“What was in those pancakes?” or “When a wall isn’t just a wall…”: The Little Swiss Cafe in Carmel, CA

By Matt Payne

I had anticipated that the secret ingredient to my pancakes at The Little Swiss House in downtown Carmel, California would be something exotic. Perhaps the vanilla extract came from a rare Tahitian orchid harvested only by Aries between the hours of 2am and 4am on clouded nights when the moon is waning.

Carmel, with its elf-like cottages and ancient cypress trees, is an enchanted beach town that conjures up images of elves and magical fairies. Perhaps the secret to these dreamy flapjacks arrived by way of hobbit from Middle Earth. There had to be something esoteric that made these airy, almost crepe-like cakes so special.

“The reason the pancakes are so good here is that we add extra water to the batter and keep the skillet really hot,” my waitress tells me.

I take another bite and consider what she has just revealed. Heat and a couple of lousy hydrogen molecules chained up to a molecule of oxygen are all that separate these ethereal cakes from the likes of bisquick? Clearly the secret to the pancakes at this quaint local breakfast joint isn’t one to be shared.

The Little Swiss Cafe, a family run restaurant since 1972, is a lunch and breakfast spot located on the corner of 6th Avenue and Dolores just off of Ocean Avenue and specializes not only in pancakes and the usual breakfast fare but also cheese blitzes, Swiss Sausage and liver and onions. No matter what you get here, it is good.

Just off of the Carmel’s main drag, The Little Swiss feels very much as though you have stepped into a tiny eatery somewhere in the Swiss Alps.  It is divided into two rooms. In the front room are a couple of small tables looking out onto the street. The back room is a small, square room with several tight, upright booths.

The walls of this snug room are painted with murals of the Swiss countryside, each wall reflecting a season. At a glance, the landscape seems benign, if not slightly cliché and in disrepair. Duct tape carelessly hangs in the sky above one of the landscapes and on another, a nail, once intended to hang a painting, protrudes from the wall. At least that is how it appears… In truth, there is much more going on.

But if one were to try to remove the duct tape, they would be quick to discover that the duct tape, stringy on the edges and muted silver, is actually painted on the wall. So is the nail. Caught off guard by this peculiar artistic ruse, my eye begins to wander across the European countryside and as it does, what was once a fairly straightforward mural becomes a joyful exercise in observation.

Duct tape… Or is it?

The wintery mural at a glance, features a frozen lake surrounded by some humble cabins and inns. One of the Inns, however has a tiny Motel 6 light on it. On one of the logs coming out of the water rests a parrot. A matador with a red cape antagonizes a bull in a field of cattle. Gollum hangs out in a tree. A seal’s head pops out of a crack in the lake. A penguin reads a sign on the water’s edge that says “No Diving.”

The wall representing spring features a river running through a field of beautiful flowers. In the river, a shirtless man, with his hat on backwards, flyfishes for trout. Puss and Boots sword fight over a log. Shriek and his girlfriend Fiona soak in the stream and the couple from the classic Grant Wood painting American Gothic hang out in one of the rows of flowers while a tennis net stretches across another row of flowers and on either side of the net, two people engaged in a match. In the distance, barely visible is the Eiffel Tower and just a hop, skip and a jump from there, the leaning tower of Pisa.

What all can you see here?

There are more than fifty images playfully hidden in the landscapes painted in 2005 by artist Andre Baylon. By reputation, a serious artist, Baylon, born and raised in The Netherlands, currently shows his more serious work down the road at Jones and Terwillinger Galleries. At The Little Swiss House, however, he let his imagination run wild, much to the delight of both locals who call this eatery their own as well as tourists from all over the world.

Under the watchful eye of the old couple from American Gothic, I finish my pancakes. As I leave, I notice on the mural a strange man in the bushes smoking a cigarette. Above him, a flock of birds heading straight to where I once thought was a nail protruding from the wall. One of the birds is upside down….

Like the pancakes, it is too good.

Full and inspired, I head into the day. I glance into the bushes outside, now half expecting to see a gargoyle stoically eyeing me. Above I notice the clouds. One seems to be shaped like a car. In another, perhaps I see the face of a lion.  A car whizzes by and for a second, I think it might the driver might just be Mickey Mouse. As I take a breath of the Carmel salty sea air, there seems to be more to the world than there was an hour ago and I can’t help but wonder… What was in those pancakes?

Look closer….