People go to restaurants for lots of reasons other than the food. Price, ambience, and convenience also matter. Well I have found a spot that combines all of these for a truly stellar dining experience. It’s a local landmark – Pancake Circus.
I don’t know if you fall into the roughly 95 percent of the population that finds clowns downright creepy. I happen to be one of them. So before I first ventured inside, I made up my mind to think of Pancake Circus as immersion therapy. Once you pass through the waiting area and enter through the front door of the restaurant, you are surrounded by what I would call “mid-century carny” décor. There is no escaping it – it’s everywhere, even in the bathrooms.
Last weekend, I had a hankering for some pancakes served with a side of kitsch, so we headed over to the restaurant, located at 2101 Broadway in Sacramento. We were greeted by a very pleasant young man with tattoos on his neck and gages in his ear. He led us to our booth upholstered in orange naugahyde (excuse me…vegan leather), and gave us each a menu that listed items such as biscuits and gravy and the “Circus Big Top” – which is the kind of standard breakfast fare that you see at most diners – choice of ham, bacon, sausage, or beef patty with two eggs, potatoes, and three plate sized Circus pancakes. But they also have lots of other choices that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see on the menu…a veggie eggs benedict, chorizo, crepes – everything at the Circus is made to order.
I didn’t want to get too fancy, so I ordered the Circus Big Top and my guy ordered the corned beef hash (with pancakes, of course.) I was immediately given a cup of standard trucker coffee – you know – strong, black, and served without fanfare in a brown mug. If you want a froo froo cappuccino with a pretty foam leaf on top, this ain’t the place. But my mug was kept full and steaming hot by our friendly waitress – and believe me, the caffeine was a welcome foil to the coma-inducing carb loading I was about to do.
When your restaurant has the word “pancake” in the name, you’d better have some damn good pancakes. Pancake Circus does not disappoint. I’m not sure what makes them so delicious, but they are, in a word – amazing. They come with about a pound of butter on them and each forkful is a taste orgasm of fluffy, transcendent, pancake goodness. The more syrup you pour on top, the more they simply soak it in and expand to blob-like proportions before your eyes. My eggs and bacon were cooked to perfection, and David’s corned beef hash was basically a meat mountain, tender and flavorful. To think that you can get this much instantaneous weight gain for around twenty bucks is delightful.
I’m sure there are those of you that might be reading this and feeling smugly superior, as you sit in your tastefully decorated coffee house, sipping your green tea latte, and noshing on egg whites sprinkled with chia seeds before heading over to the hot yoga studio. But sometimes it’s okay to forgo what feels right and just do what feels goooood. And Pancake Circus is just the sort of place to indulge those guilty pleasures.
Opened in 1961 as Al & Bud’s Platter by Al Nahas and Hollis K. “Bud” Sheely, the building was designed by mid-century modern architect Sooky Lee, who also designed local landmarks Vic’s Market, Young’s Fireside Shop (now Hot Italian), and the remodel of Frank Fat’s, to name a few. It became Pancake Circus in 1970 when it was purchased by Luis and Ruth Shurh. For more than a decade, the restaurant has been owned by Naren Muni, who was born in Mumbai and who had worked in the states for many years as an engineer before buying the restaurant.
But back to the clowns…and doesn’t it always come back to the clowns? Sometimes a place is so tacky it becomes cool. Pancake Circus is one of those places. Fortunately Muni appreciated the campy appeal and didn’t try to modernize it to look like every other boring diner. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen as many clown paintings in one place before, all of them mesmerizing for the same reason Honey Boo Boo is famous – certain things are so devoid of good taste that you simply can’t avert your eyes.
The restaurant works because it preserves that rare bit of nostalgia we all crave – going into Pancake Circus is like going back in time. We’ve taken the kids to Pancake Circus and they are nothing short of dumbstruck. After all, they didn’t grow up in the era of Hannah Barbera cartoons, when clowns were actually seen as children’s entertainment instead of horror movie fare, and when cigarettes, coffee, bacon and eggs were the four basic food groups to start your day.
At Pancake Circus, the long-time wait staff, the eclectic clientele, the great food, and the stubbornly outdated décor, reminds you that occasionally, change isn’t always better or necessary. Sometimes a snapshot in time is worth preserving.