RichardDaub.com, September 2021
“Kids,” Bert said, slowing the Rav4 to turn into the parking lot, “this is the last standalone Howard Johnson’s restaurant in America—’standalone’ meaning restaurant only, and not affiliated with one of the hotels. Yep, this is the very last house, as ol’ Howard used to call them during his cross-country inspection tours. He was big on ice cream. He even had a freezer in his limo for it. I think he had a mistress with him too. Wait, driver, this isn’t the Howard Johnson’s. Oh, sir, but it is, it is. I’m so hungry, I can eat at a Howard Johnson’s. Hah!”
His wife did not respond, nor did their two sons in the back seat, ages twelve and seven.
It was the last day of the vacation, the last dinner. They were staying up in Bolton Landing and had driven through downtown Lake George to get here, passing a hundred other restaurants along the way.
“In the 1960s and ’70s,” he continued, “there were over a thousand standalone Howard Johnson’s restaurants. Now this is the very last one in the world.”
He looked at his kids in the rearview mirror. Nothing.
“Rachael Ray used to work at this very Howard Johnson’s,” he said to Eunice, pulling into a space in the middle of the near-empty parking lot, far from the only other vehicle, a rusted F-150. In front of the entrance, an overweight, middle-aged woman was sitting on the curb smoking a cigarette.
“Yep. She grew up in Lake George. Her mother used to manage the place. She used to help set up the salad bar and scoop the ice cream. She was short and had trouble reaching the bottom of the buckets in the ice cream case, so, when they were almost empty, she had to lean all the way in with her feet in the air, and her apron would get smeared with ice cream. She was known as ‘Ice Cream Boobs’.”
“How do you know all this? You hate cooking, and hate cooking shows even more.”
“She listens to vinyl and doesn’t have children. She writes her own recipes longhand, and she really does love to cook.”
“She seems a little perky for you.”
“I like perky. Sometimes.”
“I’m not perky.”
“I like you better than perky.”
She took his picture in front of the big Howard Johnson’s sign overlooking Route 9, then in front of the orange roof with the baby blue spire and rooster weather vane. The kids refused to be in the photos.
The woman on the curb stood when they started walking towards the entrance.
“Evening, folks,” she said, tossing her cigarette away, then turning and coughing, sounding as if emphysema had already set in. Several of her teeth were missing, and the ones left were yellow and tarred at the gums.
“Hello,” Bert said. “How are you this evening?”
“Fine, fine, thank you. You folks here for supper?”
“You bet,” Bert said. “We’re starving.”
Eunice looked at Bert.
“Well, come on in, then. I’m the manager, by the way.”
They followed her wake of cigarette smell into the restaurant.
“I don’t think she’s Rachael Ray’s mother,” Bert whispered to Eunice.
Inside, the manager retrieved four menus from the hosting station.
“Would you like a booth or a table?” she asked.
They were the only ones there, and it was a big place, many booths and tables, a long counter, and a spillover room blocked off with velvet ropes.
“A booth would be fantastic,” Bert said.
She seated them at a booth overlooking Water Slide World across the street and said she would be back in a few minutes to take their orders. Next to them was the fully stocked salad bar and large dessert table stacked with cakes, pies, brownies, Rice Krispies Treats, and giant M&M cookies.
“As someone who used to be a buyer in the foodservice industry,” Bert said, scanning the oversized menu sealed in heavy plastic, “I find it alarming at how much food they need on premises to support such a robust menu. Swordfish? Really? Is it fresh from the lake?”
“I’m not ordering seafood,” Eunice said, “or dessert. And maybe not any food.”
“Probably wise to keep it simple.”
“Do we have to eat here?” asked Steven, the seven-year old, voice quivering.
“Yes,” Bert said. “This is living history. Or dying history. Look around. This is probably our very last chance ever to eat at a Howard Johnson’s before they go extinct. You boys will remember this meal for the rest of your lives.”
“Do they have peanut butter and jelly?” asked Thomas, the twelve-year old.
“We can ask,” Bert said. “If not, I’m sure they can do plain pasta with butter.”
“Are you doing the salad bar?” Eunice asked Bert.
“No, I’m going to stay as far away from the salad bar as possible. I’m also beginning to suspect that the food on the dessert table is fake and glued together like at cookbook photo shoots. Maybe they just want to make people hungry for dessert.”
“It’s having the opposite effect on me.”
“Why are we the only ones here?” Thomas asked.
“Maybe it’s a late crowd,” Bert said.
“It’s six o’clock,” Eunice said. “There should be at least a few people here.”
“It’s still light out. Maybe everyone’s still down at Six Flags or at the Magic Forest, and then there’ll be a rush.”
He looked around.
“You’re right,” he said. “There should be other people here. This place definitely would have been packed back in the day when Howard was still going around on his inspection tours. People pulling in from Storytown all sunburned and disoriented after a full day of breathing fumes from diesel-powered kiddie rides. Hey, over there, that must be the ice cream case Rachael Ray used to fall into.”
The manager came back and took their orders. Bert ordered the grilled chicken sandwich, no lettuce, and a Diet Coke. Eunice ordered French fries and water. Both kids ordered strawberry pancakes and Sprite.
“This is so sad,” Bert said after the manager had gone away.
“Disappointed?” Eunice asked.
“Sure. This place is historic. These places used to be everywhere. Iconic Americana. There was even a Mad Men episode where Don Draper went to a Howard Johnson’s.”
“I remember that one. But I think he roomed there, so it wasn’t a standalone.”
“I think when Howard’s mistress died, he had her head frozen like Ted Williams, and then he kept it in the limo freezer with the ice cream. Or maybe it was Howard who died and the mistress took over the company and rode around with his head in the freezer.”
“Really?” Thomas asked.
“I think so. Poor HoJo. His legacy in ruins. He’d be rolling in his grave if he saw this place. Or his head would be bouncing around in the freezer. Current management is putting in zero effort. If Rachael Ray was in charge, this place would be packed.”
“Of course it would. She’s really famous now.”
“It would be packed even if she wasn’t famous.”
The food arrived in under five minutes. Someone from the kitchen helped the manager bring the trays to the booth. The portions were huge and the plates covered the entire table.
“So sad,” Bert said, removing the lettuce from his chicken sandwich.
Less than a quarter of the food was eaten. The manager offered the boys free M&M cookies, but they declined. Steven started crying.
Eunice signed the credit card slip and tipped 20%. In fourteen years of marriage, Bert had never seen her tip over 15%. They slid out of the booth and the kids followed their mother to the door, while Bert pulled out his wallet and dropped a twenty on the table next to the credit card slip. He then headed over to the ice cream case, only to find it unplugged, but he looked in anyway and it was empty. ▪