Memories of Howard Johnson’s Takeout Counter

Lobby of the Chanin Building NYC and once home to Howard Johnson’s Take Out Counter

One of my very favorite memories of working in New York City was a ritual I enjoyed each morning before the onset of my work day. Tucked neatly away in a corner of my office building lay a parallel universe of culinary delight known as Howard Johnson’s. Famous for its orange roof, fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream, Ho Jo’s as it was affectionately known, also offered a first rate breakfast. Whether a short stack of piping hot pancakes topped with a dollop of butter and jigger of syrup or a deep and dark cup of their aromatic coffee, for me there was simply no better way to start the day.

Located on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue the Chanin building’s lobby of gilded gold never failed to impress and within it, Howard Johnson’s an icon in its own right, had found the perfect home. Each day, at approximately 7:30 AM I ascended the subway escalator and made my way through the building’s sleepy corridors, still devoid of the morning rush. Entering the doors which led to the restaurant’s takeout counter I joined a line which snaked around the premises and boasted patrons of all ages, colors and creeds sharing the simple commonality of breakfast.

It was not just the Howard Johnson takeout counter I remember with fondness but the Irish waitress who worked there daily, never missing a shift. Neat and polite she was exemplary in her job, friendly and welcoming, beloved by all. She uttered two words the moment before each patron stepped up to place their order. Briskly wiping down the spotless counter, she would smile warmly and call out, “Now….NEXT!” Always the same two words delivered with grace and confidence. I grew to love this phrase and her lilting Irish accent, a badge of efficiency and never ending optimism.  

One morning, I noticed the line was almost double in size. I heard murmurs among the waiting customers and sensed a definite feeling of dissent in the air.  The Irish waitress was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a short and stout woman with a tuft of orange hair which she had carelessly bobby-pinned into a frenzied bun. Heavy streaks of rouge framed her face and two dangling earrings one in the shape of a fork and the other a knife adorned her earlobes.  An endearing overbite added to an expression of confusion though her demeanor was kind and friendly. A thick smear of tangerine lipstick framed her mouth which sported a perpetual grin as if she were having the time of her life rather than working. She suddenly held up in each hand, two plates of eggs then called out loudly, “Who ordered the fried eggs?”  A stern looking older woman, dressed impeccably, immediately stepped up. She called to mind the old school description of “ladies who lunch” though this time it was breakfast.   “I ordered eggs but specifically asked they be cooked over-easy. Which ones are mine?” The waitress stared intently, furiously studying the two plates before her. Then taking her index and middle finger placed them atop the eggs on one of the plates and pressed down gingerly. TWICE.  Smiling in relief she looked up and reassured, “These are definitely over-easy, guess they are yours…”  I watched the older woman’s expression as she attempted to digest what she had just witnessed. Firing back at the waitress she asked “You expect me to eat those eggs after you just put your fingers on them?” Needless to say we never saw the new waitress again and breathed a sigh of relief when the Irish waitress returned the following day.

Last month I returned to the Chanin Building for a visit. As I walked through that beautiful lobby, ghosts of the past amiably welcomed me home. My beloved breakfast haven that once pulsated with life like the entire chain of now shuttered Howard Johnson restaurants, is now a distant memory. A bygone era. I sometimes recall the Irish waitress whose work ethic and demeanor I so admired and wonder with some regret why I never asked her name. Besides fond memories of those takeout counter days she also left me with two words I will never forget, “Now…Next!” which I sometimes use in her honor while serving dinner to my family.

Published by Kathy Simmons

I am an ex New Yorker who still misses the vibrancy of the city. I seek out the humor in every day life and relay it through my stories in the hope others will appreciate as well. I love to write about growing up with my fantastically unique Irish mother whose memory inspires me every day. Although she is no longer with us, her antics are an endless staple for my tales. I currently live in Connecticut with my husband, two sons and toy fox terrier Anabel.

16 thoughts on “Memories of Howard Johnson’s Takeout Counter

  1. Very enjoyable early morning read! Thank you. My sister’s best friend is from Ireland. The next time I see her, I’m going to ask her to say, “Now … Next!”. She’ll think I’m crazy but, like your waitress, this gal is pleasant and obliging. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Terry. Impossible to explain the “now/next” scenario scene in writing unless experienced in person but did my best.. It was almost a way for her to psychologically prepare for next customer. She would clean counter to a shine, pause to admire her work then look up to take order. The “Now” was always followed by a 3 second pause, then “Next!” Try to follow that when relaying to sister’s friend who yes, will likely think you crazy (lol). Appreciate your reading…:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful tribute to HoJo’s, could see that waitress plain as day as you described her, felt your daily morning ritual through your story. Interesting how the pattern of her “Now….Next” became expected and how you still use it with your own family! Love your stories! More please!

    Liked by 1 person

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