15 Years Later, I Returned to the Revamped Friendly’s to See If the Magic Still Existed

friendly's restaurant nostalgia essay: friendly's dishes on pink background, including banana split, milkshake, chicken finger basket, jim dandy, cone head sundae and royal razz soda
Dasha Burobina

If you grew up in East Coast suburbia, you likely have fond memories of Friendly’s, a restaurant-ice cream shop hybrid with a diner-style ambiance and classic American fare. Whether you were scarfing down burgers with your family or nursing a Sprite with your fellow teen loiterers (just me?), this chain holds a special place in many millennials’ hearts—including this Jersey girl. After receiving a press release last year about the chain’s revamped menu (as a slightly cynical food writer, I tend to see this as a Hail Mary pass), I was curious to revisit my old stomping grounds. Would it be as delicious and fun as I remember? Would an IRL visit even hold a candle to my Fribble-laced recollections? I took my sister to my local Friendly’s for dinner to find out.

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The evening started out promising, and how could it not? The moment we stepped through the door, we were embraced by an old-school ice cream shop with a slew of flavors, sauces and toppings to choose from. We followed our server to the table: a cushy red booth, just like we remembered. After passing a cinematically endearing father-daughter pair in the middle of a furious thumb war, I felt giddy with nostalgia and optimism.

With all the seriousness and discretion of undercover food critics, we took in our surroundings. At 7 p.m. on a Monday, about half the restaurant was full. Nearly all the tables had children, save for one trio of senior women and one group of college students. Similarly, almost every group ended their visit with ice cream.

“Part of the magic is like, you’re eating dinner in an ice cream shop,” my sister Nikki explained. “It’s an ice cream shop first and a restaurant second. You walk in and see the ice cream counter and you’re like, ‘hell yeah, that’s how I’m gonna end this. But first, some chicken tenders.’”

We had ample time to determine our orders. (The service was a tad slow. We didn’t mind waiting but acknowledged that we definitely wouldn’t have noticed in the first place as kids.) We frantically scanned the menu for our old drink orders—the Royal Razz and Cotton Candy sodas, both otherworldly shades of blue and served in tall, beer stein-like glasses with thick, color-changing bendy straws—but to our dismay, they’d been discontinued.

“Everything is different,” my sister says with a pout that gives me mean déjà vu.

friendly's restaurant nostalgia essay: friendly's sign on table that reads "ice cream classics never go out of style"
Taryn Pire

Crushed by the realizations that time is indeed fleeting and adulthood is occasionally cruel, we settled on raspberry iced tea and lemonade instead. (We were shocked and delighted that they came with plastic straws—didn’t we cancel those in 2018? We’ll take all the throwbacks we can get.)

Like all retro delights (minus low-rise jeans, I guess…), Friendly’s heyday has come and gone. Founded in 1935 in Springfield, Massachusetts at the peak of the Great Depression, Friendly’s initially only sold double-dip cones for 5 cents a pop. By 1974, the chain had 500 locations across the Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. In the late ’90s, Friendly’s debuted on the stock market and began a franchise program, but dozens of locations failed to survive the early aughts. After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2011 and again in 2019, the pandemic forced the chain to do so a third time in 2020. After selling all its assets, Friendly’s now has 119 locations across the East Coast currently listed on its website.

With its losses went our favorite sodas, along with the inexplicably appetizing Wattamelon Roll (a sliceable roll of watermelon and lemon sherbet dappled with chocolate chip “seeds”) that little me always coveted but never tried. On the bright side, our dad’s Jim Dandy—a tower of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice creams, fresh banana, sprinkles and walnuts, doused in marshmallow, strawberry and chocolate sauces and contained in a massive glass goblet—still had premium placement on the dessert menu. And my favorite Butter Crunch ice cream still existed, so I told my sister about the time I threw an excessively dramatic tantrum as a kid when my scoop arrived with a maraschino cherry on top. (I now ask for everyone’s cherries and pickles—if that’s not growth, I don’t know what is.)

Blowing right past fancy new additions like oven-roasted short ribs and ChoppedCheese Burgers, we ordered our nearly 20-year-old usuals that were thankfully still on the menu: my sister, the country chicken tenders with waffle fries and the Turkey Club Supermelt for me. In honor of our inner children, we also ordered the mac and cheese bites for good measure. When they arrived, asymmetrical and paired with plasticky cheese dip that had a slightly hardened film on the surface, we started to worry.

friendly's restaurant nostalgia essay: friendly's mac and cheese bites, turkey club supermelt and chicken tenders, side by side
Taryn Pire

“I know my tenders aren’t gonna be as good because they’re not gonna be on sticks,” Nikki lamented. It struck me as silly and devastating all at once, but she was right. A flashbulb memory went off in my mind’s eye: my sister in Powerpuff Girls swag, eating a chicken tender as big as a fish filet like a lollipop off a wooden skewer. They used to come propped in a swirly metal basket, complete with ketchup, honey mustard and barbecue sauce for dipping. Now, they’re significantly smaller and served on a plate with only one sauce, but we requested all three for the mems. And we actually ate the coleslaw—little us would never.

The waffle fries somehow disappointed too. Their texture was solid, but the flavor was underwhelming. Weren’t they seasoned before? Or had our childlike palates tricked us? They were still tastier than the regular fries, which could have used a few more minutes in the fryer and a dusting of salt. I took solace in the fact that my turkey melt tasted *exactly* how I remembered, save for the bread, which I recalled as being super buttery and consistently yellow. Of course, it’s 2023 and inflation is real, so I tried to overlook that my sammy only had two pieces of turkey, undoubtedly skimped compared to those I had in the ’90s.

Despite the edible bummers, we held out hope for dessert. “The ice cream in the metal cup will always hit,” Nikki said with conviction. (The metal sundae cups keep the ice cream from melting right away, but she loves them for drawing smiley faces in the condensation rather than their utility.) “When the meal disappoints, remember, we’re here for the ice cream.”

friendlys restaurant nostalgia Monster Mash
Dasha Burobina

Her decision was easy: a single scoop of Rockin’ Poppin’ Cotton Candy, a sky-blue ice cream with ribbons of taffy pink, peppered with popping candy. I, on the other hand, had been fantasizing about Friendly’s most iconic sundae of all time since we’d left the house: the Monster Mash. It starts with a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is adorned with M&M’s eyes, a cherry nose, halved Reese’s cup ears, chocolate fudge hair and a crown of whipped cream. Despite being made to order by hand, I remember them turning out *identical* to the menu photo every single time. And I’d venture to say the aesthetics were responsible for its enduring popularity (do kids even like mint-chip ice cream?).

Not only was the Monster Mash not pictured on menu (though it thankfully still existed), but it also looked…sad. The fudge (which should really be called syrup) was haphazardly buried under the deflated whip. The cherry was broken, the M&M’s were sweating and bleeding blue. Don’t even get me started on those damn ears. Apparently the monster had aged 20 years too, and was now an older, disillusioned version of his former self.

friendly's restaurant nostalgia essay: monster mash sundae
Taryn Pire

Our inner millennial was at first pained by his appearance, the metaphor almost too on the nose. This is what happens to us all, isn’t it? But we eventually took it in stride and pivoted from feeling old to laughing it off.

Still seated, we recounted the meal for my notes, my sister saying, “It was good, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.” I’m reminded of my therapist’s ever-relevant advice that expectations, like comparison, are often thieves of joy. Memories, whether they’re accurate or idealized, can no doubt taint the present.

What didn’t disappoint? The experience. I hadn’t realized how badly I’d craved a simpler era. A time of birthday serenades, thumb wars and color-changing straws. A time when we weren’t so hyper-focused on wellness, when we’d slurp down neon sodas and dessert in the same meal. A time where my whole family still went out to dinner. A time when all my sister and I had to think about was which ice cream flavor to order (or have our parents order for us).

After paying the bill and heading home, it was evident that this time remained firmly in the past. But we were both grateful to have reminisced together, if only for 90 minutes. We’d waded in a deep, warm pool of nostalgia and left feeling just a little younger than when we’d arrived.

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Taryn Pire is PureWow’s associate food editor. A former bartender and barista, she’s been writing about all things delicious since 2016, developing recipes, reviewing restaurants and investigating food trends at Food52, New Jersey Family Magazine and Taste Talks. When she isn’t testing TikTok’s latest viral recipe, she’s having popcorn for dinner and posting about it on Instagram @cookingwithpire.

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...