Every week, we tap into the deep recesses of the New York Public Library’s vast archive of old menus to take a look at the history of dining out. Click here for more Menus of the Week.
Howard Johnson’s is synonymous with 1950s and '60s dining. It was launched by Howard Johnson himself in the 1920s as a soda fountain and lunch counter, and by 1954 there were 400 outposts in 32 states. One of the first major restaurant chains, it went public in 1961 with 605 restaurants as well as 88 motor lodges, both of which were major fixtures dotting the new American highway landscape that was growing during this time.
The company peaked in in the mid-1970s, but business fell off after that. The business model of serving pre-made high-quality food in traditional dining rooms lost popularity amid the boom in fast food like McDonald’s, and after many changes in ownership over the years only two Howard Johnson’s restaurants remain, in Lake Placid, N.Y. (which is up for sale), and Bangor, Maine.
This week’s menu dates from HoJo’s 1950s heyday, and provides a great snapshot of what the Space Age American palate was like back then.
Steak, "grilled Frankforts," and ice cream were highlighted items, and top sellers (the fried clam plate, also in bold, was actually a major innovation for the restaurant; before HoJo’s, fried clams were "whole belly" clams, and the chain took to frying the more palatable "clam strips," which then grew in popularity in a major way).
Sandwiches were also a major part of the menu, and came in some pretty funky varieties. You don’t often see a chop suey roll, cream cheese and olive, sardine, or "Western" sandwich any more, if ever, and a sandwich with just lettuce and mayonnaise on it seems pretty darn skimpy these days. It’s a bit surprising that there’s a peanut butter and bacon sandwich on the menu as well, as that’s more the domain of funky food trucks these days. Triple-decker club sandwiches are still available at just about any diner, as is the dinner combo of half a chicken with accompaniments like potatoes, vegetables, salad, rolls, and butter.
As for that Western Sandwich, it just looks like a Western omelette (with ham, peppers, and onions) between two slices of bread.