We are sad to report that the Bangor Howard Johnson’s restaurant closed its doors in September 2016. The following is a look back at our 2015 visit.
At one time, New England-born Howard Johnson’s was the largest restaurant chain in the country, with more than 1,000 locations. In the summer of 2015, however, the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant in New England, and one of just two left in the country, was operating on borrowed time in Bangor, Maine. Unable to resist experiencing this cultural icon for myself, I decided to make the drive to Bangor last week for lunch. Here’s a recap of my visit, with an update on the restaurant’s fate at the bottom of the post.
Like so many other good things, Howard Johnson’s restaurant got its start right here in New England. They even advertised in Yankee Magazine during the 1940s.
So how did it all begin? In 1925, Howard Deering Johnson started his first soda fountain in the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy, Massachusetts, with a focus on making superior ice cream. He had two stores when the stock market crashed in 1929, but he managed to hang onto them, and even added his name and products to a dairy bar on Cape Cod, which became very popular. By the 1930’s he had introduced the “Simple Simon and the Pieman” logo, and by 1935, there were 25 Howard Johnson’s ice cream stands in Massachusetts, with more expansion in the works.
Quality and homemade taste were important to Johnson, and no doubt contributed to the brand’s steady success. In the automobile-fueled post-war years, Johnson was poised and ready to deliver friendly service to an American public that was desperate for a little fun and adventure. This included expanding to new states, opening restaurants on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes, and adding hotels.
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The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for Howard Johnson’s, the restaurant/hotel with the orange roof, but by the end of the 1970s, competition from fast food chains like McDonald’s and climbing oil prices, which cut back on the old-fashioned American family road trip, would signal the beginning of the end. In the mid-1980s, the company underwent a series of changes, buyouts, and downsizing, and the restaurants and hotels were split into separate franchises. Today, the Wyndham Hotel Group has rights to the Howard Johnson name that’s still emblazoned on more than 400 Howard Johnson hotels. The restaurants, as I’ve said, are another story. Bangor is one of two left. The other is a freestanding restaurant in Lake George, NY. A third in Lake Placid, NY, closed in March, 2015.
But let’s get back to Bangor, shall we?
The Bangor HoJo’s first opened in 1966, located immediately off Route 95 in Bangor, about 130 miles north of Portland. Today it’s both a Howard Johnson Inn and a restaurant (and lounge).
A mid-century cultural institution, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain in particular has a special spot in the memories of many Baby Boomers. My mother remembers going to a HoJo’s for the first time in the early 60’s. It was the end of the school year, she was with her Brownie troop, and was excited to sit at the counter and order an ice cream. She chose pistachio. “I’d never had it before” she told me. “I think I ordered it because it was such a pretty color.”
My boss, editor Mel Allen, also has a strong Howard Johnson’s memory. I’ll let him tell it:
It was the summer after my freshman year in college. I worked the night shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at Milprint, a plant that, among other things, produced the packaging for Marlboro cigarettes. On a Friday evening just a few days before I turned 19, two friends and I drove to HoJo’s at Villanova, just off Philadelphia’s Main Line. It was where young people often gathered. I saw a pretty blond girl with two of her girlfriends and they were standing around with their ice cream cones. I went up to her and asked what flavor it was. She replied “butter brickle.” I was not usually so bold but maybe it was the summer night, maybe it was because I was sort of taken with her, but I asked if I could have a taste. She consented. Four years later she became my wife.
Can you beat that?!
Inside the Bangor HoJo’s restaurant, which is tucked behind the renovated hotel and is only open during select hours, it’s quiet, even though it’s lunchtime, but I guess that’s to be expected when you’re located off the highway instead of downtown, and don’t offer drive-though. The deep red vinyl booths, wood paneling, patterned carpet, and the unmistakable whiff of restaurant/lounge mixed with fried food is a powerful combination. I’m instantly reminded of childhood “treat visits” to restaurants like the Ground Round and Friendly’s, where I’d color on my placemat and, if I was lucky, get dessert (always a Cone Head Sundae) before dinner.
There’s only one occupied table when I enter, a party of four, but they leave as soon as I sit down.
My friendly waitress, Julie, brought over a menu (“We’re busiest on Sunday mornings for breakfast” she told me when I mentioned the reason for my visit), but I already knew what I wanted to order. While Howard Johnson’s Restaurant was famous for its “28 flavors” of ice cream (plus its colorful sherbets) and “frankforts,” the restaurant was also credited with delivering two New England staples to the masses, albeit in a form most native Yankees consider a slight abomination.
I am, of course, referring to fried clams. HoJo’s is still remembered (especially during Lent) for its Friday “All You Can Eat Fish Fry,” but I had another fried clam dish in mind — the fried clam roll in a buttered and grilled New England-style hot dog roll. These were the first mass-market fried clams in the country, so that’s what I ordered.
The story of the clams goes something like this… Johnson had a contract dating back to the early 1930s with four brothers (the Soffron Brothers of Ipswich, Massachusetts) to supply the soft-shell clams to his restaurants. The fried clams were quite popular, and as demand increased, it grew harder and harder for the brothers to keep up. Then, in the early 1950s, they discovered that by using the Atlantic Sea Clam (also known as the hen clam), they could cut the large muscle into strips and discard the bellies. The resulting strips were sweeter, but also deemed more “attractive”. The brothers called them “tendersweet” fried clams, and in the coming decades, the country couldn’t get enough of them.
The strips get a lot of flak here in New England (“Real New Englanders eat the bellies!” we always hear), but judging by the fact that, even as a local, I could name several fellow natives that won’t touch the plump bellies, Johnson was probably smart to serve up a “cleaner” version to the mass market. Also, I suspect the hen clams were cheaper.
And what about the roll itself? According to a 2013 Boston Globe article, because HoJo’s was based in New England, it used local bread supplier J.J. Nissen of Maine. Johnson asked J.J. Nissen to develop a special bun for its fried clam roll — something top-sliced that would stand upright and be easier to fill and serve. They complied, and thus, the New England hot dog bun was born.
Today, the fried clam roll at HoJo’s comes pretty close to what I imagined. A buttered and grilled bun sits in a cardboard sleeve, filled with a layer of lettuce, and then a heaping pile of “tendersweet” fried clam strips. On the side? French fries, pickle slices, and a container of tartar sauce. It arrives quickly, piping hot, and is served with a smile. What more could I ask for after a long morning of driving?
It’s hard not to feel a little sad looking around the Bangor Howard Johnson’s restaurant dining room. You want to wave a magic wand and restore it to its 1960s heydey, packed with families and teenagers on dates, but it seems the world has already moved on. Fast food keeps getting faster, and now there’s even a McDonald’s lobster roll. Already on limited hours, it’s rumored the restaurant will close soon unless someone decides to lease it.
So, while you can (and sooner rather than later), if you’re passing through Bangor, get off the highway and stop in for a bite. Say hello to Julie, order a plate of fried clams, and enjoy a fleeting, tendersweet moment of pure American nostalgia.
Do you have fond memories of eating at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant? Share your story in the comments — we’d love to read them.
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.