Honing Her Skillet 

For Penelope Pfuntner, running a breakfast spot is no short order

There’s a breed of restaurant patron who likes to take charge of the cooking. These DIY diners are fond of fondue.

There’s a breed of restaurant patron who likes to take charge of the cooking. These DIY diners are fond of fondue. They ask for a grill table at a Korean barbecue. They may even have eaten at the bygone Prime Cut Steakhouse on Second Avenue, where carnivorous guests—folks who didn’t even know how to turn on their own ovens—paid dozens of dollars to tend inch-thick slabs of cow flesh at a crowded grill in the center of the restaurant.

But until now, these culinary control freaks have been at the mercy of restaurant professionals when it came to breakfast.

Enter Penelope Pfuntner, a Florida native who grew up dining at an all-you-can-eat/cook-it-yourself pancake place and wanted to re-create the vibe here. A caterer specializing in weddings, Pfuntner recently hitched up her apron to launch The Pfunky Griddle in Berry Hill, just up the street from her day job at Chef Penelope’s catering on Bransford Avenue.

Located in a tiny cottage that formerly housed Eden garden store, The Pfunky Griddle is a gem of a concept. Custom-made fireproof tables with built-in griddles are the heart of the restaurant, where you order from an all-day breakfast menu of pancakes, French toast and eggs, all of which you cook yourself. In other words, if you order pancakes, you get a pitcher of batter and whatever toppings you want. (Think berries, chocolate chips, nuts and M&Ms.) If you order French toast, you get a bowl of eggs and milk flecked with cinnamon and a plate of sliced wheat loaf. If you order eggs, you get, well, eggs. So you’d better be prepared to cook.

In the early days of the Griddle, which opened this summer, we heard a lot of mumbling along the lines of “Why would anyone pay money to cook their own breakfast?” We can think of plenty of reasons. You could teach your kids to cook here. (Pancakes are free for kids 4 and under.) You can avoid awkward small talk with dining companions. There is a certain meditative aspect to waiting for bubbles to form in the top of pancake batter. The list goes on, culminating in the simple fact that it’s supposed to be fun.

If it’s not fun for you, skip it. But don’t lose your head over the existential question of whether you’re being oppressed by cooking your own pancakes. It’s a spatula, not a subpoena. You don’t have to eat there.

On the flip side of the flapjack, a trip to the Pfunky Griddle brings up some interesting issues related to food and dining out. In a time when people on the expanding culinary fringe are going out of their way to explore Slow Food, green food and local food, the restaurant puts a unique emphasis on the ingredients and process associated with its pancakes.

Pfuntner’s stepmother Beth Taylor grinds and blends two mixes from scratch, using whole wheat, cornmeal, buckwheat, rye and brown-rice flours for the five-grain recipe, and unbalanced, unbromated enriched white flour for the Old-Time mix. In both cases, the end result is a batter that is a whole world earthier than Bisquick, and a pancake that is a lot crisper and nuttier than what you’d find in McDonald’s Big Breakfast. Here again, if you’d prefer a Big Breakfast, you know where to go. But if you like something a little less refined than a fast-food Frisbee-sized sponge, you’ll enjoy the toothier taste and texture of Taylor’s version. (Packages of the Pfunky mix are also available for purchase at the cash register.)

A breakfast—or lunch—of pancakes at The Pfunky Griddle is a warming experience, not only thanks to the griddle right in front of you, but also because of the friendly staff and cozy environment. Murals of wheat and trees grow up the walls, and an actual tree branches out of one corner, a vestigial decorative element of the bygone garden store. Located in the heart of the offbeat retail district of Berry Hill, The Pfunky Griddle is just the kind of place—quirky, intimate and local—that we’d love to call our home for brunch.

But before that can happen, Pfuntner’s got a few things to iron out. Fundamentally, Pfunky Griddle is a breakfast place, so it should deliver a near-perfect breakfast—ideally one that consistently reflects the same attention to detail that goes into the hand-ground pancake mixes.

Start with the coffee. Toss out the food-service blend and order up some Drew’s Brews or Bongo Java. Then get to work on a bacon that’s thick, meaty and crisp, instead of flaccid, pink and tangly. We enjoyed our DIY French toast, but we would have enjoyed it more had it come with thick slabs of bread from any local bakery—Provence, Savarino’s, Charlotte Bakery or Aurora Bakery, to name a few possibilities—instead of a recognizable brand. Better still, get step-mom Taylor, who is also a baker, to make her own. Once the building blocks of a breakfast are in place, we’d happily pay extra for real maple syrup, which should be an option at a place that so painstakingly grinds its own flour. (For now, some people bring in their own bottles of the real stuff.)

With a top-notch breakfast menu intact, rounding out the non-breakfast items should be easy. Pfuntner already has a few delightful signature sandwiches, including the chicken-pesto panini with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes and the Gorgonzola-and-Black Forest ham panini with walnuts and Granny Smith apples.

The salads come with fluffy, crisp greens and generous piles of toppings, and could be improved with homemade dressings, even if it’s only a small selection. We also suggest eighty-sixing the heavy-handed fruit tea and trading out the pasta salad for a side of fruit or a bag of chips. Again, keep it simple with a short list of near-perfect items. Pfunky Griddle has found a niche; now it has to fill it better than anyone else can.

Pfuntner, a first-time restaurateur, is off to a good start, and she’s eagerly adjusting things, including pricing, based on feedback from her early customers. She’s also got something that other business owners would kill for: a team she can trust. With her family pitching in at every turn—her father Cosmo Smith made the griddle tables, and her kids have been known to bus them—she’s got the makings of a charming little breakfast landmark. With a few changes to raise the quality of all the ingredients to the level of the pancakes, Pfunky Griddle could be a perfect spot to grab a light lunch, linger over a healthy breakfast with friends or meditate over tiny pancake bubbles. Either way, someone else does the dishes.

Pfunky Griddle is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

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