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LET’S CELEBRATE ORANGE roofs, fried clams, onion rings and developing one’s 1950s avatar. These first three clues may be a giveaway that I’m referring to Howard Johnson’s restaurants. The avatar developed back then was my own.
This subject was prompted by a new book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, by Paul Freedman, Liveright, 2016.
Here, I respect the diligence of author Paul Freedman, a Yale history professor with two previous related books: Food, The History of Taste and Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Freedman’s ten restaurants are Delmonico’s, Antoine’s, Schrafft’s, Mamma Leone’s, Howard Johnson’s, Le Pavillon, The Four Seasons, The Mandarin, Sylvia’s and Chez Panisse.
It was when I realized that six of the ten restaurants were in New York City that I confess the book seemed perhaps a bit myopic for my tastes. (“What’s to travel? I go somewhere, I take a cab.”)
So, perhaps with a different sort of myopia, I opt instead to focus on Howard Johnson’s, a Freedman choice that helped shape my life and the only one in which I’ve actually dined. Indeed, repeatedly and in different parts of the country.
I found a fascinating source of information on HoJo’s at The Milton Historical Society, of Milton, Massachusetts. Among the Society’s other Miltoniana, there’s a 1938 article titled ”The Story of Howard Johnson’s.”
The article’s author is Howard Dearing Johnson, who began it modestly, “If this brief biography seems to bear heavily on the capital letter ‘I,’ my defense is that the history of the Howard Johnson’s Restaurants is my own history. Their beginning was mine; their reputation was mine to preserve.”
Howard Johnson began with a hand-cranked ice cream machine in 1925. His shop in Wollaston, Massachusetts, a south Boston suburb, did a great business, in part because its ice creams were especially rich in butter fat. His concession stands at the summer shore did fine too, their special Howard Johnson Frankfurter grilled in butter.
The first Howard Johnson’s sit-down restaurant opened in neighboring Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1928. Its menu featured ice cream, frankfurters, baked beans, chicken pot pies and fried clams.
In 1929, prudence gave the restaurant a significant boost. Eugene O’Neill’s play, Strange Interlude was prohibited by Boston Mayor Malcolm Nichols, and the Theatre Guild moved its production to Quincy. Strange Interlude has a complex plot that includes illegitimacy, abortion and madness.
What’s more, in its uncut version, the play is five hours long, typically scheduled with a dinner break at an intermission. It’s said hundreds of influential Bostonians flocked to Howard Johnson’s restaurant during the play’s run. The publicity made Howard Johnson a familiar name to more Americans.
Johnson later predicted a cultural phenomenon that was to enhance his business. In 1938, he wrote, “Day after day more automobiles hurried along the highways, and more highways were built to accommodate them. America was on wheels, driving farther, stopping more often to eat away from home, away from the cities and their downtown restaurants.”
By 1939, there were 107 Howard Johnson restaurants, predominately in New England. Then came the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940, with which Howard Johnson’s got an exclusive restaurant deal. The company flourished briefly, though food rationing and restricted travel during World War II closed all but 12 of its locations.
A post-war boom brought 200 more restaurants and exclusive deals with the New Jersey Turnpike (1951) and Ohio Turnpike (1955). The first of many Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodges opened in 1954.
The chain had its peak in the 1970s, with more than 1000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges in the U.S. and Canada. The motor lodges folded into other hotel conglomerates. Only a single restaurant remains, in Lake George, New York.
However, in the late 1950s, a high school kid in Cleveland started hanging out at the HoJo’s located on the fringe of University Circle, home to Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University.
From 1958 on, I had use of the family’s ’55 Ford Sunliner convertible and was seeking somewhere to be cool. There was no better place than HoJo’s, with what I perceived at the time as a very sophisticated menu (and plenty of WRU co-eds).
This was when I started wearing horn rim glasses, smoking a pipe and dining on fried clams and onion rings. I still wear the glasses.
Thanks, HoJo’s. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016