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Ketteract
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2017/07/23 11:56:31 (permalink)

The very last Howard Johnson's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout

Having impulsively set aside some well-deserved days off work, I then wondered what to do with all that time. With NYC, Boston, and the ocean just a short drive away, surely I had options, right?  Well, those three things would live on for many more years ... but the last remaining Howard Johnson's restaurant might not.

A bit of background from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia
In August 2014, the Lake George restaurant regained the Howard Johnson's name when the lease was transferred from its original owners, DeSantis Enterprises, to John Larock. The restaurant reopened January 10, 2015, briefly bringing the number of locations back up to three. On March 31, 2015 the Lake Placid, N.Y., Howard Johnson's closed, leaving only two locations remaining. Then in September 2016, the Bangor restaurant closed, leaving the Lake George restaurant the very last location remaining out of the original 1,000-plus. On January 25, 2017, the Lake George Howard Johnson's restaurant site's parcel of land went up for sale, questioning the future of the restaurant. At present, the Lake George, N.Y. location is the only remaining Howard Johnson's restaurant left.



As with the roadside burger and hot dog stands that I've been touring this summer, Howard Johnson's was not something that I personally grew up knowing.  These places reach out of the past, from long before I was born, to show me something new.  My enjoyment of good food is usually matched by feeling like some sort of cultural anthropologist.  It's different from the nostalgia that people a generation or two before might feel, but it's what's available to me... and who's to say that, given enough time - provided that enough of these places stick around - I wouldn't develop my own comfortable familiarity?  

Here's the Lake George location as it was in 1956...



...and here it is, as it was a few days ago.  Presumably, the redesign dates from the late '50s or '60s.



That orange roof and the design atop it - what clear beacons to motorists!  


 


On closer inspection, I could see that the weather vane sported Saturn at its base.  Space-age!  If the vane were oriented in the right way, you could see Simple Simon and the Pieman.


 
"Last One Standing."  That, plus the hats and shirts at the counter, elicited a little sadness.  They were the clearest indicators yet that this wasn't quite a time-capsule.  





On hand, there appeared to be two people, a server and John LaRock himself; in the cavernous space, there was only one table that was occupied, by, appropriately enough, a family.  I was shown past them to my own table.



One advantage to there being almost no one around was the freedom to snap pictures without seeming conspicuous.



In one article that I found, a seating capacity of 300 was asserted, and LaRock claimed to be "packed all day long" during the summer.  That wasn't what I saw, but I did go on a Thursday, in the middle of the afternoon.  Perhaps my experience would have been different at the height of the weekend.



Were I with a group, this is where I would have wanted to sit.



Here's the full menu, which I'm posting because it isn't anywhere online.



Some of the Yelp reviews complained about the prices, and for once, they didn't seem off-base.  Egg and cheese on a hard roll for $8.95?  With meat for $10.95?  You do get home fries, but.. I can't imagine that the prices back in the day would have been proportional to that.





Fried clams, but not Tendersweet-branded.  No chicken croquettes, but I expected that.







I wasn't able to confirm whether all twenty-eight flavors of ice cream were still available.  Twelve were named by signs on the wall near the front of the store.



The prime rib was tempting.  The sign outside advertised it for $19.95, as opposed to the regular menu prices of $26.95 or $29.95 for the "queen" or "king" sizes.  I didn't know when I would next be back here, though, so I knew what I had to get.



Frozen fries, which I'd bet is what they'd always served.



Some historical images for comparison.  As you can see, not the same type of bun, and the dog lacked the cuts.





That being said... this was actually very good, and it was all due to the buttered, toasted bun, wrong type or not.  



Remembering what Michael Hoffman said, I asked for a spicy brown mustard, instead of the yellow French's that was brought out with the meal.  My server wasn't sure if they had it, but she managed to find this.  It was fine.  And completely unused.



The salad bar was basic but solid.  It included some absolutely addictive rolls whose undersides were buttery-sweet.
 






I wouldn't have minded tearing into one of those pineapples.





I'd hoped to chat with Mr. LaRock a bit, but he was back in the kitchen chatting with the server.  While I ate, the family that had been there departed, and no one else came in.  



Honestly, I would be hard-pressed to give you an overall impression of the last HoJo's.  The meal was satisfying, pretty much what I expected, but portions of the experience felt... odd.  While I felt moments of time-travel here and there, the empty seats, the changed menu, and the visible attempts to cash in on their unique status were intrusions of the modern world.  I guess I'd say that if you lived through HoJo's glory days, it would be worth a stop - you might extract different feelings from the place than I did.

I had also discovered that I would not be staying there, because this was not, as I'd thought, both a restaurant and motor lodge.  What I'd booked turned out to be the Howard Johnson down the street, a crappy little hotel owned by the Wyndham Group.  That's what I got for not looking at the addresses more closely!  I wondered how many other careless vacationers had done the same thing.  It wasn't all bad, though, because it put me square in the middle of bustling, touristy Lake George, which I explored that night.







"There sure are a lot of slice joints around here," I thought to myself, before remembering that I was, in fact, in New York.  Upstate New York, but New York all the same.



That one's from Capri, noted by Wintahaba.  Exactly what one might expect from a late night slice.  Not the greatest, but it did the job.



From the imaginatively-named Slice.  Broccoli and ricotta on a white pie.  

And because I hadn't had enough to eat...





Most of the next day was spent dealing with a flat tire, a broken jack, and the nonsense that resulted.  



It was about 4:00 before I got the chance to have any food at all.



From Roberto's.  I'd say this was the best slice that I had there, though there were still one or two places that I hadn't tried.  That was my appetizer.  Needing to de-stress, I struck out for The Garrison - recommended by both Wintahaba, who described it as having been a popular hangout for the past 50 years, and my tow truck driver, a middle-aged fellow who said he had been going there for the past 30 years.  What more endorsement did I need?  

My journey there took the form of a long walk along scenic Beach Road, away from the lights and noise.





The Garrison was an almost stereotypical example of a local gem.  It's very, very separate from everything else, nestled up on a hill in a residential area.  If you're visiting, and just browsing around on foot, you won't go there unless someone tells you about it.



Ahhhh ....



This was what I wanted.



The crowd skewed a bit older, but not Fernwood-old; they were just older compared to the twenty-somethings all around downtown.  These were definitely locals, not tourists.  

Had a bowl of excellent mac and cheese to put a comfort-coat on an otherwise iffy day ...



... and there was some enjoyable live music.  I came in time to see these guys do decent renditions of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Free Bird".



What a wonderful recommendation.  If I lived near Lake George, I would undoubtedly come here all the time.  Different vibe than The Fernwood, but every bit as cozy.

So, there you have it: a weird pseudo-time-capsule, a kistchy but charming downtown full of New York pizza, and, to cap things, an old-school tavern.  Not bad for a day and a half, huh?
post edited by Ketteract - 2017/09/04 09:46:00
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    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 12:21:58 (permalink)
    Ketteract, Glad you had a good time....I felt the same way about the few times I would hit HO-JO's (I grew up on them up and down the East Coast) but would only go for Clam/Fish Fry AYCE. We loved the Garrison (Steamed Clams-I know you are not a seafood fan) but it had a welcome feel among the tourist spots. Back when we lived there (1997 ish) The Capri was about the only game in town...did a good job for a garlic laden pie to take back to our house in Bolton.
    #2
    mar52
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 12:36:03 (permalink)
    What a nice trip.  I'd stop at Howard Johnson's in a heartbeat if I could.
     
    I'm with Wintahaba.  It would have to be the clams!  I miss them so much.
    #3
    leethebard
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 13:10:44 (permalink)
    Great report. One point I noticed. If they really cared about keeping the tradition alive, how hard is it to get those New England style rolls to make the look complete? Do they still have Howard Johnson brand Ice cream. Doubt it!
    #4
    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 13:34:43 (permalink)
    leethebard
    Great report. One point I noticed. If they really cared about keeping the tradition alive, how hard is it to get those New England style rolls to make the look complete? Do they still have Howard Johnson brand Ice cream. Doubt it!


    When I lived up there in the late 90's I could not get the split tops for my Diner and HO JO's Ice cream has not been available for a good long time as the FAI stopped producing the food products.
    #5
    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 14:45:44 (permalink)
    From my collection, a way back machine HO JO's Favorite.

    #6
    leethebard
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 14:53:04 (permalink)
    Wintahaba
    From my collection, a way back machine HO JO's Favorite.




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    Ketteract
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 15:59:16 (permalink)
    Speaking of Howard Johnson's paraphernalia, here are some old menus.  It's fun to compare them with what I saw.  Their extensiveness makes clear just how serious an operation HoJo's was at its height.




     






    I especially like this drink list.  Can you guess its vintage, based on the kinds of drinks offered?



    (Note the emphasis on bonded whiskeys - a legal designation that I think is still worthwhile.)

    Oh, and Wintahaba, I can't thank you enough for the Garrison recommendation.  That place was an absolute delight.
    post edited by Ketteract - 2017/07/23 16:00:52
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    leethebard
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 17:47:44 (permalink)
    Those menus were fun. Great choices!! 
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    Twinwillow
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/23 19:34:42 (permalink)
    Love the old menus. Ahhh, better times.
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    ScreamingChicken
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/24 10:04:51 (permalink)
    Ketteract
    I especially like this drink list.  Can you guess its vintage, based on the kinds of drinks offered?


    That's an interesting illustration for the drink list...maybe that particular HoJo was in Wisconsin.
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    ScreamingChicken
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/24 10:04:51 (permalink)
    Ketteract
    I especially like this drink list.  Can you guess its vintage, based on the kinds of drinks offered?


    That's an interesting illustration for the drink list...maybe that particular HoJo was in Wisconsin.
    #12
    hatteras04
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/24 10:41:48 (permalink)
    I always chuckle to myself when I see the HoJo love on here.  My family went there exactly one time on a road trip.  It must have been the early 80s and I have no idea where we were.  It became the family joke as the single worst meal we ever had together.  I remember getting the turkey dinner and the mashed potatoes were very thin and watery and the turkey was rubber.  My dad got the fried chicken and the pieces appeared to come from a baby bird.  It actually looked like the had taken a wing and cut the drummie of and passed it off as a drumstick.  For years that was our benchmark of a horrible meal.  Maybe we should have given it another chance but there was just never a time when anyone had any desire to try it again.
     
    Of course none of us got the hot dogs or the clams so it was probably just bad ordering on our part. 
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    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/24 11:05:32 (permalink)
    The 80's were past Ho Jo's time in the sun..they were THE largest restaurant chain in America in the 50's, 60's and early 70's..after HDJ died in 1972 thing started unraveling, even after spinning off the slightly upscale THE RED COACH GRILL and the successful GROUND ROUND. Classic tale of the offspring not sharing the same drive and focus and passion.
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    Ketteract
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/25 11:56:42 (permalink)
    Yeah, and make no mistake, what I went to last week was (in the opinion of someone that wasn't alive to actually see HoJo's better days) merely a remnant.  There were glimpses of how things used to be, but even before they dwindled to one last outpost, the experience had already been eroding for years.
     
    I do have to admire Mr. LaRock's will, though - it really is just because of him that the place is open at all, and he's clearly made some effort to replicate the core concepts of HoJo's, improper hot dog buns notwithstanding.  
    #15
    Greymo
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/25 16:40:54 (permalink)
    Ketteract
    Yeah, and make no mistake, what I went to last week was (in the opinion of someone that wasn't alive to actually see HoJo's better days) merely a remnant.  There were glimpses of how things used to be, but even before they dwindled to one last outpost, the experience had already been eroding for years.
     
    I do have to admire Mr. LaRock's will, though - it really is just because of him that the place is open at all, and he's clearly made some effort to replicate the core concepts of HoJo's, improper hot dog buns notwithstanding.  


    I agree with everything you said!  Back in it's  day it was great and I wish those days were here again.  They were heads and shoulders above the chains of today.
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    agnesrob
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/07/30 16:03:47 (permalink)
    Thank you for sharing your port Ketteract!  I have many nice memories of eating at Howard Johnson's as a child! Those old menu's are fun to look at! I remember the kids menu so clearly! 
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    RoadieHungry
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/08 23:16:02 (permalink)
    Nice trip report. That seems like a great place to visit
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    RodBangkok
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/08 23:21:19 (permalink)
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    leethebard
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/09 07:00:53 (permalink)
    Very interesting video. Thanks so much for posting. I miss Howard Johnson's!
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    Ketteract
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/09 08:40:00 (permalink)
    RodBangkok
    From the BBC earlier today:
     
    http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-40866112/last-orders-for-an-american-roadside-legend
     
     




    At least it seems like LaRock is being honest about the restaurant's prospects - "40/60" on whether they stay open or not for another year.  I'd been thinking about coming back every year for as long as they were around, trying different parts of the menu.  I was interested in that prime rib.
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    billyboy
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/22 12:01:29 (permalink)
    Ketteract, thanks for a great write-up.  I was driving by there on my way to the Lake Placid area a few weeks ago and decided not to stop in based on your report.  I had been to a few HoJos when I was a kid and remembered liking the experience.  Living in NYC, I almost gasped at the $8.95 prior tag for a grilled hard roll with egg & cheese.  I live right next to the Financial District in NYC and none of the delis would even try that funny business!  
     
    We did end up eating at the bar/restaurant called the 'dack SHACK in Lake Placid that is the site of the former Howard Johnson's and they even had HoJo's fried clam roll join the menu.  
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    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/22 12:41:47 (permalink)
    billyboy
    Ketteract, thanks for a great write-up.  I was driving by there on my way to the Lake Placid area a few weeks ago and decided not to stop in based on your report.  I had been to a few HoJos when I was a kid and remembered liking the experience.  Living in NYC, I almost gasped at the $8.95 prior tag for a grilled hard roll with egg & cheese.  I live right next to the Financial District in NYC and none of the delis would even try that funny business!  
     
    We did end up eating at the bar/restaurant called the 'dack SHACK in Lake Placid that is the site of the former Howard Johnson's and they even had HoJo's fried clam roll join the menu.  


    Yes, The was one of the LAST THREE-Lake Placid/Bangor/Lake George...I had been to them all prior to just one. Although growing up, Darien CT was our preferred Ho Jo's...from our summer trips back to Maine from VA...18 times!
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    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/22 12:48:34 (permalink)
    Lake Placid early 60's Postcard....oh, better days...sigh.

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    Ketteract
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/22 17:02:33 (permalink)
    billyboy
    Ketteract, thanks for a great write-up.  I was driving by there on my way to the Lake Placid area a few weeks ago and decided not to stop in based on your report.  I had been to a few HoJos when I was a kid and remembered liking the experience.  Living in NYC, I almost gasped at the $8.95 prior tag for a grilled hard roll with egg & cheese.  I live right next to the Financial District in NYC and none of the delis would even try that funny business! 

     
    I almost wish you had stopped, if only to add another Roadfooder's impression - particularly that of someone that actually grew up with the place.  I didn't have any real problem with my lunch there, but as a restaurant experience, it was a decidedly odd mixture of an attempt at nostalgia and the limitations of one man's efforts.  If, say, a large group of people came to me and asked, I would be torn between advising them to steer clear of what may or may not amount to good dining... and just wanting to see what the heck would happen.

    I can only assume that the high prices are to help with operational costs and/or an attempt to take advantage of the original clientele's monetary reserves.
     
     
    billyboy
    We did end up eating at the bar/restaurant called the 'dack SHACK in Lake Placid that is the site of the former Howard Johnson's and they even had HoJo's fried clam roll join the menu.  




    Well, look at that!
     

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    Michael Hoffman
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/22 22:16:03 (permalink)
    Wintahaba
    billyboy
    Ketteract, thanks for a great write-up.  I was driving by there on my way to the Lake Placid area a few weeks ago and decided not to stop in based on your report.  I had been to a few HoJos when I was a kid and remembered liking the experience.  Living in NYC, I almost gasped at the $8.95 prior tag for a grilled hard roll with egg & cheese.  I live right next to the Financial District in NYC and none of the delis would even try that funny business!  
     
    We did end up eating at the bar/restaurant called the 'dack SHACK in Lake Placid that is the site of the former Howard Johnson's and they even had HoJo's fried clam roll join the menu.  


    Yes, The was one of the LAST THREE-Lake Placid/Bangor/Lake George...I had been to them all prior to just one. Although growing up, Darien CT was our preferred Ho Jo's...from our summer trips back to Maine from VA...18 times!


    You should have held out for 25 or so more milrs for the Howard Johnson's on the Boston Post Road in Milford. It was much nicer than the one in Darien.
    #26
    Michael Hoffman
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/22 22:16:03 (permalink)
    Wintahaba
    billyboy
    Ketteract, thanks for a great write-up.  I was driving by there on my way to the Lake Placid area a few weeks ago and decided not to stop in based on your report.  I had been to a few HoJos when I was a kid and remembered liking the experience.  Living in NYC, I almost gasped at the $8.95 prior tag for a grilled hard roll with egg & cheese.  I live right next to the Financial District in NYC and none of the delis would even try that funny business!  
     
    We did end up eating at the bar/restaurant called the 'dack SHACK in Lake Placid that is the site of the former Howard Johnson's and they even had HoJo's fried clam roll join the menu.  


    Yes, The was one of the LAST THREE-Lake Placid/Bangor/Lake George...I had been to them all prior to just one. Although growing up, Darien CT was our preferred Ho Jo's...from our summer trips back to Maine from VA...18 times!


    You should have held out for 25 or so more milrs for the Howard Johnson's on the Boston Post Road in Milford. It was much nicer than the one in Darien.
    #27
    Wintahaba
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/23 10:15:01 (permalink)
    Michael Hoffman
    Wintahaba
    billyboy
    Ketteract, thanks for a great write-up.  I was driving by there on my way to the Lake Placid area a few weeks ago and decided not to stop in based on your report.  I had been to a few HoJos when I was a kid and remembered liking the experience.  Living in NYC, I almost gasped at the $8.95 prior tag for a grilled hard roll with egg & cheese.  I live right next to the Financial District in NYC and none of the delis would even try that funny business!  
     
    We did end up eating at the bar/restaurant called the 'dack SHACK in Lake Placid that is the site of the former Howard Johnson's and they even had HoJo's fried clam roll join the menu.  


    Yes, The was one of the LAST THREE-Lake Placid/Bangor/Lake George...I had been to them all prior to just one. Although growing up, Darien CT was our preferred Ho Jo's...from our summer trips back to Maine from VA...18 times!


    You should have held out for 25 or so more milrs for the Howard Johnson's on the Boston Post Road in Milford. It was much nicer than the one in Darien.


    My Dad, the Military man, held tight to his schedule...year in/year out. 
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    stanpnepa
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/29 18:27:58 (permalink)
    Some great memories.   We saw so many Ho Jo's on our New England vacations back in the 70's and early 80's.  It wasn't a must stop each trip - but we did sometimes - for breakfast, mostly.    The nearby Ho Jo's for us was just off Interstate 81 (and the PA Turnpike - Route 9 - now 476) in Pittston, PA.   On hot summer nights, Dad would feel like Ice Cream at Midnight --- and off we'd go.   Seriously.  
    #29
    NYPIzzaNut
    Filet Mignon
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    Re: The very last HoJo's, NY pizza, and a cozy local hangout 2017/08/30 10:36:46 (permalink)
    Our family went to the one on Central Avenue in Yonkers every Friday in the 1950s - my dad loved their fried clams - my favorite was their pistachio  ice cream !!
    #30
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