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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last Howard Johnson’s restaurant closed, ending an era of Americana

The property with an iconic orange roof is sitting vacant in upstate New York

Howard Johnson's restaurants fueled America's road trip tradition. The last one just closed. (iStock/Washington Post illustration)

The last Howard Johnson’s restaurant has shut its doors, signaling the end of an era for travelers who remember the brand’s fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream as a road trip staple.

The Lake George, N.Y., location is closed, and the property is up for lease, listing agent Bill Moon of Exit Realty Empire Associates confirmed. However, Moon said, for the last several years, the restaurant wasn’t operated as a “traditional Howard Johnson’s experience.”

“It was a local lessee that was running a restaurant out of the Howard Johnson’s building,” he said. The building has been listed for lease since December, he said, and it has been vacant since January or February.

Moon said the 7,500-square-foot space is priced at $10 per square foot, and that the owner is open to selling the building as well. “Existing building is currently operating as a restaurant but can be converted into a large showroom, flagship store, or used as is,” the listing for the building at 2143 Route 9 reads.

Founded in Massachusetts by Howard Deering Johnson, the chain known for its iconic orange roofs had around 1,000 restaurants strategically located by turnpikes and highways by the 1970s. In his book “Ten Restaurants That Changed America,” historian Paul Freedman credited the company with pioneering “several key concepts in the American way of dining out: roadside locations, a family-friendly ambience, franchising, predictability and serving comfort food long before that term was invented.”

Howard Johnson’s declined in part because of competition from fast-food restaurants, and its footprint shrank dramatically in recent decades.

The chain also had motor lodges, but a sale divided its lodging and dining operations in the 1980s. Hotels bearing the Howard Johnson name are operating under Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.

Amanda Metzger, marketing director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce & CVB, said in an email, “We know many people hold fond memories of dining at a Howard Johnson’s and have visited that location specifically for that feeling of nostalgia and to try to experience a memory.”

A 2012 appearance on hit TV show “Mad Men” replicated Howard Johnson’s in all its mid-century glory, but those days have long since faded. In 2017, Eater described a salad bar “full of soggy broccoli, nearly translucent iceberg lettuce, and runny, unmarked dressings” at the Lake George location, and an empty parking lot outside (there was also not a corporate structure anymore, or other franchisees).

At the time, the restaurant’s operator, Jon LaRock, leased the restaurant and right to use the name from Joe DeSantis, whose father opened the Lake George location in the 1950s, per Eater. DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The location appeared in the news later that year, when operator LaRock was arrested for sexually harassing women who worked at the restaurant. He was sentenced in 2018.

One of the last three remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurants closed in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 2015, while another in Bangor, Maine, ceased operations the following year.

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