Seventy-Five Years of Pancakes
From year to year along Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, some things change and some things remain the same. On the east side of the street sit eight historic bathhouses, each with its own claim to fame, informational placard, and current tenant. On the west side, between the Ohio Club and the wax museum and the Duck Tours, any number of businesses have come and gone over the decades.
But, just to the north, there is the familiar green and white façade of one of the city's oldest institutions. Inside, the décor hasn't much changed since the 1950s. Several small barstools crowd a diminutive bar on the right. Bench seating lines the wall to the left, and tables pack the remaining space front to back, each table set on a diagonal. Between 6 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. on most days, nearly every space is taken by a hungry customer, whether a visitor from elsewhere or a local regular.
In this space lies the magic that is The Pancake Shop.
Between the suspended ceiling and walls decked with photographs of winning racehorses and celebrities, a constant chatter fills the air. Tourists share word of their traveling finds. Regular patrons rustle newspapers and clink down coffee mugs onto saucers. Waitresses smile, touch customers’ shoulders, and refer to them as “honey” – and the world is somehow right.
But, how did The Pancake Shop come to be? In 1940, two sisters from Chicago opened Mason’s Pancake Shop inside the Downtowner Hotel. In the mid-1950s, they sold it to Chuck and Olive Conway, who changed the name and moved the eatery to its current location, the former home of Amedo’s Italian Kitchen. They sold The Pancake Shop in 1966 to Tom and Ruth Ardman, a couple from Cicero, Illinois, who had been the best man and maid of honor at the Conways’ wedding.
The Pancake Shop benefited from those Chicago connections, drawing in a clientele from the Midwest as well as visitors from New York and Florida. Menus from those times reflect a few different tastes, such as the matzo fries offered for Jewish patrons.
Matzo fries are no longer on the menu, but there are plenty of old favorites, and very little has changed with either the food or the service. The Ardmans’ daughter and current owner, Keeley DeSalvo, says that’s intentional.
“We strive to keep it this way. I think people need to feel grounded, and, when you walk into The Pancake Shop, you feel like you’re at home,” she says. “It’s what my mother tried for years to do. She wanted to make everyone feel like they were a guest in her own home, sitting at her own table.”
Keeley says that those memories made are what bring many clients back. “We’ve seen so many kids grow up there. I remember kids, who, their first outing as an infant was with their parents to The Pancake Shop. Now they’ve grown up, and they’re bringing their own children to The Pancake Shop. And that’s rewarding. It makes us feel like we’re giving something to somebody, and we have this extended family.”
Keeley grew up alongside those children. “Being an only child, The Pancake Shop has been especially important to me. After my father died, it was important for my mother to have those connections. Some of the best friends we ever made have been through The Pancake Shop.”
Tom worked at the shop up until his death in 1980. Keeley joined her mother in running the restaurant in 1995. Today, Keeley runs the place, and she and her husband, Steve, welcome guests together on the weekends.
Over the years, little has changed about the daily atmosphere. Customers come in and are seated at tables or the long bench along the southeast wall. The coffee is served hot, the orange juice is freshs-queezed, and, on the weekends, there’s always a line to get in the door.
“The menu is 95 percent the same as it’s always been,” Keeley says. “We used to serve cottage cheese. There were a few little tweaks here and there. And then we got to the apple butter, and, of course, that just kind of stuck.
“I toy with the idea of tweaking that menu, but as they say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ There are a few things I’d like to do with it, but there’s only so much kitchen space that we have there. We’re doing it the way we’ve always done it, and the customers keep coming, so I have to think that we’re doing something right.”
That menu includes plain and buckwheat pancakes, with the option to add blueberries, bananas, or apples. There’s a small selection of omelets and cooked-to-order egg dishes, six different types of fruit juice, oatmeal and cream of wheat, five different types of toast served with jelly, French toast, and breakfast meats – ham, bacon, and sausage.
The most popular item on the menu? “Buckwheat blueberry pancakes – people love them,” Keeley says. “Our sausage is handmade by a family-run business here in Hot Springs that’s been doing it forever. It’s special. You don’t find a sausage like that.”
Even the coffee at The Pancake Shop is unique. “They’re proprietary blends just served here. A local roasting company, Earl Gill, roasts three different types of coffee beans. And the way we brew it – in one of those old-timey coffee urns, with water that is so hot – you could never get it that way through a commercial urn. It’s a gas-fed coffee urn, and it’s been here since I’ve been here.
“Our ham comes from Petit Jean Meats. We serve a center cut of their ham, and it’s just not to be beat. If you’re coming from the Northeast or the West, you’ve never had ham like that. And people love it. Consequently, we ship a lot of ham across the country through The Savory Pantry.”
Keeley opened The Savory Pantry in 2007 as a companion business to The Pancake Shop, a mail-order service for The Pancake Shop’s pancake mix, ham, apple butter, and coffee. It evolved into a gourmet foods store offering items that aren’t available anywhere else in Arkansas. It also turned into an excellent waiting area.
“At The Pancake Shop, we have a lot of customers who are waiting for a table, who come into The Savory Pantry to have coffee and sample our foods on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and that kind of started the business. And now it’s taken off on its own and going in other directions as well.” Keeley has opened a second Savory Pantry in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Many of the employees have been there a long time. “We’ve had cooks who were there 40 years,” Keeley says. “One gentleman who still helps clean for us is now 90 years old. His wife used to cook here and did up until the day she died. Again, it’s family.”
The restaurant has become part of life in Hot Springs. Over its span, it has grown into a place for people of all sorts to dine, regulars and tourists alike. It’s a popular breakfast destination during the city’s famed Racing Festival of the South, held at Oaklawn. It’s also known for its celebrity sightings – from the honorary marshals of each year’s World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade to musicians who perform at area clubs to famous former residents, such as President Bill Clinton. But one doesn’t have to be famous to receive the same sturdy, conscientious service. The coffee, still brewed in a 1960s-era, gas-powered urn, is the hottest in the city. Juices are squeezed fresh. And, whether it’s an omelet, ham steak, or stack of pancakes, the quality remains unparalleled. With this dedication to keep a classic going, The Pancake Shop should be around for generations to come.
Headed to Hot Springs?
The Pancake Shop
216 Central Ave.
Hot Springs, AR 71901
Open seven days a week, 6 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.