Pros: The food, whether "breakfast" or entrees like steak and salad, was delicious.
Cons: Decor was more drab than I remember from childhood.
When I was a boy, one of my favorite occasions was when Mom would say, out of the blue, that she didn't feel like cooking and that we were going to the International House of Pancakes. In those days my older sister was either going out on dates or with her friends when she wasn't cracking the books studying to be a Licensed Practical Nurse, so normally it was a mother-and-son drive to the IHOP near Coral Way (SW 24th Street) and 87th Avenue in Westchester (a suburb of Miami).
We loved going to IHOP for various reasons: Mom cooked all the time -- and liked doing so -- but every so often she tired of the "same old, same old." Sometimes she'd send me to the nearby McDonald's on foot as a trust-building exercise in allowing me to run errands and get over my fears of getting run over by a car, but she knew a diet of hamburgers and French fries wasn't exactly healthy. She also knew I was crazy about breakfast foods, especially pancakes and French toast, so every so often she'd tell me to get in the car because we were going to IHOP for dinner.
This year, my birthday was on a Saturday, and because my mom had had a minor surgical proceedure the previous day, she really didn't feel very much like cooking at all. My sister had the day off as well, so after she did some errands and work-related paperwork (she is now a registered nurse and visits elderly patients at home), she picked us up at five in the afternoon and drove us the 30 blocks from our house to the same IHOP on Coral Way and SW 87th Avenue.
Ambiance: Because we were there for the early dinner hour (and on a Saturday), the restaurant was not packed. Far from it. Only three or four tables had customers, although one did have a five-member family which consisted of a young Latin couple, two active boys under the age of 10, and a baby cradled comfortably in a baby stroller. The decor -- which used to be more homey and colorful -- was drab and utilitarian, almost Spartan. We sat on Table 12, which was located away from the windows; good thing, too, because the setting sun flooded through the westward facing glass panes and I'd left my Transitions glasses at home.
Food and Service: If IHOP's decor has tended to become bland and somewhat cold, the service more than made up for it. Charlene, our server, was cheerful and prompt; we were served coffee right away -- a choice of drink I'd regret later, for that night would prove to be a very restless one -- and we ordered our food within five minutes after being seated.
My sister ordered first: Vicky wanted a real entree rather than breakfast food, so she ordered a 10-oz. T-Bone steak ($11.99) with a salad and no potatoes or other side dish. Mom, on the other hand, had been watching the commercials for the new stuffed crepes at IHOP; she ordered the ham-and-Swiss cheese version ($5.99) with hash brown potatoes. As for me (the birthday boy, as it were), I wanted to try the Vive la French Toast combo ($6.99), which consisted of three French toast, an egg, and (supposedly) either bacon or sausage links.
Within 15 minutes our order was ready. My sister was happy with her steak; she normally doesn't eat much because she's a diet-freak, and I suspect this was the first real meal she'd eaten all day. She said the steak was good; it was tender, cooked medium rare and to perfection, and from where I sat it even smelled good. She attacked it with gusto, and she also seemed to relish her salad with cheddar cheese.
Mom was not as hungry. Maybe it was because her head was still sore from where a fatty buildup on her scalp had been removed surgically only 24 hours before and she'd not slept well, but she could only eat one of the two crepes on her plate and only one forkful of her hash brown potatoes. She liked her crepe; she just got full faster than she had expected. I ended up eating Mom's potatoes, and we requested a "doggy bag" -- actually a styrofoam container -- for the remaining crepe, which I ate the next day.
Although my French toast and egg (fried, over easy) were excellent, I didn't get the bacon strips I'd asked for. I did think about bringing it up with Charlene, but then I reflected that I am no longer a 20-year-old and had better cut back on fatty foods. I did use the strawberry flavored syrup instead of the standard maple...it's nice that IHOP does offer customers a variety of flavors rather than subject them to maple-syrup-monotony.
We ate at a leisurely pace and drank some more coffee, with Charlene popping by every so often to ask if everything was okay. We assured her everything was fine -- the missing bacon notwithstanding -- and asked for the check about two hours after we'd been seated. By now the sky was dark and Mom was getting sleepy, so I took two $20 bills my sister handed me and went to pay the bill ($36.09 including sales tax) plus a $5.00 tip.
All in all, dining at IHOP wasn't unpleasant. It was nice that the place wasn't as packed as it is during the breakfast hours, particularly on Sunday mornings, and the fact that the menu offers entrees that aren't strictly pancakes, waffles, or French toast makes IHOP more appealing to people not keen on eating "breakfast for dinner."
For more on IHOP's menu or restaurant locations, please visit the chain's website at www.ihop.com.