I’ve always assumed French toast got its name from its country of origin…France, right? Well as it turns out, that may not be the case. There are similar culinary delights named German toast and Spanish toast…but the oldest by far is pan dulcis from the Roman empire, dating to sometime between the 1st and 4th centuries CE, which predates France itself. As to the name, there is some folktale about an innkeeper from Albany, New York named Joseph French. The story goes that he invented it in 1724 but lacked the grammatical prowess to include an apostrophe; believe what you will. This isn’t the first time a food was misattributed to the French (e.g. French fries). It kind of makes you wonder about other things like “French” kissing. To be honest, I assumed the French just liked soft, wet and soggy things — à la langue if you will — but this recent revelation about the origins of French toast has undermined the foundational cornerstone of my own reality and I fear I may not recover…but I digress.

Back to the artist formerly known as French toast: I have a deep appreciation for how well this dish performs as a breakfast food. It is a veritable blank canvass for anyone at any skill level to up their breakfast game. It performs equally well with savory and sweet foods, served by itself or as a side — the permutations are seemingly endless.

The basics: bread is dredged in a milk and egg mixture and fried in a pan with oil or butter;  it's pretty simple. The possibilities multiply exponentially as you vary the bread, season the mixture, and add toppings. Pain perdu, or lost bread, which was the impetus behind the concoction, would appear to be salvaging stale and otherwise inedible breads. For those of you wanting to enjoy the myriad varieties without the mess at home, perhaps one or all of the below will pique your interest. For the record, I am not suggesting any one of these establishments is better or worse; and the order in which I present bears no representation of rank. This is merely an informational brochure, if you will, of the opportunities that exist right here in ol’ C-U.

Merry Ann's Diner

Merry Ann’s Diner has been a campus favorite for 35 years now; they serve up classic American diner food 24/7/365. Whether you are out late partying, studying all night, or up early, Merry Ann’s is open and ready to feed you. Their French toast is pretty straight forward: white bread in egg and milk, fried on the flat top to a golden brown. Served with butter and maple syrup, it is the perfect addition to a plate of eggs and bacon. For those of you that are familiar with the diner stack, you should try what I call the French Country Stack. It isn’t on the menu, but easy enough to create at your table: Take a half order of French toast and pile on a country fried steak, hash browns, and egg cooked your way. Ten out of ten doctors and healthcare professionals do not recommend this. The French toast is $4.85 and comes with 3 slices of bread.

Merry Ann’s Diner
1510 S Neil
Champaign

1 E Main St
Champaign

701 S Gregory
Urbana

Apple Dumplin'

Apple Dumplin’, not to be outdone by white toast, brings a Texas sized twist and a little powdered sugar to spruce it up. I would say this is very minimalist on the French toast spectrum, but still a nice addition to your normal breakfast. For $5.25 it comes with three Texas-sized slices fried to a nice golden brown. At this point it may be time to share with a friend. From previous experience at Apple Dumplin’, they have never had a customer leave hungry. Also, the previously mentioned French Country stack can be accomplished tableside here as well, but proceed with caution as the serving sizes are quite generous.

Apple Dumplin’
2014 N High Cross Rd
Urbana
M-Sa 7 a.m.
Su 11 a.m 

Original Pancake House

Original Pancake House, another local favorite, serves up French toast two ways: regular ($7) and cinnamon toasted almond ($9) The twist here is using sourdough bread. It adds an interesting dimension to the otherwise sweet dish. They serve it with butter and preserves but you can use syrup too. Each dish comes as three slices, which is great as a supplemental side to share with friends. I will admit I did not like the almond version. It wasn’t anything to do with taste or quality of preparation, but with the texture of the sliced almonds. They were extremely thin and still quite crunchy compared to the softness of the bread…but you should make your own judgements.

OPH
1909 W Springfield Ave 
Champaign
M-Sa 6:30 a.m.
Su 7 a.m.

Sammy's Pancake House

Moving along the French toast spectrum, enter Sammy’s Pancake House with their cinnamon swirl bread French toast. Need I say more? No, but I will. With a plate titled “Lumberjack Cinnamon French Toast Combo” how could you go wrong? I, however, prefer the Homestyle combo, only because it contains more of the French toast. The star of both dishes is Cinnamon swirl bread from Vlore Bakery in Springfield, Missouri. The Homestyle combo comes with four slices of cinnamon swirl French toast, two eggs your way, and choice of two pieces of bacon or sausage all for only $9.25, it is the perfect combination of sweet and savory. The cinnamon and sugar edge dusting fries up to a nice crispy caramelized layer of heaven.

Sammy’s
1206 N Mattis Ave
Champaign
Daily 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Destihl

For those of you that are later to rise, or just out for a weekend brunch, Destihl has a French toast offering that is on a different plane entirely. While personally this would not be my favorite, I can appreciate the finer points. The bread is sourdough dredged in a vanilla custard served with a raspberry mascarpone cream and fresh blueberries and strawberries. Bonus points for those of you that know the difference between a custard and simple egg and milk bath, but for those that don’t:The custard is milk or cream with egg yolks and delicately cooked but not to point of curdling. It is a subtle difference in French toast, with the custard being richer in texture. I found the bread to be too soft and lacking that golden brown crust that makes it toast in my mind. The real star is the rich and creamy raspberry mascarpone cream. It is very rich and smooth but not cloying, a nice departure from maple syrup. For $8.25 you get two slices of bread and a healthy dollop of the mascarpone cream; plenty to share with a friend.

Destihl
301 N. Neil St
Champaign
Sa + Su 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

At this point some of you are no doubt screaming at the screen that I have committed the ultimate faux pas and left out some of C-U's most favorite and cherished spots for French toast. I assure you there are more entries to follow in deuxième partie, though I suppose at this point using French words is furtherance of a grand charade. Stay tuned for more…

All photos by Rob Schaffer