Howard Johnson’s (Lake George, NY)

Okay, I can see most of my readers already scratching your heads, asking “Howard Johnson?! Did Rich fire up the Offbeat Eats time machine?” In a way, we did, with our annual trip to Lake George, NY. Lake George is a bit of an odd place: as primarily a summertime getaway for the Northeast, it maintains a little protective bubble where the ravages of time and America’s changing tastes and economic factors are buffered: there’s an old-school, 1960s era Tiki-themed Polynesian Resort, a still (seasonally) open A&W Root Beer stand, various “Trading Posts” and many mini-golf courses… and the very last remaining Howard Johnson restaurant. Actually, the vibe is a bit less “protective bubble” and more “they didn’t get the memo”, but yes, the Lake George HoJo soldiers on.

One of the reasons that this Howard Johnson survives is “nostalgia”. Indeed, most of my early childhood vacations involve piling in the family Blazer and driving large distances across the country, with my childhood self asking the immortal question: “Will this night’s motel stay be in a Howard Johnson or a Holiday Inn?” More than a few meals on these cross-country trips involved hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and the occasional ice cream chosen from the famous list of 28 flavors. But as the ’70s transitioned to the ’80s, Howard Johnson’s fortunes waned, the restaurant side of Howard Johnson spun off from the hotel chain, and the restaurants started to fade into America’s memory. When we moved to Northern New England (itself a bit of a time capsule when it comes to old brands) Howard Johnson was already near the end of its run, with only a handful of locations left open, including Springfield, VT, Lake George NY, Asbury Park NJ (where Anthony Bourdain ate in one of the very first No Reservations), Times Square (which I visited in ’97), and a few other locations scattered around the Northeast. But in 2005 the owner closed down operations. With it, all but three of the restaurants closed, leaving Lake George and Lake Placid, NY, and Bangor, ME, operating using the brand due to existing contractual arrangements (but no longer having access to the central commissary and supplies), and Lake George even closed for a while before reopening. In 2015, Lake Placid and Bangor closed, leaving Lake George’s HoJo the singular remaining restaurant.

Stepping inside, the feeling of entering a protective time bubble remains, although the illusion certain weakens around the edges. Walking in, they still run the ice cream counter whose 28 flavors made Howard Johnson famous, but the Howard Johnson brand ice cream and sherbet are now replaced by Gifford’s ice cream, and that list of 28 flavors has narrowed to a mere 7 on a good day. The restaurant remained busy, almost ponderously so, since the post-pandemic restaurant was definitely suffering from the staff shortages common across the industry, but with a brief apology for the wait, we got seated down by the salad bar (closed, at least while the pandemic lingers) near the former lounge area.

The lounge bar was also a curious relic, with the taps being Coors Light, Killian’s, and three different flavors of…. Inglenook Wine! It’s been a loooong time since I’ve seen that brand, and I’m not even sure if the taps still work (being a breakfast visit, I wasn’t about to try and order to find out!).

Menu-wise, the illusion of an earlier era takes another slight hit. Another thing that Howard Johnson’s was famous for back in the day was their commissary system, where they’d prep and package food to send it out to the restaurants, offering, for the time, a well-regarded consistency and quality across the brand. Obviously, that commissary system went away way back in 2005 when only a few HoJos were left, leaving them to fend for themselves with the Sysco truck. As a result, I’d call the current menu more “Howard Johnson Inspired”, although the basics are all there (steak dinners, clam strips, etc). Indeed, for those fans of culinary history, Howard Johnson’s was the original server of both fried clam strips (although diehard Yanks will still insist on belly clams) and the New England hot dog bun (make by JJ Nissen for Howard Johnson’s so that clam, lobster, and hot dogs would sit upright for service).

Being breakfast, I opted for a classic steak and eggs, and despite the restaurant staff being swamped, my breakfast was completed promptly, cooked properly, decent eggs not overcooked, and well-crisped homefires. All things considered, quite a reasonable breakfast; one of the better options to be had in downtown Lake George.

Carol, meanwhile, opted for The Lumberjack. I’m not sure any item by this name was ever on a true Howard Johnson menu, this being more a version of a Denny’s Grand Slam: two eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and toast; this was indeed a large and satisfying breakfast. Nothing fancy here, but everything was well-prepared and tasty, although the calorie (and sodium) count for this spread is probably something I shouldn’t dwell on.

Realistically, the primary attraction at Lake George’s Howard Johnson is nostalgia: visiting here is a blast from the past. They’ve obviously got some challenges keeping this old orange-roofed queen running well past the demise of the rest of the chain, and, like the abandoned water park across the street, the place truly has seen better days. But the food is decent, the prices reasonable, and yes, it does hearken to those childhood road trips. If you want a little slice of mostly-intact Americana, you should check this place out while it’s still around.

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