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
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.
. 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.
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