Nina In New York: Friendly’s, I Loved You
A young professional’s take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.
By Nina Pajak
The Friendly’s restaurant in my hometown closed years ago, but the memories it held for me have always remained vivid. In fact, until now, when I read about its inevitable Chapter 11 filing and likely sale, I’ve thought of the chain as ever the lively, nostalgia-imbued, lovable dump I knew so well, and for so long.
I remember going there with my parents, with my other classmates and their parents, after elementary school chorus recitals in my standard-issue black skirt and white button-down top which made me feel so grown up (I looked like a premature cater waitress). Obviously, the location of this “special treat” was the choice of my fellow sophisticates of taste and myself. I felt like I’d accomplished something, and high on the adrenaline rush of having sung a song about a pirate ship or something in front of 150 grown-ups, it only seemed a just prize to feed my rush and pride with a conehead sundae, the trademark dessert for special little kids across the Northeast. It was just a scoop of vanilla with Reese’s eyes, a Reese’s mouth, two dollops of whipped cream hair, and a sugar cone hat, but for some reason it tasted disproportionately amazing.
I remember just a couple of years later going to Friendly’s with my friends, sans chaperons. It was one of our first solo destinations, and we made the most of it. We ordered foods our mothers would blanch to see us gobble down, like cheeseburgers and fries and greasy grilled cheese and Fribbles (though I always believed the local urban legend that families of flies and their baby maggots made a home of the Fribble-machine, and was therefore deeply uncomfortable with the beverage). We were terrible customers, determined to sit for as long as possible while buying as little as possible, we’d become extremely annoying and our waiter would inevitably abandon us entirely. Every foolishly generous tip I leave today is in penance to our (un)friendly waitstaff at Friendly’s. They didn’t deserve us.
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When we were fourteen, my best friend ordered a conehead sundae with her meal, and our wizened waitress informed her that she was “too old.” But it’s just a sundae, we argued, barely a sundae, when you think about it! Still, she insisted. No conehead for Robin. Too old. Order something else. But I’ll pay an adult price for it, argued Robin, increasingly desperate, convinced that the logic behind the refusal was the conehead’s kid-friendly cost. No dice. No conehead. Grow up. Get over it. You’ve had your last conehead, kid. Hope you enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until very recently that Robin returned for retribution, still feeling needlessly rebuffed after all these years. She got her conehead sundae, and it was worth its wait in victory.
Similarly, it wasn’t until I hit adulthood that I became aware of the public’s perception of my beloved ice cream palace/greasy spoon/hangout. As I drove past a Massachusetts outpost with a college friend, I cried, “OHMYGOD FRIENDLY’S! I LOOOOOOVE FRIENDLY’S! Let’s go let’s go let’s go it’s so delicious!” My companion was shocked. “Friendly’s??? she replied with undisguised shock and disdain. “That place is repulsive.”
“It is?” I asked, incredulous.
“Oh, yeah. It’s the worst.”
I’d had no idea. Honestly, I still don’t believe it.
In recent years, they’ve made valiant efforts to stay relevant. Take, for instance, their brave menu item, a burger sandwiched not by a typical bun, but by two grilled cheese sandwiches. Ah, the audacity! If only they’d reached such potential when I was at my metabolic peak. If only. It should have been enough to sustain them for years, but alas, the recession rears its ugly head. Is there nothing sacred?
I suppose my future children will have to segue directly to Greek diners, without Friendly’s as something of a starter restaurant to the world of late-night eating for its own sake because there’s nothing to do in the suburbs. It’s not how I would have wanted it for them, but they’ll make do.
Goodbye, Friendly’s. I cut a slice of ice cream watermelon roll and dump a conehead sundae on the carpet in your memory. Thanks for mine.
Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.
Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.
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