble.  So, my pancakes weren't good.  I did still like the heartiness to them, the bits of oats and nuts, but otherwise, they just weren't good.  Very poor execution.  I will not be going back to this location, but the flavor was still good, so I'm not giving up on IHOP completely ...

Visit #2, Lombard Street Location

Several months ago I made my annual birthday pilgrimage to IHOP.  As you read about then, I was highly disappointed, and decided that I was never returning to the big IHOP in San Francisco on Beach Street.  But I still had so many memories of delicious IHOP pancakes, that I decided to give the smaller location on Lombard Street a try.  I'm not really sure why I'd always gone to the Beach Street location before anyway.

The Lombard Street location was a standard IHOP.  You can read all the general details about IHOP in my past reviews.  I'll focus this review only on the comparison with the other SF location.

First, it is smaller.  Much, much smaller.  Definitely less than half the size in terms of tables, plus no additional counter area.

It was still just as crowded as any IHOP.  I arrived at 10am, and the entire waiting area, and the outside sidewalk, were filled with people.  At the Beach Street location I can usually skip all of this and sit at the counter since I'm dining alone, or with one other person, but that was not an option here.  I put my name down ("July", I was called, and didn't bother correct), and waited about 15 minutes.

Since I wasn't going to be seated at a counter overlooking the kitchen, I used the waiting time as an opportunity to watch the front of house.  They seemed much more calm than Beach Street.  No one was rushing around like crazy.  Food didn't seem to sit in the window as long.  Decent signs.

My favorite part of the experience was people watching.  Normally I sit at the counter and entertain myself watching the chaos in the Beach Street kitchen, so this time I had the other patrons to amuse me instead.  The demographics of the clientele at IHOP are so shockingly different from what I encounter in my normal life.  Most were much older, including cute elderly couples out for their special breakfast together.  Many others wore baseball caps, T-shirts bearing the emblems of sports teams, and boots.  And by boots, I don't mean trendy women in leather boots, I mean 55 year old men in dirty, heavy work boots with thick treads.  Honestly, it was rather refreshing to see an entirely different subset of society.

The best people watching was the lady who was seated next to me, about 10 minutes after me.  I've always thought that IHOP's portions are ridiculous, particularly some of their combo meals that easily include enough food for 2-3 people.  Or, so I thought.  I never imagined any one person would finish a full single one themselves, let alone order multiple meals.  But ... this woman did.  She ordered: a Big Steak omelette (1260 calories), a short stack of 3 pancakes (470 calories, not including the mound of butter or syrup), AND strawberries and cream crepes (960 calories).  Her mounds of food arrived all at once, and she systematically worked through it all.  Starting with the crepes.  All 4 of them.  Followed by the huge omelette.  When I left, she was finishing off the stack of pancakes.  (I thought she consumed them in a strange order, I personally would start with the savory omelette, pair it with the pancakes, and save the crepes as my sweet finish.  And I'd ask to have the crepes arrive last so they wouldn't get cold.  There is no way her pancakes were still remotely warm by the time she got to them.  But, the order in which she ate them, or the methodical manner in which she did so, were really the least of the crazy things about watching that ordeal.)  Wow.
Standard IHOP Tables.
After about 10 minutes, my name, "July", was called out, and I was lead to my table.  Standard IHOP decor.  Everything was cleaner than the Beach Street location.

The host and cashier were both friendly, but my server was basically non-existent and didn't really speak to me.  She probably said fewer than 10 words to me the entire time I was there.  "Drink?" was all she said when she first stopped by to take my drink order.  When she returned with my drink, all I got was "Ready?" and a head tilt indicating that I should order, and  "Anything else?" once I'd ordered.  She said nothing when bringing my order to me, never checked in on me, and took a very, very long time to bring me the bill after I was clearly done eating.  I think she did say "Thank you" then.  She wasn't a bad server, just not very attentive.  Not that I needed anything.
Standard Syrups.
Speaking of cleanliness, the most shocking thing to me was when I picked up the syrups.  They weren't sticky!  What!??!

Sadly, this time, I didn't end up liking any of the syrups.  You may recall from my past reviews that I tend to like different syrups every time, but this time, I wasn't into any of them.

The blueberry was just sweet goo, the Old Fashioned tasted like corn syrup, and the Butter Pecan was too ... buttery?  Just a few weeks prior, I said I liked the butteriness to the Butter Pecan, and deemed it my favorite.  Do my tastes really change this much from week to week, or, are the IHOP syrups inconsistent?  The strawberry syrup was the only one I really liked, even though it clearly isn't maple syrup, the strawberry flavor really is quite good.

I also tried the sugar free syrup, and hated it.  It was bitter, and way too sticky and thick.
Harvest Grain 'N Nut Pancakes.  $8.99.
I went for my classic order: Harvest Grain 'N Nut pancakes.

As I've learned from past experience, I asked for the butter on the side.  I still use plenty of it, but prefer for it not to all soak in to the very center of the top pancake before they arrive.

My pancakes were sadly not really any better than my birthday visit at Beach Street a few weeks prior.  They were again small in diameter, and thin.  They arrived lukewarm.  They were kinda gummy, not at all fluffy.  What I love about IHOP pancakes is that they are usually huge, super fluffy, super moist inside, and crispy on the outside.  These lacked all of the defining characteristics.

I did still like the heartiness from the oats and the crunch from the walnuts and almonds, but, they weren't anything like they used to be.  As you read in my last review, I have pictures of the ones I got just a year prior, and they were radically different.  This isn't just my memory, I have photographic evidence!  But ... if both SF locations have changed the form of the pancakes, I wonder if that is a franchise-wide thing?  If so ... BOO!

The price of $8.99 was fine, and the same as the other location.

Overall, I found this IHOP to be a bit more on top of things and less insane, but, I have no reason to return there either.  Sadness.
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