A little piece of Americana (and our childhoods) died this week when Friendly’s announced it is closing nearly two dozen restaurants in the Northeast. When the dust finally settles, there will be 174 restaurants remaining, reports The Boston Globe, a sharp decrease from the 850 that existed back in 1988, reports MassLive. The unfortunate news caused a sharp pang of nostalgia in me, taking me right back to Fribble-sipping as a kid.
But it would be too easy to say I have fond memories of eating ice cream at Friendly’s on warm summer nights because the reality is more complex. My relationship with the eatery, which was founded in 1935 and filed for bankruptcy in 2011, isn’t quite as cozy as the image the chain has projected all these years.
As a kid in the ‘80s, my parents, my older brother and I went to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, every summer for vacation. We’d eat breakfast each morning at the same Friendly’s, which was located near our hotel. I can still vividly see the host who was always there to greet us — a tall, slender and elderly man named Bud with Wite-Out hair and thick glasses, impeccably dressed with his name tag glistening brightly off the reflection of the windows and his restaurant-issued shirt tucked tightly in his pressed slacks.
Every morning, a no-nonsense Bud, standing in stark contrast to the very name of the eatery that employed him, would offer the same matter-of-fact greeting when we walked into the sparsely populated establishment: “Name? How many in your party?” Then he’d write that information down, turn his back and walk a few steps to the dining room, scanning it like Robocop before returning to the host stand, a drill sergeant mistakenly placed in the food service industry.
“Weisholtz, party of four. Follow me,” he declared, as if we hadn’t just spoken 20 seconds prior.
He’d march us to our table, without a single word, as we filed in behind him. He offered nothing about the weather. Nothing about what we are going to do with our day. Nothing about what looked good on the menu. Nothing at all. And this happened every day for the entire week we stopped in each summer. All these years later, I can’t tell you the first thing about our meals, but Bud, who seemed more suited to the DMV than Friendly’s, is still as entrenched in my vacation memories as the outings to the beach that followed breakfast, a part of family lore. The irony is not lost on me that this man who never grinned brings a smile to my face all these moons later.
Bud may have been harmlessly amusing, but Friendly’s did once damage my psyche (not an exaggeration at all) when my family went to another one of its restaurants for breakfast on a random Sunday. This was no small moment for 6-year-old me. Pancakes, French toast, eggs — the options were endless and promised a nice change of pace from my usual cereal breakfast. I made the tough decision to get French toast, a favorite I only ate on the rare occasion.
On this particular day, though, our waitress messed up my order. Not once, not twice, but three times she brought out the wrong food, an unfathomable event in the eyes of a little boy who looked forward to special food treats the same way he looked forward to receiving a new "Star Wars" action figure. I cried — no, I bawled — and wound up eating some of the food my parents ordered. Miraculously, I was not eternally scarred by the incident because I continued to eat at Friendly’s, albeit not very often. The food was serviceable, the expectations never quite so high.
Thinking about Friendly’s, I’m struck by the notion that it’s not the food that comes to mind. It’s Bud. It’s the waitress with the terrible memory. It’s laughing at the memories with my family as the colorful characters worked their way into the canon of my youth.
I have no idea if the Friendly’s in Cape Cod is still there, while the one that botched my order has long ago become a bank. I pass by it often, the unmistakable architecture revealing it once served as a hub for Fribbles rather than a destination for home loans.
After a long absence, I did return to Friendly’s a few years ago with my wife and our two young sons. The restaurant seemed smaller to me than I remember it being — things always seem smaller than you remember growing up, right? — but the food was decent. The service was good. There were no Bud-like characters or servers bungling our orders. My children made a mess and we all had ice cream for dessert. We left smiling. Somewhere, I'd like to think Bud is, too.