If my fuzzy, syrupy sense of nostalgia serves me right, IHOP (International House of Pancakes) is a cozy place where you can have breakfast in your pajamas. Think of a wide, one-story space with old-fashioned booths and lighting fixtures, checkered tablecloths, and homemade food that makes mommas across North America proud. It’s the mother of all breakfast places, with 54 years of fluffy pancake goodness under its (probably bursting) belt.
Having had a few breakfasts at several IHOP locations, I was more than excited when I heard that IHOP was hitting Philippine shores. And since it’s a global franchise, I expected nothing less than the same hearty stacks of pancakes, crispy bacon and perfectly-cooked eggs. The whole nine yards, as far as comfort food goes, all served in the same warm, homey ambiance that old-fashioned diners are associated with (and perhaps minus the plump, white, middle-aged waitresses).
Instead, what I got was a completely different animal. Tucked into a row of restaurants along the ever-expanding Bonifacio High Street, the first-ever IHOP in Manila greeted me with a daunting façade, a long line of waiting, hungry customers, and modern interior. I guess it’s not their fault that news of their recent opening created so much buzz that a line of plastic chairs had to be placed along the entrance for the people who queued up. But the atmosphere in the two-story restaurant was definitely not warm, nor inviting. Instead of the quiet glow of a friendly diner, you get the glare of snazzy prints, overhead canvas lamps, and modern typefaces. It’s not exactly bad, but it is a bit jarring for your first meal of the day.
Although it had an extensive menu, the dishes we had did not live up to their promising descriptions. Even their quick and friendly service was not enough to mask the disappointingly lackluster quality of the Big Steak Omelette, Buttermilk Pancakes (which IHOP is famous for), New York Cheesecake Pancakes, and CINN-A-STACK Pancakes.
The steak strips used in the omelette were not as tender as their menu advertised, and the pancakes could have benefitted from a few more seconds on the griddle. The only menu item that we remotely enjoyed was the Spinach & Mushroom Hash Brown Stack. This dish of golden potato cakes topped with sautéed vegetables, melted cheese, and hollandaise sauce tasted like the early sunrise of a perfect day. It was also a stark contrast to the Chocolate Chip Pancakes, which was arguably the worst dish on the table. Unless you happen to like your pancakes dry, salty, and hardly tasting of the chocolate chips they’re supposed to be studded with.
While the typical IHOP customer doesn’t expect extraordinary food, s/he does look for the uncomplicated feel of a small-town diner, something that IHOP Manila did not deliver. And even though the plating of the food was quite rustic (think lopsided stacks of pancakes that looked like they were all made with love), it still doesn’t make you forget the feeling of biting into a pancake, and ending up with a mouthful of raw batter. But to be fair, there were a lot of customers on the day we paid them a visit. That, along with having a broad menu and being on soft opening, does make churning out consistently well-executed dishes a pretty tall order.
Well, maybe it’s my fault that I expected the same relaxed vibe that I enjoyed in the US IHOP branches. Maybe the market research behind building the IHOP brand in Manila called for a different setting. The local all-day breakfast scene probably isn’t about waking up at noon-thirty, and going out for scrambled eggs and French toast without changing out of your sleepwear.
But I can think of a few places around the metro where I can do just that. So, in the meantime, we’ll give them a try, and pay IHOP another visit once they’ve got their eggs (and pancakes) all lined up.