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Morning Rituals 

Rustling up some grub at four of Cleveland's breakfast chains.

If you're craving breakfast that tastes like dessert, IHOP's the place for you.
  • If you're craving breakfast that tastes like dessert, IHOP's the place for you.

Brand-name pancake houses are sprouting up like congressional probes. There's the Oregon-based Original Pancake House in Woodmere, Denver's Le Peep in Independence, a dozen Californian IHOPs, and, most recently, First Watch of Florida, which opened last month at Crocker Park.

The flapjack stackup started us wondering just what sets any of these places apart from the others. After all, each one turns out decent breakfast and lunch fare, each one welcomes children, and each one is reasonably priced. Sure, the Original Pancake House is famous for its puffy apple pancakes, and IHOP for its 24/7 schedule. But beyond that, does one make a better choice than another?

Clearly, this called for research: What resulted was a Friday morning spent at each of these four spots, mulling over the menu, shoveling up the short stacks, and soaking in whatever passed for ambiance. All of this served our aim of pointing you in the right direction. So, tell us who you are, m'dear, and we'll tell you where to eat.

If your urge to stick it to the boss is tempered by the realization that you are the boss . . . then pack up the briefcase and cruise on over to the Original Pancake House, where Wall Street Journals, PDAs, and laptops are as plentiful as the toasted nuts in the delicate Georgia pecan pancakes.

Like the clientele, the offerings here tilt toward the upscale, with smoky, thick-sliced bacon ($3.95), freshly squeezed OJ ($2.50), and Geauga County maple syrup, served in individual bottles for an extra dollar. Even the fresh-roasted coffee has a pedigree: Sleek yet strong, it's prepared by the Crooked River Coffee Company in Mayfield Village.

The decor, too, is an upscale delight: Halogen spotlights, vibrant original artwork, and a rustic color scheme make the room seem upbeat even on gloomy mornings and set the stage for that aromatic, cinnamon-glazed apple pancake ($8.25), which arrives at the table hot from the oven and poufed up to astonishing proportions.

If shopping at H&M and the Coach store rank high on your to-do list . . . then drop into First Watch at the southern edge of Crocker Park. Two tall walls of windows deliver new shipments of natural light daily, and the large menu slants toward salads, fruits, and veggies -- the better to help you slide into your new designer denims. But while the menu goes easy on the flapjacks, the cranberry-nut version ($5.49) -- with chewy gems of sweet-tart berries playing peekaboo from inside an ephemeral cake -- proved to be like Prada for the palate. Side them with a seasoned turkey patty ($2.99) in place of bacon, and even your personal trainer won't be able to tell you splurged.

If breakfast ain't breakfast without a Bud . . . then catch a ride to Le Peep. As far as we can determine, it's the region's only breakfast spot with a full bar. Which means Belgian waffles ($4.29-$5.29) with beer, or banana pancakes ($4.99) with Bloody Marys -- all before 10 a.m. While the slightly shabby decor could use sprucing up, the signature "skillet" breakfasts ($6.49) -- with various combos of eggs, potatoes, veggies, and melted cheeses, arranged in a panhandled baking dish -- are as good a foil for a Mimosa as you're likely to find.

If "pimping your ride" means Yosemite Sam mud flaps for your Kenworth . . . then IHOP has a double-wide parking space with your name on it. Not only is the 24/7 schedule a boon to road warriors, but the down-home decor; the soundtrack of Tim, Faith, and Garth; and the separate but comfy "smoking permitted" dining room may be right up your alley. Tough guys will dig the macho black-bean chile and cheese omelet ($6.99), too; expertly prepared eggs, lots of beans, a slather of spicy salsa, and a ring of jalapeño slices made this the most memorable egg dish we sampled at any of these places.

Those who favor breakfast that tastes like dessert will also end up happiest at IHOP. Like a real-life Candy Land, every table is set with four flavors of fruity syrup. The kids' menu is anchored by the Funny Face: a chocolate-chip pancake with a whipped-topping grin and maraschino-cherry eyes ($2.99). And merely reading about the Stuffed French Toast Combo ($6.59) -- "warm cinnamon-raisin French toast stuffed with sweet cream cheese filling and topped with powdered sugar, fruit topping, and whipped topping" -- should require written consent from your doctor. No wonder the company has developed an entire second menu, "IHOP for Me," with choices that minimize sugar, fat, and calories.

Then again, if fruit and low-fat yogurt pass for breakfast in your bitter little world, maybe you should just sleep in.

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