Friendly's Gets Gimmicky

The Friendly's sign, there it was, a double-sided beacon of wonder in the night, one side demanding passers-by to "TRY OUR NEW SOFT PRETZEL BACON BURGER," the other side proclaiming, "MAINE LOBSTER ROLLS WITH FRIES AND SLAW ONLY $11.99."

That's not quite a swerve your car to the side of the road situation, but it's too tempting not to investigate. Friendly's has been around for 75 years, they must be doing something right, right?

The first restaurant review I ever wrote was of Friendly's, 26 years ago:

"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."

It's the same Friendly's I wrote about in Miss Jordan's second grade. There is still wall-to-wall carpeting. The wallpaper is worn. An old waitress cleans up a mess under a table and talks to a family sitting in a booth. Other booths are occupied. Young girls eating ice cream. A grandmother with her daughter and grandchild. A family whose young father has thick arms. The menu is five pages, one dedicated to "Munchies," another to salads with "Healthy Dining" logos. The fine print says these meet the nutrition criteria without dressing, fries, and tortillas. Tortillas at Friendly's?


Maine Lobster Roll with Cole Slaw and Fries.

The Maine Lobster Roll is wet and runny, the meat shredded, a little tough and loose ($11.99). The lettuce, while out of place, is crisp. The toast, buttery, decent. But then, given their grilled cheese rep, you'd expect they'd have toasting nailed down. You can't eat any of the components individually, but together, surprisingly, it's a much better experience, not inedible. Cole slaw is a non-issue.


Soft Pretzel Bacon Burger.

The Soft Pretzel Bacon Burger sounds epic: "A Big Beef Burger, Melted Vermont White Cheddar Cheese, Maple Pepper Bacon, and Spicy Mustard on a Soft Pretzel Roll with Lettuce, Tomato, and Mayo" ($8.79). The difference between the reality and the menu image is the fast food gap you'd expect. There's some Dijon, but the burger is pretty dry and tasteless, and you don't really notice it's a pretzel roll until somewhere near the end when examining the leftovers, you wish for pretzel salt.


Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt.

The Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt ($8.79), two grilled cheese sandwiches on either side of a burger, a concept rife with possibility. This one should be squarely in Friendly's wheelhouse, their grilled cheese is an original menu standard after all. The grilled cheese halves taste like they should, Kraft singles in all their glory, but they need more cheese, and again, the burger doesn't taste like much. Fries are woody. You need to salt your ketchup because salt poured from the shaker won't stick to them otherwise.

You hate to rip on Friendly's. It was started in 1935 in Springfield, MA. Brothers, Prestley and Curtis Blake named their first ice cream shoppe, "Friendly" intending to provide, "warm, caring, neighborly service to all who visit." I have great memories of sitting in these booths as little kid eating grilled cheese and sundaes with Reese's Pieces at the bottom.

But there's no love in this food. They're market concepts implemented with fast-food how-to sheets above the oven in the kitchen. No. love. The food is heartbreaking. It makes you want to go home, and make a great grilled cheese sandwich the way it should be done, cheese gooey melting out all over the place, bread, buttery and barely-brown-crisp-colored. There's nothing to bring you back besides the concepts and chasing childhood. Nothing except the one thing Friendly's can still do right. A sundae.

There's the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Sundae, the Ultimate Cookies 'n Cream Sundae, the Butterfinger, the Forbidden Fudge Brownie, the Jim Dandy, and the Royal Banana Split. The Reese's Pieces Sundae can still bring it. Three scoops of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, marshmallow, hot fudge and Reese's Pieces candy. Thick sauces that melt the ice cream, which is still cold enough to change the texture of the Reese's. It's soupy, sweet, and creamy, that candy in your back teeth situation.

Hey, Miss Jordan:

The booths are still there. The waitress was pleasant. The service was fine. The food not so much. The Fribbles are watery. Stick to the ice cream.