I am sometimes more fascinated by the history of chain restaurants in this country than the restaurants themselves. One exception to that is Howard Johnson’s. When I was a kid, the Howard Johnson’s chain was the epitome of high-class dining (maybe because I was a low-class kid). So it was with a certain amount of sadness last week that I noticed the closing of the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Lake George, NY. While there are still Howard Johnson hotels around (remember when they called them the duded-up “Motor Lodge,” in an attempt to separate themselves from the lower class motel?), the HoJo name is pretty much dead.
But it was a big deal to me when I was a kid. It meant vacation, first and foremost. There weren’t any in my tiny hometown in Coal Country in northeastern Pennsylvania, Tamaqua, but I believe there was one in nearby Allentown that we may or may not have eaten at. When we were on vacation, I was used to going to cafeterias and diners. At that age you really have no say in the matter; you’re just dragged along. But Howard Johnson’s, with their shining orange roofs and blue accent paint, were glimpses into a bit of a different world, I felt.
Family legend has it that I first ordered my own food in a restaurant at a Howard Johnson’s just outside of Asbury Park, NJ, a Jersey Shore resort town where we vacationed when I was really young, between ages 2-7. That order was lima beans and mashed potatoes, so the memory is a little suspect. I HATE lima beans (except when they’re in a tangy barbecue sauce and masquerade as some kind of baked beans on steroids). I also doubt I would speak up to a waitress at that early age (pre-kindergarten), since I was a pretty shy kid.
I think Asbury Park was the first place I discovered Howard Johnson’s. In addition to the one just outside of town (off a traffic circle, as I recall, another new “innovation” discovered on vacation; I still don’t understand the benefits of traffic circles, but then again, I’m not an urban planner). One year we came back to Asbury Park and there was a HoJo’s right on the Boardwalk, down on the Convention Hall end. It was an odd, round building, with a ramp on the outside. I don’t recall ever eating there; in Asbury Park we had a particular restaurant we went to, off the Boardwalk. (I want to say it was called Michael’s, but I’m not sure.)
The building is still there, complete with its funky architecture; it’s now called The Robinson Ale House. It’s nice to see Asbury Park having a resurgence, after so many years of being down.
When we started going to Atlantic City in 1964, there was a Howard Johnson’s there, too, part of a big motel near the Boardwalk. And once again, one year when we came back, the motel was replaced with a tower-like hotel, one of the last hotels to be built before the gaming industry took over A.C. I remember one summer running into a classmate who I had a huge crush on and they were staying at the HoJo’s hotel. I was immediately envious.
Howard Johnson’s always seemed to be a bit out of my reach, if not my class. My parents were pretty thrifty when we went on vacation and HoJo’s seemed to be a little out of their comfort zone for dinners and such. We occasionally went to one as a special treat. I remember they always had their own kiddie things: paper hats, place mats with games or coloring on them, and—best of all—Children’s Menus! The kiddie menus were like little comic books with games, stories, puzzles, and a special menu in the centerfold. The ones I’ve seen were by DC and Fawcett comics great Kurt Schaffenberger (most famous for his Captain Marvel and Lois Lane stories).
Some of the great Howard Johnson’s graphics, including what I believe was a brochure (left), a menu cover (middle), and their Fun Book, a combination of stories, puzzles, comics, and menus for kids. The cover and interior illos to #13 are by comic artist Kurt Schaffenberger.
Howard Johnson’s was a staple for me in New York City when my brother and I were going to Phil Seuling’s Comic Art Conventions in the 1970s. For a while that con was held around Fourth of July at the Hotel Commodore, a monolithic building above Grand Central Station on 42nd Street. Directly across the street from it was a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, tucked into the ground floor of an equally monolithic office building, the Chanin Building, which was at the corner of 42nd and Lexington, right near where the overpass goes over 42nd (The Commodore is now a Hyatt). My brother and I would escape over there for dinner at night, after the con closed for the day. One time I had gone on my own to see some panels, and one of them was with the writer Steve Gerber, who was riding high at that point on Howard the Duck, which I enjoyed a great deal. At dinner, my brother asked me how I liked the panel and I told him not so much. Gerber had decided to sit on the panel table instead of behind it and I felt that and the way he answered some of the audience questions were … well, I believe the words “pompous” and “ass” might have been mentioned and at that point, I turned to my right to see Gerber and his dinner date staring witheringly at me from the table next to us. HoJoOhNo.
There was one place you just couldn’t escape Howard Johnson’s and that was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. For many years, HoJo’s had the exclusive license for all the rest stops on this legendary tollroad. In fact, Howard Johnson himself (yes, he was a real person) bid on the exclusive rights to all the rest stops on the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey Turnpikes. Driving back and forth on the PA Turnpike, it was HoJo’s or nothing: If you wanted something else (like the giant bus stop plaza in Breezewood), you had to pay the toll to get off and then get back on. The HoJo buildings looked more like historic houses, made of fieldstone, not the familiar orange-roofed trademarks of the Howard Johnson chain (the only orange was in the Gulf gas station logos, the official fuel stops of the PA Turnpike, located right next to the HoJo’s). HoJo’s monopoly on the PA turnpike lasted from 1940, when the tollroad first opened, until 1978. The buildings remained but the food being served inside varied. I remember there being Burger Kings for a while when I was driving back and forth on the Turnpike a lot in the 1990s.
Howard Johnson’s Children’s Menu from Fun Book #13. I’ll have anything but the “Small Fry,” please. The “Humpty Dumpty” also reeks of long car ride back seat disasters.
I don’t know exactly what attracted me so to the Howard Johnson’s restaurants. Maybe it was the special stuff they did for kids, maybe it was the food. I remember being particularly enamored with their hamburgers, mainly because they grilled their buns and they were warm and toasty. I was not a big ice cream kid (nor am I as an adult), and HoJo’s was first and foremost famous for their ice cream flavors, 28 of them to be exact … in fact, they were Baskin & Robbins before B&R even existed. They were also famous for fried clams, something else I never got into (clams are too … chewy), and that comes from their original spot in Quincy, MA, just south of Boston. (The thought of clams and ice cream in the same meal makes me a little queasy). HoJo’s also got a bit highfalutin with their treatment of the lowly hot dog, calling them “Special Frankforts.” I vaguely recall eating one, served within a toasted bun that seemed more like a folded piece of bread. They were grilled in butter, which certainly made them different. And I think they may have been accompanied with baked beans in a little ceramic pot.
There is a great book on the Howard Johnson’s chain called A History of Howard Johnson’s: How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon. It’s by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, and was published by The History Press as part of their American Palate imprint in 2013. It’s well-illustrated, mainly in black and white with a 16-page color section, and even includes some classic HoJo recipes, including those “Special Frankforts;” no fried clams though. It also has a wonderful cover, utilizing a great piece of Howard Johnson’s advertising and their classic logo type. I don’t know who at HoJo’s decided on the orange and blue color scheme, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re a genius.
Howard Johnson’s was one of the first well-known restaurant chains and maintains a huge hunk of nostalgia for many people, not just me. It’s sad to see them be totally gone. I had a beautiful vintage menu from one of their restaurants that I sadly cannot find right now … I have no idea where it disappeared to, but somehow it seems fitting at this point in time, that it’s gone—like the restaurants—with the wind, just another part of the vanishing American landscape.
The Howard Johnson’s motel—excuse me, MOTOR LODGE—in Atlantic City, NJ in the mid-1960s. It was replaced (I think) with a high-rise hotel bearing the corporate name. A “Howard Johnson’s by Wyndham” hotel still exists in AC, but I’m uncertain if it’s on this site.