No Happy Ending for Friendly's

With Friendly's declaring bankruptcy, part of an American generation's childhood could pass

It's hardly conceivable, but true. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Friendly's is planning to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is seeking a buyer. Let's be clear, there's nothing amazing about food at Friendly's. As I wrote last year after eating the pretzel burger and lobster roll at Friendly's, there's no love in the food anymore. Mourning it means engaging a discussion about middle-class dinners and nostalgia. But for me, it's more involved.

See, my relationship with Friendly's goes back to a time before I was born. If you don't know the chain's history, you may be surprised to hear that the first Friendly's was opened in Springfield, Mass., in 1935. It happens that my dad is from nearby Westfield, so I was indoctrinated early to the Friendly's experience, both there and on Long Island where I grew up.

My second tie to the chain is that the first published restaurant review I ever wrote was of the Friendly's in Bellmore on Long Island in February, 1984. "So precocious!" you're saying. No. My second grade teacher, Miss Jordan, assigned everyone the task of writing a restaurant review as homework at the Merick Union Free School District Lakeside School. Reviews were then all published in the local advertising coupon publication, The Pennysaver. It was my first break as a writer. I was eight years old and very matter-of-fact about my experience at Friendly's in my review:

The bathrooms were clean. There are booths. The waitress was nice. The service was great. Of course, we were the only ones there. The food was great. Try the Chicken-Licken platter and Fun Fribble.

I've been back to Friendly's over the years. Periodically. Once in a while. Revisited with family members I once visited it with, who are now gone, returned with friends I made long after childhood, gone with my folks, who introduced me to it to begin with. It's a strange mix. The food is pretty horrible. They stretched the menu out too thin, filled it with salads, "healthy menus," kitschy, trendy, and clichéd items that Friendly's had no business being involved with. 

Friendly's started as an ice cream shop. Its strength has always been ice cream. Not its food. The only thing I remember being good, food-wise, during bi-weekly meals at Friendly's during the years before my family moved far away from New York, was the grilled cheese. Chicken tenders were an occasional second-place finish, but the grilled cheese was always a strong move. Friendly's was always good for a decent grilled cheese sandwich. But it wasn't really the point. You were always eating in order to have permission to get whatever sundae you could get away with — at least, that was my philosophy.

As a kid, there were two stages of dessert. The first was the "Cone Head," which I'm convinced was called the "Happy Ending" then. It was vanilla ice cream with a hot fudge-dipped sugar cone, whipped cream (or "whipped cream topping" as they described it on the menu, whatever that is), and Reese's Pieces. How cool was it that the bottom of the sundae was the point of the whole thing? Candy! Soon enough though, anyone eating at Friendly's realized that the ice cream was the point. It's something that the chain seems to have forgotten along the way.

It was about those crazy sundaes. There was the Jim Dandy: five scoops of ice cream, strawberry or pineapple, marshmallow and chocolate topping, a split fresh banana, sprinkles, and walnuts. I had that one a few times. And there were other options: a crazy banana split, something with Butterfinger, Kit Kat, another sundae with mint chocolate chip ice cream, one with cookies and cream, yet another with caramel.

For me, Friendly's was about having a grilled cheese sandwich and a Reese's Pieces Sundae. Griddled brown pieces of bread with warm, oozy cheese between them hot enough to scald the roof of your mouth. Fries that were, so-so, but good enough to dip in a puddle of ketchup, all eaten so that you could earn dessert: five scoops of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, marshmallow, hot fudge, and a scattering of Reese's Pieces candy. It was really all about the peanut butter and chocolate ratio combined with a pure love for ice cream. Gobs of peanut butter. Gobs of hot fudge. Dig your spoon deep scrapes of fudge, peanut butter, marshmallow, and ice cream bites that make childhood make sense.

In the times I've returned to Friendly's since those days when all that mattered was the end of the meal, Friendly's has disappointed. They try to do all kinds of things, badly. Take for example, the lobster roll. Horrible. Multi-stage burgers. Bad. Even the grilled cheese is lackluster. But even now, after all these years, sundaes haven't let me down.

Whoever takes Friendly's over, if someone takes Friendly's over, should do the chain a favor and bring it back to its roots. America may be ready for a return to the old-school ice cream joint. Simplify the menu. Pull a Shake Shack. Do what you do well instead of trying to make dishes that no one cares about. Forget the planned demographic stuff that some corporate culinary drone thought made sense.

Make good burgers. Make good chicken tenders. Make a good grilled cheese. Get rid of all the other stuff. Get rid of the carpeted floors. Stop serving things that don't belong at Friendly's. Make your sundaes even more ridiculous. Keep the bathrooms clean. Keep the booths. Bring back the nice waitresses and the good service. Try perfecting the grilled cheese, and keep the food fun.

Friendly's, please figure it out. Despite how bad your food is, I'm not ready to watch you go.

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