The 13 Tastiest Pancakes in Madison
We’ve ordered up heaping stacks and gotten our fingers sticky to bring you a hot-off-the-griddle lineup of the city’s tastiest flapjacks
It’s such a simple dish, really. Sometimes there are as few as three or four ingredients involved—heck, some of us even make it out of a box on the weekends, using only water as a mixer. Yet from what can often be a relatively simple foundation, Madison restaurants have found a host of ways to rock a memorable stack of pancakes, in both traditional and highly unusual ways. Some of them would put a smile of familiarity on a lumberjack’s face, while others would knock his wool socks right off. To put it another way, Madison’s breakfast and brunch cafes love to use pancakes as a palette.
“When you get right down to it, pancakes are a great delivery system,” says Susan Hendrix, the chef and co-owner of Sunprint on the Square.
She’s right, and what we found when we went pancake hunting only proves her point. Whether it’s fruit, sweet chocolate chips or south-of-the-border spicing, there’s a stack waiting to be drenched in syrup—real Wisconsin maple syrup, that is. Sharpen your forks and let’s dig in.
LAZY JANE'S CAFE
PHOTO BY MATTHEW ENGELHART
Used to be you could score a stack of pancakes only as a weekend special in the cozy confines of this Willy Street staple. Then, about three to four years ago, the staff decided to take it daily, much to Madison’s breakfast- and brunch-eating pleasure. Lazy Jane’s buttermilk recipe is a result of a meeting of the minds between the staff’s four chefs, and it’s delicious to the power of four.
For starters, it’s not your standard buttermilk. “They’re a little more salty, and our batter is a little thicker than some,” says kitchen manager Will Tracy. The result is a tall, hearty pancake that carries just the slightest hint of the other things cooked on the grill beside it.
You’ll pay a little extra for the Wisconsin maple syrup to slather it with, but it’s totally worth it. And, hey, if you’re feeling really adventurous on the weekend, see if you can score a plate of mac and cheese pancakes with Andouille sausage. Yes, you read that correctly.
Lazy Jane's Cafe
1358 Williamson St.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER FLAVOR
Blue corn pancakes with chile butter
PHOTO BY ANGELA WONG
Taylor Anderson knows that Eldorado isn’t necessarily the first place people think of when they’re hankering for a tasty stack of cakes—but maybe it should be.
Eldorado’s Southwestern take on the dish, featured as part of the restaurant’s rock-solid brunch lineup, is unlike anything else in the city. It starts with that shocking orange dollop of butter camped on top of a stack of sizable blue corn pancakes. The butter and maple syrup are punched up with cascabel chile—also known as “the rattler,” an oval-shaped chile with a woodsy taste. Beverage aficionados will recognize these as the same chiles that infuse Eldorado’s vodkas and tequilas with a little extra flavor.
“Our patrons are getting a flavor they’ve never had in their life before,” says Anderson, Eldorado’s proprietor and general manager. “It really opens their eyes.”
Those thinking they’ll be lunging, Marco Rubio–style, for an icy glass of agua after a bite or two can calmate: The spice these chiles offer is moderate, not scorching, and neatly complements the sweetness of the cakes and syrup. The pancakes themselves are made in the traditional style of the Pueblo Indians. And as an added plus, they pack an additional dose of protein.
744 Williamson St.
Blueberry pancakes with orange-almond butter
PHOTO BY CHRIS HYNES
“Pancakes are part of the lexicon of the American breakfast,” says Sam Mack, the affable director of operations for Marigold Café, taking the words right out of our mouths. He’d better not try taking a bite of the café’s blueberry pancakes right out of our mouths, or he might have a fight on his hands.
As with much of Marigold’s menu, the pancake prep is unusual. Mack treats it almost like a sourdough, making the batter a day ahead of time and infusing it with yeast.
“It gives the cake a little stretch and spring,” says Mack. “It makes it not so cakey.”
True, but it’s the butter that sends these cakes into maximum overdrive. Infused with orange and almond extract, it’s sweet, strong and the perfect complement to the tasty tang of the blueberries in the batter and sprinkled on top. You may even be tempted to eat the pat of butter straight up, but don’t—that would just be embarrassing.
“Some people ask for the pancakes without the butter,” says Mack, a grin stealing across his face. “I always bring it out on a side dish.”
Marigold’s is also one of a handful of pancake places in Madison that uses real Wisconsin maple syrup, a choice that can get expensive in years when the syrup crop’s not as strong as it is this year.
One final piece of good news—Marigold just shifted to serving breakfast all day.
118 S. Pinckney St.
SUNPRINT ON THE SQUARE
Pancakes with fruit compote
PHOTO BY KATRINA TALOZA
Sunprint’s cozy location on the Capitol Square recalls nothing so much as a traditional French café. The pancakes chef Susan Hendrix serves to her patrons on mornings and weekends are anything but. She mixes in an unusual ingredient into her pancakes, you see—malt powder.
“It adds a little extra flavor, and I like that twist,” Hendrix says.
It’s a tasty nuance that adds depth without disrupting the pancake’s texture, but it’s actually not the biggest thing that gives Sunprint’s pancakes their distinctive saveur. That honor goes to the warm and savory fruit compote that Hendrix makes on-site, using fresh fruit scored from the farmers’ market that operates right outside her door on Saturdays for half the year. Strawberries and Melba apples (they’re sweeter than your average apple) are the workhorses that appear most frequently as compote options, but every once in a while, patrons are served a fruit curveball.
And if fruit’s not your thing? The pecan pancakes with maple butter rock pretty hard, too.
10 W. Mifflin St.
DAISY CAFÉ AND CUPCAKERY
Multigrain pancakes with fruit
PHOTO BY ANGELA WONG
Part of the secret of Daisy Café’s tasty multigrain pancakes isn’t really a secret at all—it’s sitting in plain sight, available for sale right as you enter the place. It’s the bags of pancake mix sold by Porchlight, the local organization that works to help Madison’s homeless find a home. In that sense, you can call it a socially responsible pancake.
But café co-owner Daryl Sisson and his staff take it a step further, adding a local twist that makes the pancakes they serve especially delish: Instead of using water as a mixer, they opt for fresh-squeezed orange juice from their nearby neighbor, the Jenifer Street Market. That’s what we call some serious local synergy.
Obviously, the multigrain vibe adds a hearty and healthy sheen to an otherwise decadent breakfast choice—and so does the heaping side of fresh fruit that camps alongside each stack.
“A lot of people really appreciate the multigrain,” says Sisson. We can see—and taste—why.
Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery
2827 Atwood Ave.
THE PANCAKE CAFÉ
PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN
Perhaps you’ve driven down Nesbitt Road on a weekend and wondered why the parking lot of the Pancake Café is so packed. It might have a little something to do with the café’s signature (and Best of Madison award–winning) apple pancake. Simply put, this pancake is a beast; the small version alone completely fills a standard breakfast plate. To manage the large, you might need to ask for extra seating.
Tackling it is almost like eating an open-faced apple pie: Huge slices of Sinkiang cinnamon-glazed apples nearly burst past the clutching fingers of the inch-and-a-half-deep cake. The secret’s in the batter, and also in the preparation. This dish is baked in an oven for twenty minutes like a cake, not prepared on a griddle like traditional pancakes. The batter’s what makes the baking necessary.
“There are a lot of eggs,” says manager Gary Tierman. “More than you can even imagine.” To ballpark it, Tierman says a typical batch of weekend pancake batter contains as many as 220 eggs. Say it with us: Wow.
6220 Nesbitt Rd.
SOPHIA'S CAFÉ AND BAKERY
Cottage cheese pancakes with raspberry sauce
PHOTO BY TIMOTHY HUGHES
Sophia’s has clearly mastered the tricky art of supply and demand: Given that it’s open for breakfast only on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s not uncommon to see a line of customers stretching out the door. Regulars know you may have to share your table with a stranger—heck, you may even have to eat with your plate on your lap outside. And if you’ve never been there before, chances are good you’ll do a sitcom-quality double-take when you ask Izzi Plunkett, one of the cooks who makes it all happen at Sophia’s each weekend, for a recommendation and she says, “Cottage cheese pancakes.”
Cottage cheese pancakes?
That’s a big yes. The cultured sourness of the cheese takes buttermilk’s traditional seat at the pancake table, creating a cake that’s softer, more textured and spongier than what you’ve tasted before. Topping it off with a tart raspberry sauce balances the flavors deliciously.
“We don’t make our batter sweet,” says Plunkett. “The tang of the raspberries adds a tartness and sweetness to the taste. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like cottage cheese.” It really doesn’t.
Sophia's Cafe and Bakery
831 E. Johnson St.
HEALTHY AND HEARTY
Blueberry oat pancakes with toasted almonds and vanilla butter
PHOTO BY MARTHA BUSSE
At the very edge of the Lake Edge Shopping Center on Monona Drive, you’ll find some of the tastiest pancakes on the east side. What you won’t find, believe it or not, is buttermilk.
“We’ve never done a buttermilk pancake—where can’t you find that?” asks Dave Dorst, the happy and outgoing kitchen manager. Crema opts instead for rolled oats, ground right on the premises and mixed with flour into a thick, hearty batter.
It works beautifully and tastes divine: Toasted almonds dust the pancakes, which are then covered with powdered sugar while the vanilla butter provides a warm and gentle under-taste. The syrup’s indigenous, too, from Marquardt’s Tree Farm. “We’re trying to keep it as local as we can,” says Dorst.
Between the blueberry oat cakes and the weekend special pancakes—cornmeal, wheat and flax, anyone?—Dorst has become quite the expert.
“I used to be super intimidated about making the batter,” he admits. “Now I’m the pancake guy.” After a couple bites of this plate, you likely will be, too.
4124 Monona Dr.
TASTES OF THE PAST
Collins House oat pancakes
PHOTO BY NICOLE PEASLEE
A ton of history is tucked into the pancake batter the Manna Café on Sherman Avenue serves. As the locals know, it’s the same recipe that patrons savored at the former Collins House Bed and Breakfast on Gorham for just under thirty years. And plenty of the people who tried it then and there are happy to come back and track it down here and now.
“It’s one of the things that brings people to us,” admits front team manager Sean Langenecker. “It’s neat to be part of the food culture in Madison and part of people’s lives. It’s fun to hear their stories.”
Some customers mix in chocolate chips, bananas or peanut butter, while others thicken the mix with granola, but these cakes are actually great straight. Hearty and fluffy, they taste a little like eating a sugar cookie on the plate, with the oats evident to both your eyes and your tongue. Garnished with real Wisconsin maple syrup (“We will never serve any other,” says Langenecker), it’s a sweet plate of breakfast heaven.
Want more proof? The Collins House cakes even convinced Langenecker: “I’m not a pancake eater, but I’ll eat these. We will never not serve them.”
611 N. Sherman Ave.
THE ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE
PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY
As the name implies, The Original Pancake House is the first place a lot of Madisonians think of when it’s time to enjoy a comfortable stack. Chalk it up to the house’s friendly, diner-esque vibe, where every staffer seems to know your name, and pancakes like the 49er, a popular second to the restaurant’s own apple pancake.
Camped somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake, the 49er, a thin and tasty cake that uses the same batter as Swedish pancakes, is one of the most popular menu options. The cake gets its name, of course, from the west-coast gold rush, not because of the size of its diameter, although given the way it spans your plate, you’d be forgiven for thinking so.
“They’re a little more chewy,” explains manager Drew Fleming, who started with the House as a chef twenty-three years ago, back when it was located by Hilldale Mall. “It’s a very different texture—it melts in your mouth.” He’s got that right. Can we have another?
Original Pancake House
5518 University Ave.
Red velvet pancakes
PHOTO COURTESY OF FOOD FIGHT
You’ve probably heard—and maybe even lived—the adage about pancakes being the equivalent of having dessert for breakfast. But you’ll never truly understand what that means until you’ve come fork to tastebud with the amazing red velvet pancakes on Bluephies’ weekend-only brunch menu.
For starters, it’s one of the most visually arresting breakfast plates you’ve ever seen: a gleaming stack of red-tinted pancakes topped by a smattering of raindrop-sized chocolate chips and succulent cream cheese frosting, er, butter. Truly, this may be the first plate of pancakes to make syrup utterly irrelevant.
“Normally, pancakes are light and fluffy,” says Bill Horzuesky, who co-owns and operates Bluephies with his wife, Melanie. “We wanted a variation on that.”
They found it, and then some, creating one of several tasty breakfast dishes that cleverly mirror the desserts served in the case at the front of the restaurant.
Originally the pancakes were supposed to be waffles, but Horzuesky found that waffles took too much time for his staff to prepare, slowing down the restaurant’s well-oiled brunch mechanics. Since pancakes are the only breakfast food Horzuesky eats, it was an easy switch—and we’re all the beneficiaries.
2701 Monroe St.
MICKIES DAIRY BAR
Chocolate chip pancakes
PHOTO BY TIMOTHY HUGHES
You know what you’re in for when you eke your way through the door of Mickies Dairy Bar, especially if it’s on a weekend. Even more especially if it’s on a Badger game day weekend. The Formica booth tabletops, the ’50s-era menus that still cover the walls. And the sea of red-clad customers, all clamoring for a seat.
And Mickies’ pancakes are an integral part of that mix. Go ahead, pick your size-centric metaphor to describe what’s eclipsing every inch of your plate: A manhole cover. The world’s biggest Frisbee. Captain America’s shield. You could opt for one of the unusual options scrawled on the main wall—cornmeal or banana cinnamon pancakes—but it’s awfully hard to say no to a full order of chocolate chip pancakes, a pair of thick cakes that scarcely need syrup to stand on their own. Just be prepared to enjoy the sizable goodness quickly—it’s a sure bet that several someones are waiting for your seat.
Mickies Dairy Bar
1511 Monroe St.
STATE STREET TREAT
THE SUNROOM CAFÉ
Wheat pancakes with bananas
PHOTO BY BRIDGET GEYGAN
For the last three-plus decades, students, professors and State Street visitors have been able to climb the stairs to the cozy Sunroom Café, there to sit down with a tidy plate of wheat pancakes. They have no idea what owner Mark Paradise had to do to make the cakes possible: Back in the beginning, he had to reconfigure the space’s entire exhaust system to accommodate raging customer demand, after the four-foot griddle he’d originally purchased proved woefully inadequate to the task.
Today, pancakes are still a popular choice, and it doesn’t take much to wean customers away from the basic buttermilk. “They try the wheat pancakes, and they go with that,” says Paradise.
Chocolate chip is a popular and tasty topping option here, as are bananas, with oversized slices that nest neatly in the cake, adding a nice texture. If your taste is wilder, no worries: Sunroom’s staff prides itself on handling special orders—if it’s in the house, the staff is generally willing to mix it in with the pancakes. Just don’t try to pack in too much.
638 State St.
Aaron R. Conklin is a Madison-based writer.