Chace's Pancake Corral in Bellevue celebrates 50 years of business.
In 1958, when Bill Chace opened his Pancake Corral in Bellevue, Dwight Eisenhower served in the White House, women still wore hats to the restaurant for breakfast after church, and a plate of “sourdough cakes” cost less than 50 cents.
It takes more than a couple of quarters for those grilled-to-order pancakes now ($4.25), but they’re still made from the same starter that folks ate way back when. As Chace’s Pancake Corral celebrates its 50th anniversary on Labor Day weekend, what’s remarkable is how much else is still familiar to old-timers.
With minor tweaks, the menu relies on nearly identical staples: its famed potato pancakes with sour cream, pecan waffles and banana pancakes with coconut syrup. Vinyl booths, wagon-wheel lights, constant coffee refills and a “Hi, honey” greet customers, including some who have been coming for four generations.
“The Pancake Corral hasn’t changed in the 40 years that I’ve been a regular: good food, good service and good friends,” noted Ed Pepple, Mercer Island High School’s longtime basketball coach. “My first breakfast at the Pancake Corral was in the last days of 1967. Bill Chace was meeting and greeting everyone who came in and exchanging stories with friends. Forty years later, I still look forward to breakfast at the Corral. The food is good, but it’s the people who make it special.”
The Corral opens at 5:45 a.m. to accommodate the group of regulars who wait by the front door and take over Table One every morning to swap jokes and stories, nursing cups of coffee and nibbling on wheat toast. The staff worries if one of their daily customers doesn’t show up.
Photos of family and even customers adorn the walls, and several named dishes honor longtime customers. On weekends, waits can stretch to 40 minutes for one of the 15 tables.
Chace died in 2001 but his stepdaughter, Jane Zakskorn, who now owns the Corral, maintains everything in her dad’s memory, with the help of her sister, Ada Williams, and Arlie Gregorius who started working for Chace as a waitress in 1950 (at another restaurant) and still manages the restaurant part-time.
“Anything that happens here, it’s because of him,” Gregorius said.
“It’s been a conscious effort not to change,” Williams said. “You don’t have to worry about what to do,” agreed Gregorius, “because you just do what’s always been done. People say, ‘Why don’t you expand?’ No way! Leave it the way it is.”
In terms of longevity, the Corral joins the lofty company of Seattle’s Canlis and The Georgian restaurants in passing the five-decade mark, a rarity in their fickle business. But the only thing hoity-toity about the Corral is its Eastside zip code.
“Our place isn’t fancy, so we have to make our own atmosphere,” Zakskorn said. “We try to keep it simple. People come here because it’s comforting to them, because it has personality. Dad knew that brass and oak are beautiful, but that [décor] isn’t us.”
Located next to a dry cleaner about a mile south of downtown, the Pancake Corral is (so far) immune to the city’s skyscrapers and ritzy shops. “With neighborhood zoning, it’s hard to put a high rise here,” Zakskorn said. “They’ve tried a couple times, though.”
Through the years, the Corral weathered everything from the bagel craze to no-carb diets to health warnings against bacon and eggs. The restaurant dishes up comfort food like biscuits and chicken-fried steak with nostalgia nearly as thick as the homemade gravy.
“Things come in fads. Bill never wanted that. He wanted something that was going to stay,” Gregorius said.
Along with old-timers, the restaurant increasingly appeals to families and groups of teens who want to fill up on meals that cost less than a couple gallons of gas. Nothing on the menu costs more than $10, and breakfast entrees top out at $6.75. “It’s busier than it’s ever been,” Williams said.
“We like the place,” said Ralph Sallee, who eats breakfast at the Corral a couple times a week with his wife, Rosanne. Regulars for “years and years,” they played in Chace’s golf tournaments and considered him a friend. They still enjoy coming “now that it’s turned over to the younger folks.”
A visitor from the past would note a few differences. Waitresses no longer don starched white aprons and hand out cigarettes to adults as a finish to their meals (Williams shakes her head in horror at the memory). The group strains to think of other alterations, coming up only with the fact they can’t leave syrup containers or bowls of jam on the tables anymore (not by choice, of course — it’s to comply with health regulations).
The restaurant reluctantly upgraded to an electronic credit-card system about three years ago, and Zakskorn held on to the lobby’s dial pay phone “for as long as the telephone company would let me keep it.”
Despite starting at the restaurant at age 10 (as a hostess and cashier for a few hours on Sundays, dressed in a cowgirl outfit), Zakskorn insists she never tires of pancakes. “Truly, Dad made it so much fun,” she said. “I enjoy getting to know people, being part of their lives.”
She came on as Chace’s partner about 25 years ago, when Chace wanted to retire and spend more time golfing. She worked during the week, and he was in charge on weekends.
Family members move up through the ranks — Williams started as a dishwasher — and the newest family employee is Chace’s granddaughter, Ada Rose Williams. Like many Bellevue students who worked their way through high school and college at the Corral, she still puts on the waitress apron when she’s home from graduate school.
“I serve people who’ve known me since I was 3,” she says. Williams, this year’s Miss Emerald City, is picking up a little management training from her mom and aunt, but her degree is in architecture.
Williams hopes Zakskorn’s 7-year-old daughter, Nicole, will want to take over the family business when she’s old enough. “I’m going to be an architect,” she said, “but if they ever needed someone, I would rather take the restaurant myself than let it go.”