I wanted to start this article with a pithy saying about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, but after doing a little research — fine, I fell down a rabbit hole — I discovered cereal-company marketing in the early twentieth century is responsible for breakfast’s high status. Cue side eye. Champaign-Urbana doesn’t have a lot of table service breakfast places — students and anyone else who loves their sleep tend to lean into brunch instead, but one of the oldest has to be The Original Pancake House of Champaign-Urbana. The Original Pancake House is a franchise that began as a single restaurant in the fifties in Oregon, and it continues to serve hearty American breakfast staples to this day. I happen to have eaten there once on a trip to Portland a while back.
The Original Pancake House of Champaign-Urbana was opened locally in 1976, and it is truly a cornerstone of the community. One of the things you’ll notice if you visit semi-regularly is the low staff turnover. They have employees who have worked there for decades, and none is more loved than Lester, who has been topping off coffee mugs at TOPHCU for more than thirty years. When I mentioned to my family that I was going to do a review of TOPHCU, they graciously offered their mouths in service, and since the portions are long-haul trucker size, I agreed.
The first important thing to know is that they have an online wait list on their website. And if you are visiting during normal breakfast hours, especially on the weekends, you’re going to want to use it. While the restaurant is quite roomy, it is also very popular, and it’s not uncommon to wait thirty minutes or more for a table, particularly if you have a larger group. This is especially important on home game days because alumni remember it fondly. If you prefer to live dangerously and just show up, they do have a reasonable section of bench seating in the lobby to wait.
The interior of the restaurant reflects its age in design, but everything was clean and in good working order, with brightly colored walls and a filled plate rack that spanned every wall in the restaurant. With hard floors and wooden tables and chairs, it was on the louder side, so if you or someone in your group struggles with noise or hearing issues, consider asking to be placed in the smaller enclosed room, which can be quieter.
Our waitress greeted us promptly, and we placed our drink orders right away. This the second important thing to know: get the orange juice. It’s freshly squeezed, and if you’re seated in the main section of the restaurant, you might get a chance to watch the mechanical squeezer do its thing. The juice comes in small ($5) and large ($6.50). It is always delicious, with bits of pulp — sorry, pulp haters — and a gorgeous golden color.
And yes, also get the coffee. It’s a bottomless cup for $3.50, and there is a full array of sweeteners on the table. The coffee is served in really cute branded pottery mugs that they also have for sale in the restaurant.
My husband and I always get the same thing here, and we always split it: the oven-baked meat lovers omelette ($16), which comes with a side of pancakes or toast, but we like to upgrade the side of pancakes to bacon pancakes for $1 because life is short and they’re really good.
The omelette was huge and fluffy, due to being baked, and what it loses in visual appeal by being popped in the oven was compensated for by the lovely texture. It was stuffed with diced sausage, fresh-cooked bacon pieces, chunks of ham, and cheddar cheese. The best part was when I cut the omelette in half and melted cheese oozed out like lava.
The bacon pancakes are the house pancakes with freshly cooked bacon pieces cooked into the pancake, topped with a fluffy scoop of whipped butter. With a healthy drizzle of their house syrup, the pancakes had a perfect balance of salty and sweet elements.
Eldest child ordered the scrambled egg and sausage patties plate ($14.75), which came with three pancakes, and he chose to upgrade to pancakes with chocolate chips. Again, the upgrades are only a dollar. The two sausage patties were nicely browned and had the right balance of seasoning, making them zesty but not spicy. We barely had time to snap a photo before he dug in. The two scrambled eggs were well blended and fully cooked but not overdone.
Middle child chose the fried egg and bacon plate ($14.75), which also came with three pancakes that he upgraded to bacon pancakes — because occasionally he listens to his parents. He likes his eggs over medium, and these were right on the money with a set white and thick, liquid yolk. There were four thick-cut strips of bacon, which were perfectly crispy. If you like your bacon floppy or just shy of burned, just let them know.
My youngest child ordered the junior plate #2 ($10), which included three pancakes and scrambled eggs. He upgraded his pancakes to chocolate chip. Once again, sweet chocolatey goodness was cooked into the pancakes with semi-sweet chocolate chips scattered on top. It’s typically served with whipped cream, but he declined in favor of butter. The junior plates come with a variety of meat, egg, and pancake options, and are much more manageable in portion for younger kids.
In addition to our meals, we also ordered the potato pancakes with sour cream, since none of us had tried them previously. The general consensus of the table was that while the portion was very generous, the texture was not what we expected — crumbly and soft — and they tasted underseasoned. We had sour cream, but applesauce was also a side option for these.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention that the restrooms at TOPHCU are contenders for best in town. They have bidets. With remotes. And they are super squeaky clean. It’s almost surreal in a really awesome way.
The service here is never anything less than stellar, from the moment we walk in the door until we walk out. And in these times when so much of the world is understaffed and undertrained, it’s really lovely to know that you can go to The Original Pancake House of Champaign-Urbana and get a great meal with great service. Even better, you’re supporting a restaurant that is Champaign-owned.
Don’t forget to leave a little something for Lester in his tip box by the exit. He’s doing the Lord’s work with that coffee pot.
The Original Pancake House
1909 West Springfield Ave
M-F 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Sa+Su 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.