Mar 12, 2014
Over the years, a variety of food fests and events have marked the seasons in southern New Hampshire. Some have been long-running, like Glendi, and some came and went, like the NH Food Bank’s Oktoberfest, which ran for just a few years. Here are some big festivals to look forward to each year:
• Wine Week: What started as a one-day wine tasting has evolved into a week (and more) of wine tastings, wine dinners, meet-and-greets with wine makers and more in late January. The central event is the Winter Wine Spectacular, held as a benefit for Easter Seals New Hampshire, which in 2011 will be on Thursday, Jan. 27, at the Radisson in Manchester. See http://nh.easterseals.com.
• Maple Weekend: Sugar houses across the state open their doors to give tastes of their maple syrup during this weekend — scheduled for March 19 and March 20 in 2011. Many offer tours of the sugar houses and/or pancakes with syrup. See www.nhmapleproducers.com.
• Chocolate Lovers Fantasy: The CareGivers holds an annual festival/competition featuring local candy shops, bakeries and restaurants offering samples of their creations. Recently, the event has been held in May. See www.caregiversnh.org.
• Greek festivals: There are several regular Greek food festivals in the area. St. Philip Church, 500 W. Hollis St. in Nashua, 889-4000, www.stphilipnh.org, holds a festival in the spring — recently in May. In June, Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 1160 Bridge St. in Manchester, 625-6115, holds an annual lamb barbecue featuring marinated lamb as well as other Greek dishes and music. Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, 111 Island Pond Road in Manchester, 623-2045, holds its annual Greekfest in mid-August. Mid-September brings Glendi, the Greek food and culture celebration at St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 650 Hanover St. in Manchester, 622-9113, www.stgeorge.nh.goarch.org.
• Farmers markets: Nearly every town in New Hampshire now has a farmers market — some (Nashua, towns on the Seacoast) even have more than one. Most open for the season in June and end sometime in October.
• Taste of Downtown Nashua: Usually the first Wednesday in June, the Taste gives food lovers a chance to sample several downtown restaurants, bakeries and food shops at once while getting a look inside downtown retail and business locations. The event is set for June 1, 2011. See www.downtownnashua.org. Great American Downtown, the event’s organizer, also holds restaurant-week events in the spring and fall at which downtown eateries offer discounts and price-fixed meals.
• Food in Prescott Park: Out on the Seacoast, there are food festivals throughout the summer and early fall in Prescott Park in Portsmouth. Look for the WOKQ Chowder Festival (usually in early June), the WHEB Chili Cookoff (usually in October) and the Fish & Lobster Festival (late September). This year, there was also a brewfest in early October. See www.prescottpark.org.
• Rock ‘N Ribfest: Held annually in mid-June by the Nashua West Rotary at the Anheuser-Busch facility in Merrimack. The event often features the NH State Barbecue Championship as well as ribs for the public, music, and activities for kids. The Ribfest is scheduled for June 17-19 in 2011. See www.rotaryribfest.org.
• Afro-Caribbean Festival: Held by Ujima Collective in August in Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Manchester. Look for tasty foods from the islands as well as music, dancing and more. See ujimacollective.mysite.com or call 627-4631.
• Food festivals: Summer and early fall see a variety of local food festivals — look for strawberry, blueberry, peach, lobster, apple and pumpkin festivals in town centers and at area churches. On one weekend in August — in 2010, it was the third weekend — there are a bunch of food festivals in the area, many of them focusing on ethnic cuisines. The Latino Festival of NH (www.latinosunidosnh.org), usually held on Saturday, takes place mostly in Veterans Park in downtown Manchester and features food from countries across Latin America. Our Lady of the Cedars Melkite Catholic Church, 140 Mitchell St., Manchester (www.mahrajan-nh.com), holds its annual Middle Eastern festival at the church on Saturday and Sunday. Come for eats including lamb, beef and chicken kabobs, falafel and tabbouleh, and traditional Middle Eastern pastries. In downtown Lowell, Mass., the Southeast Asian Water Festival features the cuisine of Cambodia, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries as well as dance, parades, long boat races, crafts and more on a Saturday; see www.lowellwaterfestival.org. The Sunday of this same weekend is often the day for the Henniker Rotary Club’s Chili Fest at Pat’s Peak in Henniker (www.chilinewhampshire.org). And joining the mix in 2010 was the Peach Fest and Lobster Supper from the Church of Our Savior in Milford (www.coosmilford.org).
• Taste of Downtown Manchester: Held by Intown Manchester, the city’s downtown organization, in mid-September, usually on a Wednesday, featuring downtown restaurants handing out food inside downtown shops. See www.intownmanchester.com.
• Hampton Beach Seafood Festival: Spend one more weekend at the beach — usually the weekend after Labor Day weekend. More than 50 restaurants participate; you can buy chowders, cakes of crab and clam, lobster roll, and fried anything. See www.hamptonbeachseafoodfestival.com.
• Milford Pumpkin Festival: Three days of entertainment, family events and foods of all kinds in early October. See www.milfordpumpkinfestival.org or call 672-4567.
The Winter Wine Spectacular, a fundraiser for Easter Seals New Hampshire, started as a one-day event, an alternative to the Boston wine expo. Now it is the main attraction during several days of events known as Wine Week, though if you include events at Wentworth by the Sea, the wine-related fun lasts about a month.
The Winter Wine Spectacular will be held Thursday, Jan. 27, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester. For $60 you can take part in the grand tasting — the main tasting room features more than 200 tables of wines. For $100, you can go to the Bellman’s Cellar Select Room from 6 to 8 p.m., where you’ll find more than 30 higher-end wines and special VIP eats. For $125 per person, you can go to both. The Spectacular features food from a variety of restaurants and shops. Get tickets at nh.easterseals.com.
Part of the fun of Wine Week is meeting some of the wine makers who come to town. Keep an eye on www.liquorandwineoutlets.com for a list of Wine Week events, usually announced in January.
Out at Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, the Winter Wine Festival runs from Jan. 15 through Feb. 27. The festival usually includes dinners, tastings and brunches featuring specific winemakers. See www.wentworth.com.
Subs and pizza, wine tastings and prix fixe meals — the food scene in southern New Hampshire is not one thing.
It is a mix of comfort and trend, of traditional favorites and new ideas. And while the Merrimack Valley is still compared critically (particularly on foodie blogs) to Boston and Portland, it has gems, including festivals and farmers markets, that have gained food-lover fans.
Manchester has received some national recognition in the foodie realm: the city beat out Las Vegas to host the World Championship Chili Cookoff in October; the Red Arrow Diner was named one of the top diners in the country by USA Today and has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Over the last 10 years, the scene has grown and diversified. In Manchester, some point to the growth of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, the construction of the Verizon Wireless Arena and the renaissance of downtown as reasons for the change in the scene. And then there’s the focus on eating local — a trend that has become a founding philosophy of several new restaurants.
In 2000, then Manchester mayor Robert Baines was invited to a mayor’s conference in Virginia where downtown projects were being discussed. He had worked with Intown Manchester to present a slideshow of downtown Manchester. When his presentation was finished, Baines said, another mayor had only one question for him — “Where are the people?”
“There were very few people out on the street in downtown Manchester, even at noontime. While there were active business people, there weren’t places to go for dining,” Baines said. People shied away from investing in downtown Manchester because the streets were lined with empty storefronts, Baines said.
Restaurants began popping up in downtown Manchester amidst downtown revitalization efforts, Baines said.
“There was a lot of excitement generated downtown as a result of the opening of the Verizon Wireless Arena,” Baines said. “A lot of businesses saw the opportunity to capitalize on the number of people that would be coming into the downtown for different events.”
Baines pointed to the Palace Theatre as another catalyst. “It has just flourished over the past decade. ... People going to a show at the Palace dine at a restaurant before or go after for dessert of cocktails,” Baines said.
Having grown up in the Queen City, Intown Manchester marketing director Samantha DiPrima noted that she, too, has seen an increase in arts and cultural events in the city and the revival of the Palace Theatre over last 10 years.
“Now these are economic engines … they draw people downtown,” DiPrima said.
In Concord, the Capitol Center for the Arts and the recently built Red River Theatres have drawn traffic downtown, said Kim Lully, who owns Sunny’s Table at 11 Depot St. in Concord (225-8181, www.sunnystable.com) with her husband Sun Chung.
“It’s nice to see a lot of small businesses really succeeding and supporting the area,” Lully said.
Back in Manchester, Baines created a Destination Manchester coordinator position at his office.
“His job was to solely focus on how to take advantage of … the renaissance of Manchester and the transformation of downtown as we know it,” Baines said. An economic development action team was created to ease the process for people looking to invest in Manchester, Baines said.
Elm Street eateries Piccola Italia Ristorante and Margaritas moved to the city as the result of the efforts of Baines’ predecessor, Raymond Wieczorek, he said. Margaritas, Baines said, “blazed the trail,” and Piccola, originally located in the spot now occupied by XO on Elm, did tremendous business.
“Things just started to take off after that,” Baines said.
Baines said he was able to convince Hanover Street Chophouse owner Chuck Rolocek, then owner of CR Sparks, to open a second restaurant in the city. “Manchester has very fine restaurants at different levels but Chuck brought dining to a whole different level seen in major cities across America,” Baines said.
Baines also called Richard’s Bistro a “signature place” for the city and “an example for the businesses that have followed.”
“Richard proved in the ’90s that it could be done — a lot of people questioned whether it was a wise investment,” Baines said.
Getting the ball rolling
Richard Vareschi opened the bistro bearing his namesake in 1995 at 36 Lowell St., Manchester, because he thought there was a need for fine dining in the Queen City.
“After I got my start and realized I was making it, I knew that sooner or later someone else was going to come along and say ‘If he can make it, I can make it,’” Vareschi said.
Vareschi’s first restaurant in downtown Manchester, the 88 on Market Street — a family-style establishment — was open from 1955 to 1974, “when downtown was dying,” he said. “The point of it all is, if you get yourself a niche, you will stay in business no matter how the situation is.”
The opening of Verizon Wireless Arena and improvements at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport “made Manchester more cosmopolitan and open to more dining,” Vareschi said.
Vareschi, now semi-retired, started Richard’s Bistro with a menu of “standard stuff” garnished with different kinds of starches — fruits that came off as upscale at the time. Executive chef Matt Provencher took the reins in 2007; Vareschi said the menu has evolved and “keeps up with the more sophisticated taste of the people.”
When Carol Sheehan, who grew up in the restaurant business (her parents owned Belmont Hall & Restaurant, now run by her sister), returned to Manchester from college, she was approached about buying the Red Arrow Diner — an opportunity she couldn’t turn down. While other area restaurants were struggling, the diner had made a name for itself and was able to stick it out through the recession, Sheehan said. The diner has been a Manchester mainstay since 1922, with different locations popping up across the Queen City in the 1950s. The Lowell Street location is the only one that remains.
“It has always been the place to go,” Sheehan said. “When I opened in 1987, it was the first time it had been closed. It was closed for two years, just sitting on the market, and I bought it and brought it back to life.”
The Red Arrow Diner (61 Lowell St., Manchester, 626-1118, www.redarrowdiner.com) was one of the first city restaurants to go smoke-free, in September 1998.
“People said I would go out of business…. It was the best thing I ever did. Receipts were up 8 percent the first year I went smoke-free,” Sheehan said.
“Downtown Manchester was nothing — even 15 years ago you could go out at night and not see anybody walking on Elm Street,” Sheehan said. “Now, on any given night it is great. The hustle and bustle, the great events put on by Intown, the Chamber, the city — they have really got the city booming.”
Manchester Economic Development Director Jay Minkarah noted Michael Timothy’s, which opened in 1995, as one of the pioneer fine dining restaurants in Nashua.
“That really started a trend,” he said. “Overall, I think Nashua has maintained itself as a strong regional restaurant destination.” Minkarah said people are drawn not only to the general ambience of downtown Nashua but to the quality of its eateries. “At a certain point there was a significant enough concentration to really create a restaurant district for people to come downtown and not have a specific destination in mind,” he said.
Giving restaurants a boost
Recently the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce pulled together the city’s first restaurant week, where eateries presented dishes at a fixed price just under $30. Some restaurants experienced their “busiest time ever” during the event, Sheehan said. Intown Manchester hosts an Eats Week in the spring, encouraging restaurants to offer discounts. And for five years Intown has run the Taste of Downtown Manchester, where restaurants and retailers pair up for an evening of sampling and shopping. This followed the example of Great American Downtown in Nashua, which created the area’s first Taste of Downtown and now organizes both a fall and a spring feast week in the city.
Downtown events, said Villa Banca owner Len Williams, are good for the restaurant scene.
“I hope all of those things continue in the next 10 years,” Williams said.
Minrakah attributed some of the success of the Nashua restaurant scene to a city ordinance approved in 2002 allowing Gate City restaurants to offer outdoor seating. The idea for the ordinance was part of a 2002 model established by the Nashua Regional Planning Commission.
“That really created a wonderful ambience,” Minkarah said. “The sidewalks are wide, the streetscape is fairly attractive. It added a new element to downtown.”
Williams likes the outdoor dining too: “Al fresco dining is just something people seem to cherish — the winters here are kind of long,” he said.
Kristy Stephens Amman, owner of Butter’s Fine Food and Wine (70 N. Main St., Concord, 225-5995, www.buttersinfefood.com), is unsure how proposed infrastructure changes on Main Street in Concord would affect restaurants. The city, she said, is considering changing the street to three lanes, one southbound, one northbound and a middle lane for turning.
“It will eliminate already scarce parking on Main Street,” Amman said. “I think if something like that is cleared I would consider moving my own business.” Having owned her cheese shop since 2006, Amman said she would rather stay on Main Street.
While restaurants in Manchester and Nashua are similar, they have different business plans, Minkarah said: unlike Manchester, Nashua does not see much of a lunch crowd.
“For downtown Manchester it is really very different because we have such a large office base…. We have a strong lunch business as well as an evening business,” Minkarah said. “We also have the events at the Verizon [Wireless Arena] and the Palace Theatre, which have a significant impact.”
DiPrima said she first saw an influx of fine dining in downtown Manchester five years ago.
“In five years, it seems like every few months people say, ‘Hey, did you hear about this restaurant coming in?’” DiPrima said. “No one is a carbon copy of one another. They are all really unique, interesting, vibrant places for people to have a meal at.” Pochito’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina and Pasta Villa are slated to open in Manchester by the end of the year.
“We have this horrible recession where everyone is suffering, cutting back — no one is renovating or expanding — but in downtown Manchester Tom Puskarich at Z has doubled and expanded his space at the height of the recession,” DiPrima said. “That speaks to the idea that downtown really is recession-proof.”
If the right opportunity had presented itself in Manchester, Williams said, it might have been the home of Villa Banca (194 Main St., Nashua, 598-0500, www.villabanca.com).
“The right opportunity presented itself in Nashua, so we capitalized on it,” Williams said. “Both cities are beautiful, both have their own advantages. We’re very, very happy in Nashua and I’m sure we would have been equally as happy in Manchester.”
Living in the Manchester area, Williams and partner George Sylvester enjoyed dining with friends in Nashua in the mid-1990s. Their restaurant, Villa Banca, opened in 1997, now sits on the corner of Main and East Pearl streets.
“We always felt that it made a lot of sense to look at Nashua from a growth perspective,” Williams said. “…It had a lot of potential.” Williams said he would welcome more restaurants in downtown Nashua.
“I like to call it cooper-tition — a combination of cooperation and competition,” Williams said. “As the restaurants grow in the downtown area, it becomes a destination. … The more the merrier. The more diverse the better.”
Amman at Butter’s has seen changes in Concord: “In 2006 Main Street was a pretty bustling community,” she said. “I feel like there were more stores open at that point. … We have empty storefronts now, but they are slowly filling again, which is really nice to see.” Old Europe Mediterranean recently opened and O Steaks and Seafood is being built on Concord’s Main Street. Puppy Love, a hot dog stand tucked next to a CVS pharmacy, has thrived on Main Street for 35 years.
Kim Lully and Sun Chung were able to fill a vacant spot on Depot Street in Concord; the couple opened Sunny’s Table in August 2009. The couple had run the now-closed Korean Place in Manchester for 10 years with Chung’s parents, who owned that restaurant for 20 years.
“I can remember Sunny telling me stories, when they opened the original restaurant, that there was almost nothing in downtown Manchester. … Look at it now,” Lully said. “I think Concord will get there, there are a few more holes on Main Street than the area would like to see, but it will get there. I think smaller communities tend to take a little bit longer.”
Ammann said she has considered opening a tavern-like offshoot of her shop in Concord but is waiting until the economy stabilizes.
“Hopefully with the economy moving, somebody will take a chance and open more restaurants,” she said.
“There isn’t a huge established dining scene here; I’m not sure what it would take for there to be one, but I would love to see more small niche restaurants going in,” Ammann said.
Lully has enjoyed support from the community.
“In a tough economy we are really are ahead of where thought would be at this time,” she said. New Englanders, Lully said, have an appreciation for that “downtown feeling.”
DiPrima hopes that dining in the next 10 years in Manchester will continue to expand.
“A variety of different types of cuisine would be nice,” DiPrima said.
Over the years, the city has gotten more Latin American and Caribbean restaurants, and the annual Latino Festival is one of Manchester’s biggest downtown events. Manchester may be one of the few places in northern New England that has a Brazilian steakhouse — Gauchos Churrascaria at 62 Lowell St., 669-9460, www.gauchosbraziliansteakhouse.com — not to mention a Nepali restaurant, like Café Momo at 1065 Hanover St., 623-3733, www.cafemomonh.com. And there are markets — Bartlett Street Superette (which has Eastern European offerings) and Saigon Market (Asian, Caribbean and Latin) have been joined by Middle Eastern, Indian and Latin American markets in the city.
In opening Republic on Elm Street earlier this year, Claudia Rippee and her husband, Ed Aloise, strived to recreate the welcoming feel of a European café they had visited. The couple opened Café Pavone in March 1990 but had leased the space a year earlier — it took some time to renovate the dirt-floored building that was rumored to have been the home of a parachute factory in the 1940s. “We took a raw space and transformed it,” Rippee said. In 2000 the couple sold the café to Jeffrey Paige, who turned it into Cotton (75 Arms St., Manchester, 633-4488, www.cottonfood.com), and theyfocused on their other venture, the Milltowne Grill, which they had opened at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in 1994. “We are one of few locally owned businesses in the airport,” Rippee said.
They chose to reinvest in a new downtown venture in January because they enjoy being involved in the community — and creating options for the Manchester dining crowd “so they didn’t have to drive to Portsmouth or Boston to have a good meal.”
“I think Manchester has a lot going for it…. The only thing missing from downtown now is some retail,” Rippee said.
Looking forward to the next decade of dining, Provencher at Richard’s said higher-priced items are likely to be a thing of the past — “There is not enough money to go around to buy them,” he said. But “the demand for quality will remain high, if not higher.”
Ammann also expects diners will continue to look for high-quality food at an affordable rate.
“A lot of our customer base is looking for affordable luxury,” she said. “They might not sit down for a three-course meal but they will stop in for a great bottle of wine, baguette and block of cheese to take home.”
Greater use of local products is likely in the cards, Provencher said. The New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection (www.nhfarmtorestaurant.com) was created in 2004 as part of that effort.
Paige said customers’ interest in locally grown products contributed to the city’s restaurant boom.
“Diners have become more educated as to what they are looking for. They want to do their part to buy sustainable items such as local milk, cheese and fruit,” Paige said. “Consumers are becoming more aware and are expecting more from restaurants. That is why so many are opening on the casual upscale side — to fill that void for people that want local produce in that season and to support local agriculture.”
Paige hopes more restaurants will support local products to “get more people aware and to realize that there are a lot of great things available in New Hampshire.”
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