Twice a year, Bill Staat travels from his home in Arlington Heights to Crystal Lake to visit his eye doctor.
Each visit to the suburban city is quite similar. He meets his doctor, and he meets his daughter, Laurnell Krueger of Lake in the Hills, for a meal.
And it’s always at Richard Walker’s Pancake House on Route 14.
“Originally, [it was their] potato pancakes,” Staat says. “That brought me in a number of times.”
But it has been the good food combined with good service that has brought him back year after year, he says — two traditions that owner Richard Walker is proud to continue in a long family history of restaurant management.
Walker’s father and uncle opened their first eatery — a high-end, gourmet snack shop — in 1948 in Evanston, Walker’s home town. Twelve years later, the two men opened Walker Bros. Pancake House in Wilmette, and Walker and his brother, Ray, eventually opened an additional restaurant in 1981.
It was 1989 when Walker branched out on his own and created Richard Walker’s Pancake House in Schaumburg. In 1997, he opened a second restaurant in Crystal Lake.
“I was just driving through Crystal Lake, and I thought, ‘That’s the best corner in this whole area,’”
Walker says of the property he owns at 5680 Northwest Highway. “It’s been a very interesting time being there in Crystal Lake. There’s a very [real] cross section, more real American [feel here] — it’s a nice group to cater to.”
Over time, Richard Walker’s has become a destination eatery in the Crystal Lake area, and there are four pillars that make his restaurant a favorite among both locals and distant visitors, Walker says.
“There’s the food, there’s the service, environment and cleanliness of environment — those are the four legs that hold the table,” the 59-year-old says. “And a fifth leg to stabilize it is the culture/attitude of the staff. If you’re a hard worker, you’re going to have a heck of a good time working at Richard Walker’s!”
There are many words that describe the food at Richard Walker’s: choicest, select, high-grade, distinctive, superb and matchless.
While all are true, Walker himself prefers one adjective above the rest: FRESH.
That’s because that word applies to everything the restaurant serves.
That includes the freshly-squeezed orange juice and grapefruit juice that is served daily; the “over-the-top” salsa and the maple syrup, both of which are made fresh on the premises; the butter, which is whipped daily; the fresh fruit, including blueberries from Maine; and the fresh cheeses, which come directly from Wisconsin.
“We are 100 percent fresh in all our products,” agrees restaurant manager Ray Ovalle. “Each item we make here, whether it’s pancakes, crepes or waffles, it’s all from scratch. We whip everything by hand — it’s what sets us apart from other restaurants.”
Omelettes are a favorite at Richard Walker’s, and Walker explains why.
“We blend three eggs in a blender — we whip them up tremendously — and we roll them and bake them in the oven so they come out looking like a football,” he says. “They’re really beautiful omelettes.”
Customers also can order omelettes made with egg whites.
“We actually use fresh egg whites, not egg beaters that add preservatives,” he says.
And of course, only fresh vegetables are used in the restaurant’s omelettes, including the Very Veggie with Cheese Omelette, the Fresh Spinach Omelette with Cheese and the Mushroom and Cheese Omelette.
One of Richard Walker’s most popular omelettes is the Mediterranean Omelette, which features Greek Kalamata olives — top-dollar olives, according to Walker — gourmet feta cheese, fresh spinach, tomatoes, onions and fresh oregano, which makes for a very aromatic dish, he says.
Pancakes, made extremely light and airy, are another favorite menu item.
The Dutch Harvest is a big menu item pancake baked in the oven, Walker says. It looks like a little pizza with fresh broccoli, onion, tomato and mushrooms, topped with Harvarti cheese from Denmark.
The Swedish cakes are extremely thin and served with lingonberries from Sweden, while the chocolate chip flapjacks feature chocolate from Belgium.
The old-time favorite of Bill Staat, potato pancakes, are made to order on the grill in clarified butter — they’re never dropped in the fryer, Walker says.
Gluten-free and peanut-free pancakes are available, as well.
Then there’s the bacon, which stands alone as one reason so many people favor Richard Walker’s.
The bacon is cut extra thick so that Richard Walker chefs get nine pieces out of every pound of bacon instead of a traditional 26 pieces a pound, Walker says. The pieces are then scored so they don’t curl, and they’re cooked medium-well for full, high-end flavor.
“It’s got such a wonderful, smoky flavor,” Ray says.
But by far, the restaurant’s signature item is its Apple Pancake.
Only Granny Smith apples — which are tremendously firm and tart — are used in this pancake, which is filled with Saigon cinnamon, the highest quality, smoothest cinnamon money can buy, to balance out the tart flavor and create the sweetest pancake imaginable, Walker says.
“They make your eyes just fall out of your head when they first come out,” he says.
And for those who want it a la mode, Richard Walker’s only serves America’s finest ice cream.
“I think there’s no compromise for quality,” he says. “In our family we’ve always said we’re going to go after quality.”
Richard Walker’s boasts an extensive regular clientele list, Ray says.
“We do have a lot of customers who have been coming in since day one,” he says. “People move into town, they leave town … but one of the things I’ve noticed [about] here, they always come back. Whether it’s once a month or once a week, they always come back.”
Ray, who has been the restaurant’s general manager for the last two and a half years, says part of the restaurant’s following stems from the great service customers receive upon entering.
“We want [our staff] to be friendly and familiar with people, and if they can learn their names and call them by name, that’s the best thing you can do,” Ray says.
“I’m a true believer [that] the sweetest music you can hear is your name. If you can learn people’s names, it changes everything … . People get surprised when [they] say, ‘Oh, you remember me?’ They like that, especially when we remember what they like to drink. By the time they get to the table, there’s often a drink on the table already.”
“Some people like [their] toast well-done, but no butter,” he continues. “Things like that, we like to remember.”
If there are customers that have been dining at Richard’s Walker’s since day one, the same can be said about the restaurant’s staff.
Nearly all of the people who helped Walker open his restaurant in 1997 are still working for him today, he says, including Ray, who started working in the dish room at age 15.
“He is the nicest guy you’ve ever met in your life,” Walker says. “He’s been with me since he was 15 as a busboy, cook, manager — the guy is fantastic. He’s on it, he watches the food, he’s phenomenal on the service area and you couldn’t meet a more friendly guy.”
Walker says it’s a testament to feeling at home that his staff has stayed on for so long.
And customers take notice.
Sherry Harris of Lakewood is a regular customer at Richard Walker’s, for multiple reasons.
“First of all, the bacon is amazing,” she says. “[But] it’s just so cozy. I love reading the paper [in the little alcove]. It’s very charming, and the food’s good. And everybody is really friendly. The host is wonderful.”
Others come in just to sit, relax and drink a cup of Hawaiian Kona Coffee blend — the only coffee served at Richard Walker’s.
“Everyone compliments us for our coffee,” Ray says. “A lot of people come here just for the coffee.”
Walker works hard to make sure not a single ingredient or detail is overlooked in his restaurant.
“We painstakingly do a lot of little things,” he says. “We really do not cut any corners. When I hear that something can be done better out there, I say, ‘Let’s do that.’ That’s the mentality of me and our family.”
That attitude of excellence trickles down to his staff, as well.
“I think if you work at Richard Walker’s and you like being a servant, you are in the right place,” Walker says. “I like being a servant myself; I like taking care of people.”
Walker says he’s proud of the culture Richard Walker’s staff has groomed for nearly two decades in Crystal Lake, and he hears praise for their efforts all the time.
“I think you’ll find they have the best attitudes of servers anywhere,” Walker adds. “I get emails every week on all the stores on how appreciative the customers are with their experience with us.”