The year is 1960.
The Beatles – then known as the Silver Beetles – were touring Scotland and had yet to set foot in Hamburg, much less America.
For much of the year, John F. Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts hoping to be elected president.
And a pair of tourists from Indiana decided to bet their futures on a specialty pancake restaurant in the heart of the Smoky Mountains.
Sure, peddling pancakes to tourists seems like easy money now, with pancake places popping up all through the hills and hollers of Sevier County.
And with dozens of imitators dotting the map, getting into the lucrative flapjack game seems like a no-brainer.
There wasn’t a single specialty pancake palace in the whole state of Tennessee 60 years ago. But June and Jim Gerding were Hoosier visionaries determined to start a hotcake revolution.
Tennessee’s first and only pancake house
When the Pancake Pantry opened in 1960, it was Tennessee’s first and only pancake house.
The Pancake Pantry still stands out today, both for the quality of the menu items, as well as the 1970 Willy Wonka-esque European-style architecture.
Jim oversaw the remodeling of the Pantry himself in 1975, and today the slate roof, gables, large windows and white oak interior remain unique among the Gatlinburg skyline.
The Pancake Pantry sits at the entrance to the Village Shoppes which carry that European style throughout, making for an Epcot-like getaway within the getaway.
Still, all the fancy architecture in the world isn’t going to matter if the pancakes aren’t up to snuff.
A review of Pancake Pantry’s cuisine
Happily, I can report that the Pancake Pantry lives up to the billing.
The pancakes are the best I’ve ever had and comes in hearty helpings of five per plate.
I once asked a Pancake Pantry waitress how often she sees a guest finish their plate of five to which she responded: “Most of the time, they give up around the two and a half mark.”
The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, closing in the afternoon at either 3 or 4 pm, depending on the time of year. The breakfast menu is robust, with many options for those who don’t want pancakes.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself that as a red-white-and blue pancake house in the heart of the Tennessee mountains, the Pancake Pantry might stick to American-style pancakes.
But, oh ho, how you would be wrong, my friend. The Pancake Pantry is truly international.
Pancakes come in a cornucopia of styles worthy of the United Nations. But are there Parisienne pancakes, you ask? Bien sur.
There are also Austrian, Swiss, Swedish and Caribbean varieties … but I don’t speak Austrian, Swiss, Swedish or Caribbean so I can’t make any clever quips.
Now, I hear someone saying; “What if I want something that’s very much like a pancake but isn’t quite a pancake?” It’s not a problem.
We’re talking waffles, crepes and blintzes.
You want something pancake adjacent, the Pancake Pantry has you covered.
And if you’re not in the mood for breakfast foods, they have a nice variety of gourmet sandwiches, salads and burgers.
The lunch fare all looks very good but I can’t vouch for it because I have a personal policy that if I go to a restaurant with a food in its name, I order that food no matter what.
Joe’s House of Hummus and Escargot? I’m getting the snails and garbanzo bean dip, brother. Momma didn’t raise no fool.
Insider tips and top 5 things to order at Pancake Pantry
I don’t have a lot of insider tips here. Go. Order some pancakes. Eat. It ain’t rocket science.
The one thing I will tell you is that after 60 years, the Pancake Pantry remains incredibly popular and rightfully so.
If you’re not there when the doors open at 7 am, there’s a chance you’re gonna have to wait a bit.
The Pancake Pantry does not accept reservations or call ahead seating. It’s first come first served and guests are usually asked to queue up outside while waiting for a table.
Sixty years ago, a couple of Hoosiers came to East Tennessee with little more than a spatula and a dream. Now, that dream is a Gatlinburg institution. If you ask me, it’s worth the wait.
Top 5 things to order at the Pancake Pantry
5. Wild Blueberry
I like my blueberries like I like my women, wild and covered in syrup.
4. Caribbean Pancakes
Bananas, nuts, coconut and powdered sugar, just a great flavor combination. A word of warning, if you try and order this using a bad Jamaican accent, your server is empowered to slap you upside the head with a whole wheat pancake. It’s the law.
3. Any flavor of waffle
Your mileage may vary here but there’s something very satisfying about saying the word ‘waffle.’ I like a dramatic pause before really joyously enunciating the double F like Eddie Murphy in “Shrek.” Also, they taste good and have little square syrup traps. Waffles are great.
2. Parisienne Pancakes
When I was Paris (adjusts beret), I actually preferred savory crepes. Ham, Swiss and mushrooms, maybe some egg with salt and pepper. Lovely. The Pancake Pantry’s version of Paris is no less tasty but exceptionally sweet with whole strawberries and whipped cream. Bonus points that when I order these, I get to wax poetic about going to Paris – see my opening sentence.
1. Western Omelette
As I said above, I’m more of a savory guy and I love a good Western Omelette. But John, what about your rule about eating the food in the name of the restaurant? It’s cool, baby. Western Omelette comes with three buttermilk pancakes. It’s the best of both worlds, just as Jim and June Gerding would have wanted.
Have you been to the Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg? Does it live up to the hype? Let us know in the comments below!