Today we’ll be looking back into the long lost past; a simpler time. Some would say, a better time; a time when roadside diners dominated. Of course we’re talking about Howard Johnson’s restaurants.
Now defunct, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were at one time a go-to for many road weary travelers, and yes, the chain started as just a restaurant and would eventually become a hotel chain as well.
Now, and as of just recently, the motels are still around, but the restaurants are sadly no more. Today we’ll be looking back to the wholesomeness these locations represented. A forgotten time indeed, and one that many would like back.
But things change. That’s the harsh reality of this here life, and sometimes the things we love, and may have taken for granted, are taken away from us and are never to return. If that sounds a tad gloomy and full of doom, I’m not ashamed to say it was indeed my intent.
And hey, this isn’t a this-generation-is-awful type of bashing editorial. Far from it, dear readers.
Change is necessary, but if there was a way for these new generations popping up with their new ideas to cherish the past and cherish what came before all while moving on—perhaps even keeping said old customs and even locations and businesses around—it would be kind of nice.
So here’s to good old nostalgia, and here’s to the old Howard Johnson’s restaurants
If you’ve read the wonderful and epic work of Jack Kerouac, you know he traveled the roads a lot. His most popular work, On the Road spoke of just that, a few trips he took across the beautiful United States.
For me, Howard Johnson’s, or rather what Howard Johnson’s used to be, is a reflection of that time and place, which for you young ones, was the fifties.
Hitchhiking across the States, riding with strangers, meeting new people, working in destinations you never imagined being in and writing it all down for future generations. That’s what it was all about.
Now while On the Road is about way more than the road itself, the places the characters in the book, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, found themselves in were enough to inspire a generation and beyond to hit the road as well and seek the meaning of life or even something a tad more profound if possible.
It was Jack himself who taught us that that meaning of life could be found in diners like Howard Johnson’s…the other weary travelers, the families loading kids into booths, the way a waitress tilted her head when she poured you a fresh cup of coffee, the way she smiled when you tipped her.
Life’s secrets can be found in such places, which in the end we discover that what we sought was under our noses the entire time we were off looking for answers.
A brief history of a no-longer–standing historical landmark
The chain would have been 100 years old if they would have held out until 2025, which of course would have been something. It was started by Howard Deering Johnson, a developer and businessman based out of Boston, Massachusetts.
According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the company would expand to also having room as a hotel operation. At the company’s height, there were over a whopping 1000 locations and according to the aforementioned source, the restaurant was the most popular eatery on the market at the time.
The company would see trouble as the height of the fast food nation was on the rise, restaurants like McDonalds and the like were far more popular with younger crowds and their unbeatable prices also swayed the public considerably.
It was in the late seventies that the company would be sold, and it wasn’t long before the restaurants slowly started to disappear one by one, their locations left to sit like ghosts on the side of the highway, abandoned or changed into something else entirely.
There was one in my native city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It was next to a gym I used to frequent. The restaurant itself closed quite some time ago, but the old location still serves as a hotel.
After the official closure of the chain occurred in 2022, I remember looking across the highway at the location, remembering the feel of the countertops and tabletops, the smell of the food cooking at the back, the waitresses, friendly and smiling, and I took a sip of my Gatorade, the sun pressing down on me, and I won’t say I shed a tear, but I did feel a pang of loss…yet another sign of a changing world, and this time, it had taken away something I had held dear but hadn’t thought about in a long time. I regretted not going more often.
The Culinary Institute of America of course knows the importance of what was considered top American cuisine and they have the old menu up at their site (link just above). To look at it is like looking through the pages of some old history book.
They offered Soup-N-Sandwich, which was split green pea soup with a tuna salad sandwich for 80 cents, Macaroni and Beef with coffee and a roll for 95 cents, one-quarter fried chicken served with fries and a salad for $1.15, even roast beef and beef stroganoff, the ever-famous Howard Johnson’s Grilled Frankforts, and the list goes on, and all at prices that today seem impossible.
The overall feel of the place
Walking into a Howard Johnson’s location during the early portion of the 2000s was like taking a trip back in time. What place offers that today? Not any this writer can think of.
There was a single restaurant under the Howard Johnson’s name that hung on for dear life at the end there—specifically the one in Lake George.
It actually publicly got the moniker as “The Last One Standing,” but was shrouded in controversy about the menu, which many argued wasn’t “authentic.” As stated above, it officially closed in 2022 after many attempts at restructuring.
Today many Howard Johnson’s hotels are peppered around the world and although they offer good service, it’s hard not to feel like something’s missing when you pull up. And just what is missing…?
Well, for starters, the glowing window of the restaurant, inviting and warm, and despite the cold you felt, you also felt a cozy blanket around your shoulders as you looked in on the diners…particularly the gent at the far window at the back of the restaurant, a rucksack beside him on the booth, drinking from a cup of coffee, munching on some meatloaf or even some franks and beans, staring out at the cold, maybe at you or even beyond you.
And although he wasn’t there and perhaps was only ever there in spirit, you saw him still and felt him. At least I did; every time.
“Out there somewhere a shrine for the old ones, the dust of the old bones, old songs and tales.”
What were some of your favorite Howard Johnson’s menu items, dear readers?