New Hampshire's Classic Diners

Come for the food but stay for the warm sense of community, history and tradition at New Hampshire’s classic diners



The Red Arrow 24 Hr. Diner in Manchester
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

New England is one of the strongholds of the diner, and New Hampshire certainly has its fair share of these unique eateries.

The traditional diner is a particularly American institution, a living relic of the days when the car was king, modernity meant speed and convenience and a milkshake with two straws was the pinnacle of young romance. Despite the rise of the fast-food chain, the traditional diner remains, serving up burgers and omelets with a side of nostalgia.

Halfway through a road trip, early in the morning before another day’s work or late at night on a trucker’s route, the reliable diner beckons. A port of call for weary travelers, the diner has a sense of adventure about it, of undiscovered highway stretching mile after mile, waiting outside as you finish up your coffee.

A diner is also a local fixture, a place to meet every day, to have “the usual” and catch up with neighbors. Diners are uniquely welcoming, and their stools and booths have seated farmers and factory workers, celebrities and politicians, a veritable cross-section of a neighborhood, a town, a city or a whole state.

Whether we’re making a stop on a long journey across the country or just heading across our small New Hampshire hometown, the food is rarely the only reason we go to a diner. The reward of the diner experience is a glimpse into the heart of a community.

And at the center of it all is the diner waitress. She calls you “hon,” refills your coffee, brings your eggs at lightning speed and, whether you’re passing through or live next door, she makes you feel at home. We went to five diners around the state to talk to their longest-serving servers, for a closer look at the women who help give New Hampshire’s diners, and the communities around them, their unique character.

Andrea Sullivan Red Arrow 24 Hr. Diner, Manchester

Server Andrea Sullivan of the Red Arrow 24 Hr. Diner
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

What look at New Hampshire’s diners would be complete without Manchester’s Red Arrow 24 Hr. Diner? While diners are known for being relaxed and casual, with a strong sense of community, there’s also something urban about them, a hustle and bustle that reflects the cityscapes they were originally designed for. Located in the state’s largest city, the Red Arrow is arguably New Hampshire’s most diner-like diner.

Andrea Sullivan has worked here for 11 years and can attest to the diner’s controlled chaos — and to the huge number of personal connections made here every day.

Sullivan, a former ski and snowboard instructor who grew up in small-town Vermont, describes her first days at the Red Arrow as culture shock. “We get all walks of life in this diner, way more than I’ve ever seen growing up,” she says. “It was a lot to handle for me first coming here, but it was fun.”

“I think that was one of the reasons why I stayed,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to see or hear.” From surreal conversations at three in the morning to the politicians and celebrities who constantly appear, Sullivan says she’s learned a lot about people and especially to never judge a book by its cover.

But in the human tide that ebbs and flows through the Red Arrow, there’s a sense of familiarity and friendship too. “It is literally like ‘Cheers,’” says Sullivan. It’s the servers who make it that way: “If somebody starts coming in pretty regularly, we’re right on top of it,” she says. “‘OK, you’ve been coming in now almost every day for two weeks. What’s your name?’”

That familiarity extends well beyond the walls of this diner. Manchester is much, much bigger than her tiny Vermont hometown, but Sullivan can’t go anywhere in this city without being recognized — if not by name, then at least as a server from the Red Arrow Diner.


Cortney Robbins Peterborough Diner, Peterborough

 

Server Cortney Robbins
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

“Every morning I don’t feel like I’m going to work,” says Cortney Robbins. Instead, “I’m going to have fun, talk to people and get paid for it.”

Robbins is a clear extrovert, laughing easily and checking on customers often, but she says she was a “scared little timid girl” when she began working at the Peterborough Diner 10 years ago. “I started out as a fountain person, so I was just over there making ice cream,” she recalls. Told she would make a great server, she resisted at first. “No, I don’t want to talk to people!” she says, imitating the voice of that “timid girl.”

“Rusty” Colby, a retired security guard, EMT and Navy veteran, became a regular here around that time, and he doesn’t corroborate Robbins’ claim. He says she’s always been “very pleasant — and funny. She’s got a good sense of humor.”

“Now I would talk to anybody,” Robbins laughs.

“Anybody” passing through this 61-year-old diner has included almost every presidential candidate (Obama had a slice of blueberry pie). Part of the 2006 indie movie “Sensation of Sight” was also shot at the diner and features the back of Robbins’ head.

But it’s the everyday, predictable part of the job that Robbins loves. There are the regulars, people who she knows will come at a certain time, sit at a certain table and order a certain thing. Beyond them, Robbins says she knows most of the town by now. “I couldn’t tell you their names,” she admits, “but I could tell you what they like with their eggs.”


Megan Bastien and Tara Damon Miss Wakefield Diner, Wakefield

Servers Megan Bastien (left) and Tara Damon
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

“You gotta remember,” says Scott Bramer, the owner of Miss Wakefield Diner, “the server is the first and the last person to see your customer.” A diner, in other words, is only as good as the servers bringing coffee, taking down orders and joking with regulars. A good diner feels like home, and good servers are the ones who make it that way, keeping customers coming back.

Megan Bastien and Tara Damon have both worked at Miss Wakefield for 12 years (Damon one month longer than Bastien). In that time, they’ve made plenty of visitors into regulars.

Some of those regulars come back only a few times a year. This diner on the White Mountain Highway draws crowds of skiers if winter provides enough snow, and plenty of Lakes Region vacationers in the summer. “We love seeing those summer people come up,” Damon says. “We know summer’s here when they come.”

She and Bastien agree that the families who come back year after year are what make their job rewarding. “We’ve seen kids since they were little, to adults now,” says Bastien. “You see them grow, and see them go through everything.”

They both say the diner feels like a family, one that includes the regulars, the staff and Bramer and his wife.

That’s why Bramer says he never wants to sell Miss Wakefield Diner. Instead, he’s training Bastien to take over one day — keeping it in the “family.”


Karen Carignan Littleton Diner, Littleton

Server Karen Carignan
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

Karen Carignan moved up to Littleton nine years ago. She had waitressed in restaurants big and small, and even a casino, but wanted to go someplace relaxed and out of the way.

“It’s so much nicer up here,” she says. “Quieter. People are nicer.”

But she says that doesn’t mean the Littleton Diner isn’t busy — or even, as it turns out, so out of the way. Lots of people come up to Littleton, especially for the foliage, and Carignan is amazed by just how far some of them have come. The diner’s guest book has entries from plenty of New Englanders and Canadians, but also a surprising number from Europe, Africa and as far away as New Zealand. Some of these international visitors have even become seasonal regulars.

As for the local regulars, Carignan says they usually wait out the summer and fall and reappear in the off-season. “They come back like, ‘Is it over yet? Can we come back yet?’” she says.

Local or international, everyone seems to like diners.  “It’s the whole atmosphere,” says Carignan. “They like to come in and just relax, and watch us run around like nuts!”


Chris King Trackside Café, Exeter

Morning person Chris King gets up at 4 a.m. every day to serve breakfast.
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

Lucky for the Exeter commuters catching the Downeaster at dawn, Chris King is a morning person. After about 40 years in the restaurant business, she traded a job working nights to become a server at the Trackside Café two years ago. “I get up at 4 o’clock every morning and I love every minute of it,” she says.

 

“One of the things I always say is, breakfast is easy,” explains King. “You put a cup of coffee in front of somebody, they’re happy. It’s that simple.”

This diner, at the back of Gerry’s Variety Store in the 123-year-old former Boston & Maine Railroad station, does a brisk business in takeout coffee. King says commuters come for an eye-opener with the same regularity as the trains that stop at the adjacent platform, “the same people every day doing the same thing, and the same routine.”

The building may no longer be a train station, but the diner is still there to shelter travelers too. “When the train’s late, it fills right up,” says King. “Like that snowstorm the other day: train’s late, they all come in.”

And they’re all great, and they’re also grateful,” she adds, “because they’ve got a place to go.”

Craving more? Here are more great diners in New Hampshire

104 Diner
752 NH Route 104
New Hampton, NH 03256

Airport Diner
2280 Brown Avenue
Manchester, NH 03103

The Bacon Barn
4 Sanborn Rd
Londonderry, NH 03053

Coffee Pot Restaurant
30 Main Street
Littleton, NH 03561

Cross Roads Diner
94 New Rochester Road
Dover, NH 03820

DaddyPops Tumble Inn Diner
1 Main Street
Claremont, NH 03743

The D.W. Diner
416 Daniel Webster Highway
Merrimack, NH 03054

Donna's Place
28 Lowell Road
Hudson, NH 03051

Fast Eddie's Diner
320 Lafayette Road
Hampton, NH 03842

Four Aces Diner
23 Bridge Street
West Lebanon, NH 03784

Four Seasons Diner
1328 Hooksett Road
Hooksett, NH 03106

Friends Diner
85 Allenstown Road
Allenstown, NH 03275

George's Diner
10 Plymouth Street
Meredith, NH 03253

Gilley’s Diner
175 Fleet Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801

Hollis Market Place Diner
4 Ash Street
Hollis, NH

Joey's Diner
1 Craftsman Lane
Amherst, NH 03031

The Lebanon Diner
24 Hanover Street
Lebanon, NH 03766

Lindy's Diner
19 Gilbo Avenue

Keene, NH 03461

Littleton Diner
170 W Main Street
Littleton, NH 03561

MaryAnn's Diner
29 East Broadway
Derry, NH 03038

Marcus P's Diner Plus
50 Main Street
Greenville, NH 03048

Margie’s Dream Diner
172 Hayward Street
Manchester, NH 03103

Miss Wakefield Diner
7 Windy Hollow Road
Wakefield, NH 03872

Moe Joe Country Diner
649 E Industrial Park Drive
Manchester, NH 03109

Murphy’s Diner
516 Elm Street
Manchester, NH 03101

Norton's Classic Cafe
233 Main Street
Nashua, NH 03060

Union Diner
1331 Union Avenue
Laconia, NH 03246

Peterborough Diner
10 Depot Street
Peterborough, NH 03458

Pink Cadillac Diner
17 Farmington Road
Rochester, NH 03867

Plain Jane's Diner
897 Old Route 25
Rumney, NH

Poor Boy's Diner
136 Rockingham Road
Londonderry, NH 03053

Red Arrow Diner - Manchester
61 Lowell Street
Manchester, NH 03101

Red Arrow Diner - Milford
63 Union Square
Milford, NH

Remember When Diner
1 Wildwood Lane
Rochester, NH 03867

Roundabout Diner
580 U.S. 1 Bypass
Portsmouth, NH 03801

Steves Diner
100 Portsmouth Avenue
Exeter, NH 03833

South Side Diner
127 Rockingham Road
Derry, NH 03038

Sunny Day Diner
Route 3
Lincoln, NH 03251

Suzie's Diner
76 Lowell Road
Hudson, NH 03051

Tilt'n Diner
61 Laconia Road
Tilton, NH 03276

Trackside Cafe
66 Lincoln Street
Exeter, NH 03833

 

 

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