Have a Diner Day

Since 1922 this American icon, tucked away on Manchester’s Lowell Street, has fed a potpourri of diners — tradesmen, students, business people, families and tourists — all seeking hearty American favorites, a good value, generous helpings and the Red Arrow experience.

In September 1998 USA Today voted it “One of the Top Ten Diners in the Country.” In 2000 the city of Manchester designated it a city landmark. People arrive at its doors from all over the world, penning their names and notes in the guest book.

Only three people have owned the diner. Carol Sheehan, the third owner, bought it in 1978. She attributes its fame and consistently good food to her employees who share her passion for the diner. Staff turnover is minimal, almost nonexistent. Many customers are third-generation diners. Regulars come every day, some twice a day. On Friday and Saturday nights the “bar rush” keeps things humming until about three in the morning.

What exactly is the Red Arrow experience? It’s different for everyone. Physically, the place is small. There’s usually a packed counter and probably a line of people against the wall patiently waiting for a stool to clear. The few tables fill quickly. Customers sit together, elbow-to-elbow, stool-to-stool. Conversations with strangers spring up easily. The camaraderie percolates above the din of conversations, upbeat music and the busy kitchen that runs in high gear 24 hours a day, every day.

In the tiny kitchen that prepares more than 4,200 meals a week, potatoes are peeled, boiled and mashed. Pork and salmon pies are made from scratch. Fresh haddock is the only fish in fish and chips. Homemade turkey rice soup is always on the menu. The famous Red Arrow baked beans taste the same as they did 82 years ago because it’s the original recipe. The Blue Plate Specials change daily, but are always served on a blue plate and are still one of the best values. With each Blue Plate comes a “Diner Dollar” toward your next meal. Breakfast is served anytime.

Popular classics are meatloaf, liver and onions, chicken fried steak, fish and chips, corned beef hash, burgers, chowders (served Fridays), award-winning chili, franks and beans and one of their top sellers, chicken tenders. Specials may include Swedish meatballs, American chop suey or chicken noodle casserole. The menu is extensive, the portions generous. The most expensive dinner on the menu is $7.99, the lowest, $4.99.

Everything is homemade and that includes 16 different pies, plus the signature Hannah pie for the indecisive. Cakes include white, chocolate and the popular Boston cream cake. Eclairs, puddings and the “Splendid Brownie Cream Pie” make decisions more difficult. During Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, the diner filled orders for 560 to-go pies.

Kids are treated specially at the Red Arrow. There’s a Kid’s Blue Plate breakfast or lunch served on an inverted blue Frisbee with a special Red Arrow cup, both of which go home with the kids.

In August 1998, Carol agonized over her decision to go smoke-free. Longtime smokers swore they would never set foot in the Red Arrow again. Eventually just about everyone came back and Carol has watched business grow each year as people who had stayed away now bring their families and friends.

The only time the diner closes is December 24 at 2 p.m. It reopens at 6 a.m. on Christmas Day, when Carol and her husband Dennis work side by side with staff to feed the lines of friends and families that stretch out the door and around the parking lot. For these people Christmas dinner at the Red Arrow is tradition, sometimes a couple of generations deep.

Stop in anytime. Who knows? You could run into Adam Sandler, back in his hometown to catch up on some Red Arrow favorites. Everyone wants to “Have a Diner Day.”

Red Arrow Diner, 61 Lowell Street, Manchester, (603) 626-1118, www.redarrowdiner.com