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Remembering That Long-Ago Friendly's

The restaurant of today can't hold a candle to the Friendly of my youth - and we're talking ice cream, not pizza...

The news last week that was filing bankruptcy and closing “underperforming” restaurants should not have come as a surprise to anyone of a certain age who remembers the Friendly (no ‘s’) of their childhood.

I haven’t eaten at a Friendly’s in several years, much to the chagrin of my children, but I really had given up in the face of terrible service, sticky tabletops, dirty food prep areas and a general attitude among the staff of “Really? You want me to walk over to your table and take your order and then bring you food? {Sigh.} Really?” It seemed not to be isolated to one restaurant, but rather had settled itself over the whole enterprise, no matter which one you entered. Bad decisions and a lack of commitment at the corporate level had not trickled down, but rather deluged.

But I am not here to criticize the 2011 Friendly’s. I am here to praise the Friendly of my youth.

There was my first Friendly, which was at the corner of Barker Road and West Housatonic Street in Pittsfield, Mass., right down the road from where I grew up. That Friendly had an ice cream window, and we would drive there on a summer night and stand outside the window and read all the flavors that were carefully painted on the white window shutters, even though I knew exactly what I was getting.

My first flavor was orange sherbet. When I got a little older I changed to black raspberry. (As an adult it is chocolate almond chip – and if they stop selling that at the Big Y, I may have lost one reason for living.)

My second Friendly was the one in downtown Pittsfield, at the corner of North and Eagle streets, the block where my father worked at the newspaper. The stools at the counter spun. So after we ordered our hamburgers (on the buttered grilled bread - oh! I miss that) and our French fries (the crinkle ones), and our Junior Fribbles, we would spin on the stools until we were ordered by a parent to stop.

Those are both long gone. The Eagle Street one closed decades ago. The Barker Road one was torn down a few years back. Now it’s a car wash. I’m sad every time I drive by.

I found the Associated Press list of Friendly’s that are being closed, and there are two more that are near and dear to me. The Greenfield, Mass., restaurant is where my grandparents and I used to go. When I was older, after my grandfather died, I would bring my grandmother there and she would order her patty melt and her “Sanka.”

They are also shutting the Friendly’s on Sabattus Street in Lewiston, Maine. I went to college in Lewiston, and there were many breakfasts eaten at that Friendly’s, often with my parents when they would come visit, but most importantly on the morning of my graduation in May 1985, when Kate Sweeney, Debbie Valaitis, Karla Austen, Leanne Belmont and I sat at the counter and tried to get some eggs and toast in our bellies so that we wouldn’t die of a hangover during commencement.

I can clearly see us sitting at that counter, probably looking like something the cat dragged in, laughing and crying over our plates as we ate our last meal in Lewiston.

That’s what Friendly’s is to me – memories of family and of friends, of Big Beefs and Fribbles and begging my mother to let us order a Jim Dandy. That’s what I will remember.

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