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The historic Howard Johnson's in Times Square is likely to close.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

January 13, 2003 --

IT'S happy hour in Times Square. Teenagers cram the Virgin Megastore, accountants file out of the Ernst & Young Building and head back to the suburbs, and conventioneers with name tags fill the trendy bar in the new W hotel.

But at the Howard Johnson's, a crowd is gathering under a sign marked, "Cocktails," the very word evoking the golden age of Tom Collins and Rob Roy.

But this is no golden age. This is the restaurant that time - or the Zagats - forgot, a place where a low-fi PA plays jazz right out of "Sweet Smell of Success," the booths are covered in burnt-orange plastic, the ice-cream counter looks as if it were lifted whole out of a Rexall pharmacy in 1965, and the waiters have the beaten look of people who came to Times Square in a decidedly different era with decidedly different dreams.

On this night, the joint has that edgy feel of last call - with good reason. A week ago, The Post reported that the Howard Johnson's - one of the first four (and now one of the last 10) in the country, a restaurant that has been here since people were afraid, and then NOT afraid, to go to Times Square - will soon close.

Amazing. Times Square has finally been made safe for families, yet America's original family restaurant is in danger.

Why? Because the money-people can make more by renting to a national retailer - think Gap flagship or a Victoria Secret superstore - than by serving fried clams to cautious out-of-towners or bottom-shelf drinks to hipsters and chronics.

Morris Rubinstein, the original owner and personal friend of the actual Howard Johnson, said he'd never close his HoJo's "as long as the Lord will spare me."

But the Lord eventually stopped sparing Morris Rubinstein, and every paper has written the restaurant's obit, only to find that reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated.

This time, something - maybe it's the glitter of the New Times Square or maybe it's the fly in my Manhattan - tells me that HoJo's won't survive, despite the optimism of Joseph Shahery, the jovial manager who has worked here since 1966.

"The real-estate people are just trying to drive up the price," said Shahery. "The owners say they'll never sell."

But Shahery is remembering a long-gone former owner - and the bygone days when a pledge meant something. "The site will be rented in a month," said someone familiar with the deal.

So set 'em up, Joe. Last call may really be here.

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