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Raleigh to bid adieu to iconic pancake house

RALEIGH

A teenage girl leans back in her chair and takes photos of her chocolate chip pancakes with her phone.

A dad, walking to the front register, tells a waiter he hopes to return in the next couple of days. He wants his son to see the longstanding International House of Pancakes before it closes its doors at Hillsborough Street and Park Avenue.

The iconic restaurant plans to close for good by Saturday.

While a new, bigger IHOP is expected to open on April 10 in the new Stanhope Student Apartments down the street at Dixie Trail, the closure news has prompted longtime customers to pay homage to the A-frame building that opened in 1968.

“We’ve had a lot of people come in to reminisce with friends, talk about memories and take pictures,” said Pat Commodore, a server.

The Hillsborough Street pancake house has served students, athletes, politicians and – until suburban growth spawned additional IHOPs – customers from across the Triangle. It’s the only restaurant along the half-mile stretch of Hillsborough between Ashe Avenue and Oberlin Road.

And it’s one of the few remaining IHOPs that still operate in a building with the blue, triangular roof and an orange-trimmed “International House of Pancakes” sign rather than the modern “IHOP” sign. But soon, its .29-acre lot – valued most recently at $554,000 – will succumb to the ongoing redevelopment of Hillsborough Street.

“It draws kind of like the golden arches used to,” customer Janice Hocutt said of the roof.

Hocutt first visited the IHOP, which is open 24 hours, in 1976. She drove from Wake Forest at 2 a.m. because her roommate had a craving.

“Capital Boulevard was two lanes at the time,” she said. Hocutt now likes to swing by after leaving Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, where she serves as a musician.

“I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast all day long,” she said. “I’m sorry to see this place go.”

IHOP servers say they could have seen it coming.

New shops, food joints and living complexes popped up along the corridor as the city completed $10 million in renovations to Hillsborough near N.C. State University’s North Campus.

A block away from the IHOP, developers want to demolish the 53-year-old Velvet Cloak Inn to make way for a 150-unit student housing complex. Developers plan to soon break ground on an 85-unit complex behind the IHOP, and apartments already occupy the spot directly east of it where Jackpot bar used to stand.

Some say talking about Raleigh’s changes with its veteran servers is part of the Hillsborough IHOP’s appeal. IHOP hired Richard Baker as a dishwasher in 1983 after he hitchhiked to Raleigh from Sanford looking for work. He’s worked there ever since.

“I just walked in and they gave me a job,” Baker said.

Things have surely changed since then.

The Hillsborough IHOP used to have tile floors, much higher ceilings and a pie case at the front register, he said. Customers ordered by circling items on a paper menu, he said, and the words “gluten-free” likely would’ve confused servers.

So what does Baker think about all these changes?

“It’s unnerving. It’s out of my comfort zone,” he said. But he’s not leaving. Baker plans to work weekends at the new place.

“I feel attached to it, in a way,” he said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is its customer base.

“You get people here who are homeless, well-off, people who are retired, politicians and students,” said Bryan Goforth, a server who started there in 1996.

Goforth, who graduated from NC State with a zoology degree, later quit IHOP to earn his master’s in nutrition from East Carolina University.

Then he came back.

“I just like working here,” Goforth said. “It’s always interesting.”

Around noon on a recent Saturday, Baker served a half-dozen Meredith College students in what servers say is a familiar scene: college students wanting a big plate of carbs during or after a long night. Abby Myers and her Meredith friends dined wearing sweaters and athletic pants.

“This is always our go-to,” Myers said after taking a photo of her pancake, which was fashioned into a smiley face using whipped cream. “It’ll be sad when it closes.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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