Who would have guessed that the largest roadside restaurant in the United States was once right here in New York City? According to Highway Host, Howard Johnson’s Rego Park, Queens location was the largest Roadside restaurant in the U.S. when it was built in 1939. And believe it or not, it was quite luxurious! 

For the Queen’s branch, Howard Johnson pulled out all the stops: crystal chandeliers imported from Italy, decorative murals, Venetian blinds and classic Colonial architecture. The dining room seated 1,000 people.

The development–and eventual transformation–into what was perhaps the “ultimate dining experience” of the period, according to Highway Host, stretches back to the 1939 World’s Fair. With the outbreak of the Second World War, those of the European delegations in attendance were forced to remain in the United States–many indefinitely.

One such figure was a well respected chef at the French pavilion, Pierre Franey. He would go on to open a respected restaurant in New York City, but following arguments in the 1960s left. Franey was hired by Johnson, a regular at his restaurant, helping to elevate Johnson’s food and reputation.In 1943, the war-time gasoline rationing forced the Howard Johnsons in Queens to close, along with two other locations. After the war, Johnson eliminated any pretense of luxury, focusing instead on providing modest roadside accommodations for middle class Americans.

Be sure to check out the history of Steinway Street, a major shopping strip in the borough, and Cities 101 for how to navigate the neighborhood!  All photos via Highway Host.

Get in touch with the author @spencercnyc