Mad Men’s America: A road trip to Howard Johnson’s in upstate Lake George

Don Draper in the amazingly re-created Plattsburgh, NY Howard Johnson’s …

… and the real deal, a surviving Howard Johnson’s, in upstate Lake George, NY …

… and a vintage postcard view of the Plattsburgh location, which the Drapers                    visit on “Mad Men.” Compare to the scene in “Mad Men” above — they nailed it.

Many “Man Men” fans devour the dollops of historical references sprinkled throughout the show. It could be everything from a clever prop (like Peggy holding a package of old-school Choward’s Violet Mints in Sunday’s masterful episode) to references that resonate powerfully in the American collective consciousness.

Sunday night, the classic Howard Johnson’s chain of roadside restaurants and motor lodges stole the show, thanks to a memorable road trip Don and his wife took to an upstate New York HoJo’s. They visited “the flagship” in Plattsburgh that opened in May 1965, only a little more than a year before the Drapers’ disastrous road trip. (That location is now a Ninety Nine restaurant, according to Ad Age. Here’s more about the sleek style of the Plattsburgh location, which was one of the so-called Concept ‘65 HoJo’s.)

In August 1966, the Drapers would have passed multiple HoJo’s on the ride upstate, including the one in Lake George, the subject of this post. Today, there are only three Howard Johnson’s restaurants left on Earth, one in Bangor, Maine, and two in upstate New York — the Lake George HoJo’s discussed here, and the Lake Placid location. [The Plattsburgh location closed years ago, and the actual episode was filmed across the country in two places, including a former Howard Johnson’s, near Los Angeles. Read my post HERE.]

Over the next several days on The Retrologist, I’ll look at the legacy of HoJo’s. Today, I’ll focus on Lake George. On Tuesday, I’ll visit the HoJo’s in Lake Placid. On Wednesday, I’ll revisit the final days of the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square, and on Thursday, I’ll share some of my Times Square HoJo’s memorabilia, which I was able to purchase at auction a few days after the restaurant closed in July 2005. 

DAY TWO: WE’RE OFF TO THE LAKE PLACID HOJO’s, NOT FAR FROM THE ONE VISITED BY THE DRAPERS.

Simple Simon and the Pieman weathervane at the Hojo’s in Lake George. Note the mid-century space-age touch with the Planet Saturn.

These are my photos, as well as part of an essay I wrote a few years ago, exploring the Lake George location.

Once you’re through, you’ll want a serving of some HoJo’s clams and, of course, that Orange Sherbet from the kitchen of the beloved Pieman

A visit to the Lake George Howard Johnson’s (2008)

Simple Simon and the Pieman, on a dining room wall in Lake George.

The very name Howard Johnson’s evokes memories of a time and place that we can never touch again. That is, unless you hop in a car and drive north on I-87 to delightfully kitschy Lake George Village.

A portion of a quirky mural representing the Lake George region, at HoJos.

There, you will find some of the most impressive pockets of 1950s roadside Americana still in existence. Call it Wildwood North.

During a walk along Canada Street, your senses will be overwhelmed with neon-lit, space-age mom-and-pop motels, haunted-house exhibits, tourists attractions of all description, salt-water-taffy joints, and hokey family attractions, one complete with a 1950s giant Muffler Man lording over a miniature golf course set in an ersatz NYC subway system, which manages to get the colors for the train lines all wrong. 

A detail from the HoJo’s mural

And, lest we forget, you will find one of three surviving Howard Johnson’s restaurants on the planet.

The Lake George HoJo’s is a true thing of beauty. It retains its iconic orange roof, and its weather vane featuring the Pieman holding a stack of delicious pies before the ever-eager Simple Simon and his faithful pooch.

We could hardly wait to sit down!

Inside, the wall near the cash register still trumpets the various flavors of HoJo’s ice cream. Once seated by your impossibly friendly host, the menu you are handed retains the classic grub items that made HoJo’s famous.

Fried clams? Got ‘em and they’re “Tendersweet,” just as you would expect. The ice cream? Still a treat.

As the menu reminds us, it was Mr. Howard D. Johnson himself who decided to double the butterfat content of the ice cream to make it oh so good. He eventually whipped up 28 flavors, one of the many ingenius moves of a businessman who turned a Massachusetts drugstore he bought in 1925 into what was once the restaurant king of the highway.

Who doesn’t scream for HoJo’s ice cream? (Everyone except Megan on “Mad Men!”)

The ambiance of this HoJo’s isn’t quite as intensely old school as the one in Times Square, or even the one we patronized as a child in Tarrytown, N.Y. But it still retains touches that make it clear you’re not noshing at just any diner. One of the dining rooms, for example, has a large wall sculpture of Simple Simon and the Pieman.

Yep, it was yummy.

Another room has an decades-old mural featuring a hand-painted map of the historical sites in the Lake George region. Helpfully, the map does include the Howard Johnson’s, which may not have been historic at the time of the map’s design, but certainly is today.

The back of this pay phone outside HoJos still has the old Bell Logo.

We were charmed by the decent people who work there. This restaurant is run by the DeSantis family, who once operated other Howard Johnson’s franchises in the area. The hostess immediately noticed our avid curiosity, and indulged our questions and even offered us some memorabilia.

By the way, as an added incentive to visit Lake George, there is also a former Howard Johnson’s motel there. (The motels and hotels were long ago split from the restaurants, and remain a viable business.) 

This former HoJo’s has a must-be-seen Polynesian theme, above, complete with Easter Island heads, below, in the courtyard, and Polynesian shows in the evenings! So why haven’t you booked a stay yet?


Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

See the rest of the HoJo’s series HERE.