Once there were hundreds of orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s restaurants dotting highways across the United States. Now all that remains of the massive diner chain is a single restaurant in Lake George.
Carl DeSantis almost didn’t open the Howard Johnson’s in the New York town. His father had passed on an offer from the company to open a franchise. But young DeSantis, disengaged in college and a drifter trying to find his way, recognized the potential of having a Howard Johnson’s in his hometown. He convinced his father to cosign a loan and donate some land adjacent to the family’s main business, a cabin court (similar to a motel). DeSantis trained with Howard Johnson’s for a few months and opened the restaurant in 1953. Today, it is the last Howard Johnson’s eatery in the world. Its driveway marks its defiance of the tides of time and changing dining preferences by proudly displaying a sign that reads, “Last One Standing.”
The restaurant is a relic of a once-booming business. Throughout the early 1930s and consistently through the mid-1980s, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were everywhere in the United States. The founder, Howard Deering Johnson, started in 1925 with a soda fountain in Quincy, Massachusetts, and a goal to make the best ice cream in the country. He lived up to this promise. As the restaurant’s 28 flavors gained fame, the signature orange roofs of HoJo’s buildings began dotting interstate highways by mid-century, embodying the rapidly-expanding company’s slogan at the time: “Host of the Highway.” The company had discovered the secret to breakneck growth: setting up franchises. They began opening motor lodges alongside their restaurants in the ’50s.
To ensure the food remained consistent across all restaurants, Howard Johnson established a commissary system: central locations at key points in the HoJo distribution network where food could be prepared and transported to the HoJo’s restaurants, with meticulous instructions for minimally prepping and serving on-site. The food was no small matter, either. Such culinary stalwarts as Jacques Pépin and Pierre Franey worked at HoJo’s commissaries, making tender fried clams and stirring sauce for beef burgundy (when they weren’t making stock with 3,000 pounds of veal bones or producing 10 tons of frankfurters).
By the 1970s, competition from fast-food chains such as McDonald’s drove down demand from hungry travelers, who felt the restaurant was serving fast food, but slowly. By 2015, only three Howard Johnson’s restaurants remained. While the eateries have almost entirely disappeared, the Howard Johnson’s hotel brand remains strong. The hotels were purchased by Wyndham Worldwide, who now own the trademark to the Howard Johnson’s name. The Lake George restaurant (which is not affiliated with Wyndham) is allowed to continue using the name due to a grandfather clause. The restaurant was mired in controversy when the proprietor was arrested and convicted of sexual abuse in 2017, but it is under new management now.
The ice cream no longer tastes of the familiar HoJo’s flavors at Lake George. The food is hit-or-miss (as of 2019, the restaurant has two stars on Yelp). But the signature orange roof, the red booths, and the turquoise walls are all still there. Even if the menu does not live up to the chain’s glory days, a visit to Howard Johnson’s, off Route 9 in Lake George, is still a chance to travel back in time to an era when the United States was being built and connected, brick by brick, bridge by bridge.
Know Before You Go
The restaurant is closed during the winter due to slow business. There is also a Howard Johnson's by Wyndam hotel in Lake George (99 Canada Street), which is completely separate from the restaurant.