The orange roof and telltale spire have long been gone from the Howard Johnson Restaurant and Lounge in Bangor. But for regulars at the 49-year-old restaurant, it’s still that familiar, cozy place where they’ve eaten for decades.
It also is one of the last two Howard Johnson’s in the country, after the Lake Placid, New York, location closed Tuesday. However, in the coming months, the Bangor HoJos may close as well.
Restaurant Manager Julie Jewett said the hotel’s owners may be closing the restaurant in favor of offering a continental breakfast, which is in higher demand from patrons. However, she did not know for sure when or if the doors would be shuttered. The hotel’s owner, David Patel, could not be reached for comment.
“Things are switching over to all continental breakfast. But not only that, there’s a Tim Horton’s across the street. You can just grab and go,” Jewett said.
Opened in 1966, the Howard Johnson Restaurant and Lounge in Bangor harkens back to a bygone era. Maroon bar stools at the high-gloss ice cream bar were filled with families, and patrons would drop in for familiar favorites, including fried clams, frankfurters and all-you-can-eat fried fish. These days, octogenarians can be seen midday, enjoying slices of pie a la mode and conversations with a lone waitress, who knows nearly everyone who walks in the door by name.
Howard Johnson’s restaurants started in 1925 in Quincy, Massachusetts, as a soda fountain with an emphasis on quality foods. A decade later, there were 25 locations across Massachusetts. In 1936, the first location beyond the borders of the Bay State opened in Milford, Connecticut. In the 1950s, the company expanded to offer motor lodges, as well — much like the one that opened in Bangor with the attached restaurant.
Today, Howard Johnson’s is a chain of hotels and motels located throughout the United States and Canada, with just two restaurants remaining — despite the cult-like following for decades.
Commonly located off interstates, the restaurants with their signature orange roofs and 28 flavors of full butterfat ice cream were a favorite among families. Several of Bangor’s famous visitors included Stephen King and Elvis Presley’s daughter, who came with her two children.
Until earlier this week, the Bangor location was only one of three HoJos left in the country. When the franchise in Lake Placid, New York, closed Tuesday, it left the Odlin Road location and a newly re-opened diner in Lake George, New York.
Mike Butler, the former owner of the HoJos in Lake Placid, said that, as he heard about more closures across the country, he would check in with the Bangor location to see whether it was still serving up fried clams, stuffed french toast and other favorites.
He also recently met a Maine fan who drove almost all day to Lake Placid after hearing it would close.
“We had one guy who drove all the way from Maine on Friday — nine hours each way — just to have fried clams,” Butler said.
At the Bangor restaurant earlier this week, HoJos regulars were enjoying breakfast and talking about the restaurant that has become a staple in their lives. Bangor residents Harry Emmons, his wife Barbara Emmons and their daughter Robin Schmidt of Veazie visit the Bangor location at least once a week, sometimes two or three.
“I used to come here with my singing group. Rotary people used to come here. People love it. It’s just got a homey feel,” Schmidt said. “The wait staff is so nice. It’s almost like you’re an extended family.”
But it’s not just the atmosphere, Harry Emmons said, though the large mugs stacked on the back counter, plaid curtains and pictures drawn by children taped up to the right of the industrial coffee machine give off a homey, old-fashioned feel. It’s the food, too, most often prepared by Jewett, who five years ago started doing everything from dishwashing to cooking at the restaurant, after 25 years as a waitress there.
“This is the only place with a menu like they do,” he said, pointing to his wife’s blueberry stuffed toast smothered in butter and whipped cream.
Jewett said after decades of serving up ice cream to customers who often stood in lines so long they wrapped around the building and down the sidewalk, she fell in love with the customers.
“I love all of the people,” she said. “We had some that would come every day, [even] one everyone called ‘Poppa.’ They’re like family.”
These days, Jewett sees regulars and people visiting for the novelty of the place — those folks she calls “HoJos buffs.”
“It’s like home to people, they just always went to the nearest Howie Johnson’s,” she said.
And until it isn’t home anymore, Jewett said she plans on continuing to serve up favorites. In fact, they are hiring another cook and waiter in anticipation of a few more regulars moving back north to Bangor after wintering in Florida.
“We’re going day to day,” she said. “We’d love to see all the people who have come over the years one more time.”
The Bangor Howard Johnson Restaurant and Lounge is open daily from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. for breakfast and lunch. It is located at 336 Odlin Road and can be reached via telephone at 207-942-5251.