Howard Johnson's may be toast in Times Square, but is still frying clams up in Lake George
The Howard Johnson's restaurant in Lake George Village is one of only three HoJo's left in existence. The chain once numbered in the thousands. (Photos by Rolando Pujol)
It was three years ago this month that Howard Johnson's closed in Times Square, an event that Urbanite did not take very well.
For us, the Times Square HoJo's was an miraculous holdout, so special and noteworthy that we always cringed when we walked by, fearing that the great, flashing, turquoise-and-orange neon lights would be turned off for good.
When news of its imminent demise finally did land, we photographed the place to no end, and even scooped up a few historic gems from the restaurant during an on-site auction a few days after the shutter fell. (We are, for one, a proud owner of a "Cocktail" sign that glowed for decades above the bar that served Brandy Alexanders until the bitter end. It was, indeed, at this bar that we had our first, and most assuredly last, Brandy Alexander.)
So for us, the very name Howard Johnson's evokes memories of a time and place that we can never touch again. That is, unless you hop in a car and drive north on I-87 to delightfully kitschy Lake George Village. There, you will find some of the most impressive pockets of 1950s roadside Americana still in existence. Call it Wildwood north.
During a walk along Canada Street, your senses will be overwhelmed with neon-lit, space-age mom-and-pop motels, haunted-house exhibits, schlocky tourists traps of all description, salt-water-taffy joints, and hokey family attractions, one complete with a 1950s giant Muffler Man lording over a miniature golf course set in an ersatz NYC subway system, which manages to get wrong some of the colors for the train lines.
And, lest we forget, you will find one of three surviving Howard Johnson's restaurants on the planet.
The Lake George HoJo's is a true thing of beauty. It retains its colonial-style orange roof, and its weather vane featuring the Pie Man holding a plate of goodies before the ever-eager Simple Simon and his faithful pooch.
Inside, the wall near the cash register still trumpets the various flavors of HoJo's ice cream. Once seated by your impossibly friendly host, you are handed a menu that retains the classic grub items that made HoJo's famous. Fried clams? Got 'em and they're "Tendersweet," just as you would expect. The ice cream? Still a treat. As the menu reminds us, it was Mr. Howard D. Johnson himself who decided to double the butterfat content of the ice cream to make it oh so good. He eventually whipped up 28 flavors, one of the many ingenius moves of a businessman who turned a Massachusetts drugstore he bought in 1925 into what was once the restaurant king of the highway.
The ambiance of this HoJo's isn't quite as intensely old school as the one in Times Square, or even the one we patronized as a child in Tarrytown, N.Y. But it still retains touches that make it clear you're not noshing at just any diner. One of the dining rooms, for example, has a large wall sculpture of Simple Simon and the Pie Man. Another room has an decades-old mural, a hand-painted map of the historical sites in the Lake George region. Helpfully, the map does include the Howard Johnson's, which may not have been historic at the time of the map's design, but certainly is today.
We were charmed by the decent people who work there. This restaurant is run by the DeSantis family, who once operated other Howard Johnson's franchises in the area. The hostess immediately noticed our avid curiosity, and indulged our questions and even offered us some memorabilia. And she also shared a newsy morsel: Of the three remaining HoJos on Earth, the one in Bangor, Maine, is for sale. Gulp. The other HoJo's we haven't mentioned is on the other side of the Adirondacks, in Lake Placid, and continues to go strong.
By the way, as an added incentive to visit Lake George, there is also a Howard Johnson's motel there. (The motels and hotels were long ago split from the restaurants, and remain a viable business.) This particular HoJo's has a must-be-seen-before-it's-gone Polynesian theme, complete with an Easter Island head out on the lawn and Polynesian shows in the evenings. So why haven't you booked a stay yet?
Finally, we'll resist the urge to close this post on wistful note, because HoJo's aficionados have reason to hope for a comeback. La Mancha Group, the company that now retains the rights to the Howard Johnson's restaurant trademarks, is said to be considering reviving the HoJo's chain. Click here to do your part to put the Pie Man back in the kitchen. Simple Simon will thank you.
-- Rolando Pujol