W e aren't ones to wait in line to eat, but look at us — it's Saturday morning in downtown Hot Springs, a perfect day for a hike, and here we are, waiting. The hostess tells us that six two-tops will flip quick, that we'll be eating in no time, and the way she says this we can't tell if she means five minutes or 50 minutes (she means 50 minutes). There's no room inside for all of us waiting our turn. We spill onto the sidewalk. We spill into The Savory Pantry next door for free coffee. We wait again on the sidewalk, one hand pocketed, one holding that sacred second cup, and listen to tourists try to determine exactly what is a duck tour. The hostess runs out, shouting that Esther's table is ready — but Esther never answers, which means Esther gets bumped and we get seated. We don't grieve for Esther.
The Pancake Shop was established in 1940. Its walls are full of horse racing and celebrity photos. The decor has been virtually unchanged for decades: wood-laminate tabletops, green vinyl chairs and orange vinyl bar stools at the small counter.
We sit down and the waitress asks if we're ready for the coffee to start flowing. We are. Coffee ($1.95, never-ending refills) in diners like this is a heaven unto itself; you can never tell how much you've had because a constant stream of fresh and hot java is constantly flowing. Just try to see the bottom of your cup. You won't. Order an orange juice ($2.65 small/$3.25 large) to balance out the buzz. They squeeze it fresh every morning.
We order a double stack of the namesake pancakes in two varieties: blueberry and apple ($5.15). One of us orders two sausage patties (made in-house); the other doesn't eat pork but orders a sausage ($2.85 for one/$4.45 for two), anyway.
Next to us a couple of locals get their breakfast. The old man pours syrup on top of his pancakes and it runs onto the table. The waitress teases him: "You've been coming here how long and you don't know how to eat a pancake without making a mess?" She tells us to pay attention, too: "Butter each pancake first and then cut a hole in the middle. Pour your syrup in there." The one of us that's not eating pork (but is today) isn't paying attention, eyeing our neighbors' ham steak instead. The eyeing turns to dreaming and the dreaming turns to sheepishly asking to add one to our order, a small one ($7.45 small/$8.45 for large). We order lots to make Fido back home happy.
Before the food comes, the accoutrements arrive: warm maple syrup; a pat of butter for each cake, toast (white, wheat or rye) or English muffin; a dish of grape jelly; and, yes, a dish of apple butter (also made in-house). The coffee is persistent as ever, and servers and bussers are a parade between the tables. Still, we feel like we are our server's entire universe. When the food comes, there's not enough table space for all the plates. We pile all the pork together and follow the instructions we learned back in Pancake 101 to a T. No mess here. The waitress is proud.
The pancakes are plate-fillers and have a single tell: one slice of apple or a couple of blueberries on top. Cut into them to find fruit bursting out, staining your plate purple or smearing it with cinnamon. There's no hunting down the best bite; the best bite is every bite you eat.
The one who doesn't eat pork, but is eating pork today — let it be known, no regrets were had, except in ordering a small ham steak instead of the large, not to share with his dog, but to selfishly snack on throughout the day. The sausage, too, was excellent. Hand-pressed patties with a robust blend of spices folded in. We spread the apple butter across everything pork. We spread happiness.
We ask the couple, "So you've been coming here a while, but it's Saturday. There's always a wait on weekends ... " and before the question is even asked, the old man says, "I saw you take on that ham steak. You know why we come here." He looks at his near-clean plate. He looks at his wife. "It's so beautiful."