Amidst Pandemic, New Restaurants Still Open in NH
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped new eateries from opening around the state
If this year has shown us anything, it’s that change and disruption are inevitable, but so are creativity and innovation. Fueled by a love of community and nutritious, locally sourced and sustainable food, a few Granite Staters wouldn’t let the chaos of COVID-19 stop them from achieving their dream of becoming restaurant owners.
Tucked into a cozy downtown spot on Elm Street in Manchester, Diz’s Café promises to serve you Grandma’s-kitchen-level comfort food with a side of community that will make you feel like you’re at your home away from home. Gary Window, known as Diz to his family and close friends, has enjoyed a long career in hospitality, and always dreamed of owning his own restaurant — a dream that came to life on May 29. “He has been in restaurants since he was 16 years old, and even though it wasn’t ideal to open the restaurant during a pandemic, that’s how it worked out and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Gary’s wife and restaurant co-owner Judi Window.
The idea for the restaurant started seven years ago with a family website and a series of Diz’s Café cooking videos, and later became the inspiration for turning that online space into a physical one in the Windows’ home city. “We wanted to create an accommodating place where people could bring their friends and family for a home-cooked meal,” says Judi. “And what better place to do that than where Gary and I both have family and live ourselves.”
The café combines a modern atmosphere with a nod to the millyard and industrial Manchester history to create a leisurely neighborhood atmosphere. “Our goal was to take what’s old and make it new,” says Judi. “We have exposed brick walls, easy-to-move tables and chairs so you can make your own socially distanced, COVID-approved dinner party configuration, and an old Woolworth-style lunch counter, which doubles as a bar. We wanted to make sure families feel welcome … but don’t bring them to our secret ‘tea time’ at 3 p.m., when you can stop by and enjoy a beer or glass of wine without feeling guilty.”
The open seating gives it a welcoming vibe, and the menu and service are just as welcoming and down to earth. When you first walk in, you’ll be greeted with a hearty hello from a staff member (or maybe a friendly guest). You can dine both inside and out, and you can place to-go orders in person or over the phone.
They operate as a hybrid of full-service and café-style, says Judi, meaning you can order food at the kiosk (your food will be delivered to you) or, if you prefer, staff can also take orders at your table. “We are here to make your experience as easy as possible,” she says. With keto-friendly, sugar-free and even a special build-your-own options, the menu is accommodating for a wide variety of tastes and diets.
Expect to find items like buttermilk chicken salad, BBQ flatbread, meatloaf, their original Dizspinaca, American chop suey and Elm Street tacos to name a few, and they even serve breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings. From their menu to their just-for-fun event nights (dress up encouraged, but not required), fun is laced into every part of Diz’s Café “where locals go and visitors feel welcome.”
Like Diz’s, Ciao Italia Ristorante + Mercato opened this summer despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. The downtown Durham restaurant celebrates authentic regional Italian cuisine, and is owned by Doug Clark and his wife Kim. If the restaurant name sounds familiar, that’s because the couple licensed it from fellow Durham resident, cookbook author and acclaimed chef Mary Ann Esposito, host of the PBS show “Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito,” now celebrating 30 years, making it America’s longest-running television cooking series.
Over the years, Esposito has turned down numerous opportunities to open a restaurant, but one in her hometown seemed like the perfect fit. “Doug Clark had a vision to create a much-needed casual restaurant in downtown Durham,” says Esposito. “My role for Ciao Italia is to work with executive chef Jeanne Clements and develop recipes that would be appropriate and reflect the mission statement of the restaurant, to present regional Italian food using the best authentic ingredients.”
Located at 56 Main St., where The Knot Irish Pub used to be, Ciao Italia has outdoor seating, limited indoor dining, and takeout options that comply with COVID-19 state regulations.
Staff members pride themselves on creating a comfortable and upscale-casual atmosphere, enhanced by modern and sleek interior details. Whether ordering from the main dine-in menu, the curbside menu or the patio menu, expect the same level of care in every dish.
“When you come to the restaurant, you can expect an experience that reflects dining throughout each of Italy’s 20 regions just as much as it does the food,” says Esposito. “The top of our menu says, ‘Enjoy like the Italians who follow a pattern to their meal with a series of small dishes including the antipasto, first, second, salad course and finally dessert.’ We are excited to show people how to experience the journey that these dining traditions bring.”
For antipasti, choose from items like bruschetta, grilled country bread with a variety of seasonal toppings, and polpette siciliane, Sicilian-style pork and veal meatballs. For first courses, choose from pasta, soups and rice dishes. For the second course, enjoy offerings like parmigiana di melanzane decostruita, deconstructed eggplant parmigiana, or pesce e patate al forno, baked Atlantic cod.
“Most like pasta and think that it is the main part of the meal, but it is just a part,” says Esposito. “Our other dishes complement the meal as a whole, and we stuck to only a few main course options, which speaks to how fresh the food is. The menu will change seasonally and there is something for everyone.”
The restaurant combines a comfortable, inviting environment with a menu inspired by the changing of seasons, and which reads like a menu you would find in Florence — deliciously healthy.
Zachary’s Chop House in Windham was created with the goal of focusing on community and locally sourced, sustainable food. Zachary “Zach” Woodard had been the chef at The Lobster Tail for 16 years when the opportunity arose to buy the business and make it his own.
“I’ve always wanted to build my own business,” says Woodard. “Everything was already changing due to COVID, and I knew that I needed a change and Windham needed a change, so myself and a few friends put our heads together, saw that there weren’t many chophouses around, and put together the concept for the restaurant.”
The rebranding comes with a new menu and renovated dining space that Woodard, a few contractors and Woodard’s friend Sully Erna of the band Godsmack spent the last few months rebuilding.
“We knew that we wanted it to be a casual, fine dining restaurant, so we gutted and replaced everything from the floors to building a new bar,” says Woodard. “I am a family guy, and I wanted to be able to create an environment that people would feel comfortable bringing their kids and family to.”
Open for both lunch and dinner, menu items range from duck wings and mussels to a fresh-caught fish sandwich, but the most popular items might be their local prime cuts of 32-ounce ribeyes and 16-ounce New York strips.
“Local is the only way to go,” says Woodard. “I was a fisherman for four years, so I do the best I can to throw whatever I can to other local fishermen and farmers in the area. We all need to stick and work together, especially in times like this.”
Even with the restaurant operating at 50% capacity, they’ve been full every night since they opened on July 31, and Woodard doesn’t think that they will be slowing down anytime soon. “We’ve been so fortunate to have some awesome people to help build us such a wonderful place, and we’re even more fortunate to serve our community in this time with great company and an even better meal.”
Another must-visit restaurant
Rooftop at The Envio
299 Vaughan St., Portsmouth
Next time that you’re in Portsmouth and looking for the best seat in the house, head to the Rooftop at The Envio. Sitting high above the AC Hotel Portsmouth and The Envio, the new rooftop restaurant and bar offers panoramic views of the Piscataqua River and the bridges that cross it. The restaurant offers a casually sophisticated dining experience and a modern menu of locally sourced ingredients. Enjoy a Maine lobster flatbread while you sip a Strawbery Banke cocktail and watch the sunset. The views are just as good as the food and drink.