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Loyal fans recall sweeter times

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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BRIDGEWATER - Going to Friendly’s has long been a tradition for Lauren Fitch’s family. On the day after Thanksgiving, Fitch, her mother, sisters, aunt, and cousin would always end up at a Friendly’s restaurant after a long day of shopping.

“We go, get whatever we want,’’ the 31-year-old said. “That’s our staple.’’

Yesterday, Fitch pulled into the Bridgewater Friendly’s to celebrate her daughter’s fourth birthday with a Monster Mash Sundae, only to find the restaurant closed by bankruptcy.

“Bummer,’’ the Raynham mother said as she buckled her daughter, Molly, back in her car seat for a trip to a nearby Ninety Nine Restaurant. “I’ve been coming here my whole life.’’

For more then 75 years, Friendly’s has been a New England Institution, and the closing of some 60 restaurants - and the possibility that many more might follow - spurred memories of eggs over easy, tuna melts, and thick Fribble shakes shared with friends and family.

In Bridgewater, many grew up with the restaurant, which opened on Broad Street in 1976, offering families an affordable, convenient venue where kids could color on the menu and parents could catch up with friends. Mention of the chain’s name around town yesterday elicited smiles as residents and workers reminisced about hot summer days cooled by a Friendly’s double-dip cone, late nights highlighted by ice cream runs, and joyful dinners to celebrate a performance in a school play.

Chris Ventura, owner of Hidden Treasure Consignment, a second-hand clothing boutique on Central Square, said when she heard that Friendly’s was closing stores, her first thought was, “I hope it’s not Bridgewater.’’

She remembered taking her kids to Friendly’s for pancakes every Sunday after church. More often than not, Ventura said, the family was served by a longtime waitress they knew simply as Carol.

“You would go in and she would know your name,’’ said Ventura, 59, as she bustled around her shop, helping customers. “It was like going to a small town restaurant. It had a small town feel, you know?’’

She had hoped to take her grandchildren to the Friendly’s now that her kids, who live outside of Bridgewater, are starting families of their own.

At the local fire department, captain-paramedic Eric Elder said his childhood was filled with cones from Friendly’s, and a visit to the restaurant remained a treat for him and his wife.

“All I can say is they better still sell the ice cream in stores, because the best thing is their [Royal] Banana Split Sundae,’’ said Elder, 49. “That’s a weekly thing at my house.’’

In part, the Bridgewater Friendly’s, like the restaurant chain, fell victim to increasing competition and a faster pace of life, in which sit-down meals gave way to lunch on the run.

Joe Staska said when he takes a lunch break from work at Broad Street Tattoo, which is on the same block, he usually pops across the street to the D’Angelo sandwich shop.

“This is faster food,’’ the 40-year-old Hanson resident said, gesturing at D’Angelo before looking back toward Friendly’s, adding of the restaurant, “You kinda forget about it, too.’’

Dorothy Poland and her daughter, Suzette, who both work at Dr. Sherman Geller’s Plymouth-Bridgewater Eye Care Inc. two doors down from the restaurant, said they visited the place only a handful of times each year, usually to get ice cream. The elder Poland said she hoped another restaurant, like an Applebee’s, a sit-down restaurant chain that markets itself as a neighborhood gathering spot, might take Friendly’s place.

At the Friendly’s, signs pasted to the ice cream “order’’ window and the front door read: “Thank you for your patronage. This restaurant has permanently closed.’’ A few would-be customers pulled into the nearly empty lot around lunch time, but quickly left, hoping to get to another restaurant before the end of their break. Teary-eyed employees later gathered in the parking lot after spending a few hours inside the locked building, apparently helping to clean.

A man standing outside the darkened restaurant in a light blue button-down shirt with the red Friendly’s insignia embroidered on the chest had little to say.

“We’ve had people come by disappointed that this one is closed,’’ he said, declining to give his name and walking away.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.