7/25/2013 - Some are tucked into busy city corners and some lie on the outskirts of town. Many have decades of history and some have popped up in recent years. The Top 15 diners, as chosen by Hippo readers in the Best of 2013 readers’ poll, may not all look the same, but the No. 1 goal for each is to provide comfort — comfort food in a comfortable environment. So, come as you are and dig into an omelet cooked with a twist, bite into a turkey melt, and top off your coffee one more time.
1. Red Arrow
(Best of the Best)
61 Lowell St., Manchester,
At the counter of the Red Arrow Diner, locals know there’s a chance they might be bumping elbows with celebrities and politicians every time they visit.
The photos line the walls: Everyone from Manchester native Adam Sandler to Barack Obama has dug into a meal served up at the diner, which has called Lowell Street home since 1922. Named one of the Top 10 diners in the country by USA Today and having appeared on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, the Red Arrow has found success with its mix of the classic diner atmosphere, an upbeat environment and a menu that features universal diner favorites alongside more unique dishes, owner Carol Sheehan said.
“We’re pretty creative,” she said. “With the hash brown special, you can have it 100 different ways. We do funky, different things. I discovered when we would have our daily specials and we would do up these funky things, people kept buying them.”
This basic Red Arrow staple consists of hash browns and grilled onions, but it can be mixed with just about any other ingredient combination. The menu lists four ideas, including ham and cheese, chili and cheese, kielbasa and cheese and veggies and cheese.
Sheehan said another must-have item at the Red Arrow is the diner’s signature “Dinah Fingers,” which are the restaurant’s take on the classic Twinkie. She said they are a personal favorite of Diane Sawyer's, and Guy Fieri tried his hand at baking a batch on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
When Fieri visited, he also helped cook up a batch of the Red Arrow’s American chop suey, a New England favorite that Fieri claimed he had never heard of before visiting New Hampshire.
“We do notice an influx of business when that episode airs, and we sell out within hours,” General Manager Dave McClellan said.
With so many household names visiting the diner, and visits by national media every political season, the commotion could scare locals away. But more than 90 years of history makes the diner a favorite for Queen City residents too.
“I get interviewed a lot during political season, and they ask how my regular customers feel about it,” she said. “For the most part they know the Red Arrow and know what it represents and get into it.”
2. Airport Diner (Best of Manchester)
2280 Brown Ave., Manchester,
Flying can be stressful. Long security lines, delays and cramming into narrow airplane seats for a few hours can get anyone’s anxiety levels elevated.
For seven years, the Airport Diner has provided a cup of coffee and comfort food to weary travelers — and it’s also become a favorite destination for Manchester locals. It’s just 2 miles from the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
“What’s great about being 24 hours is it doesn’t matter when your flight is. You can stop in before or after,” General Manager Kristie Edmunds said.
The diner is one of three within The Common Man family, the others being The Tilt’n Diner in Tilton and The 104 Diner in New Hampton. The diners all share the same menu, and The Cadillac is among the most popular breakfast orders.
The hefty dish is jammed with the cornerstones of a diner breakfast: two eggs, two bacon strips, two sausage links, two buttermilk pancakes, a choice of home fries or baked beans and toast. For lunch and dinner, the diner puts a signature twist on its melts.
“They’re made on Parmesan bread and buttered with Parmesan cheese, and that’s put down on the grill,” she said. “They’re melty on the outside and melty on the inside.”
The Airport Diner has a classic 1950s atmosphere, with a metallic exterior, cushy wraparound booths and oldies music playing overhead. But unlike most retro-style diners, the Airport Diner adds its own signature décor with model airplanes hanging from the ceiling.
“A lot of times people come in and say that this brings them back with the music and décor,” she said. “We as a society like that retro feel. We like to say, ‘Oh this is what it was like back in the day.’”
3. Tilt'n Diner
(Best of Concord)
Before the Tilt'n Diner became a pit stop for travelers heading north on Interstate 93, the building made the same journey as many of its customers.
The diner, built in 1953, used to operate in Massachusetts, but after it was purchased by The Common Man family of restaurants in 1992, it traveled by truck to its current spot, just off Exit 20.
General Manager Mark Grotheer said the diner struck gold as far as location goes, drawing in a core group of local customers and tourists visiting New Hampshire from southern New England and beyond.
“We're pretty much halfway destination-wise, where people traveling can take a break,” Grotheer said. “People come in when they're traveling north and on their way back to Massachusetts and New York. So many families start and end their vacations at the diner.”
Though the diner's décor is a throwback to the 1950s, Grotheer said the menu items follow the more modern initiative of keeping ingredients local. Grotheer said Common Man owner Alex Ray makes it a priority to use as many New Hampshire-sourced ingredients as possible and visitors to the Tilt'n Diner will be served all local dairy products, eggs and bacon.
Because of the fresh ingredients, Grotheer said some of the standout menu items include the turkey dinner, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, a recipe Grotheer said Ray has used for 40 years. When it comes to breakfast, The Cadillac — two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausage links, two buttermilk pancakes, a choice of home fries or baked beans and toast — is the must-have, just as it is at the Airport Diner.
“It's a monster,” Grotheer said.
A dessert menu highlight is the Common Man ice cream, which Grotheer said is great when paired as a float with the root beer the restaurant has on draft.
Grotheer said the diner's old-school looks, the enthusiasm and experience of the staff and a collection of vintage magazines makes the Tilt'n Diner a visit to simpler times.
“The music is there, there are records on the wall, we have the checkered floor and bar stools,” Grotheer said. “For a lot of people, it reminds them of happier times, and we're honored to do that.”
4. Red Arrow
(Best of Nashua)
It may not be the celebrity magnet that its sibling in Manchester is, but the Red Arrow diner in Milford still packs plenty of star power.
When Granite Stater Adam Sandler wanted to include the Red Arrow Diner in Grown Ups 2, the sign was removed from the Milford restaurant, shipped to the set in Marblehead, Mass., and can now be seen on the silver screen with the Sandler film in theaters this summer.
Owner Carol Sheehan said after the Manchester diner was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, she decided to see if she could duplicate its success. The Milford location, on the town’s downtown oval, features an identical menu to Manchester’s and aims to replicate the same environment.
The only difference, Sheehan said, is in the layout. Unlike the Manchester restaurant, Milford features a dining room, separate from the traditional counter and surrounding booths.
“If you’re in the diner car it would feel the same but if you’re down in the dining room it’s a little different,” she said.
The hash brown specials, Dinah Fingers and American chop suey that made the Red Arrow famous can all be found in Milford, and just like in Manchester, the diner is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Milford Red Arrow may not have decades of history like the Manchester location. Sheehan said that running both restaurants with the same goals and values that the Lamontagne family founded the restaurant with has made the Milford store a fast success.
“Quality and consistency is the key to the business and I’ve kept up what they began,” she said.
5. MaryAnn’s Diner
29 E. Broadway, Derry,
In addition to being a place to find a fresh cup of coffee and a plate of its popular eggs Benedict, MaryAnn’s Diner is also serves up history lessons to the younger crowds.
Co-owner Christina Andreoli said the first lesson in 1950s 101 is that records won’t work in a DVD player. The diner is decked out in 1950s paraphernalia, and old-school albums share wall space with portraits of Elvis and classic cars.
“We see a lot of parents explaining things,” Andreoli said. “Kids see the records and think they're DVDs, and parents have to explain that they’re records and don't play on a DVD machine. That's always a long conversation.”
For those who lived through the 1950s, eating at the diner might feel a bit like stepping back in time. A vintage Texaco gas pump and a jukebox sit at the entrance, and the waitresses all wear poodle skirts.
When it comes to the menu, Andreoli said it’s breakfast that draws overflow crowds on the weekends, with lines that stretch out of the diner’s two entrances. The most popular dishes are the regular omelets, rotating omelet specials, pancakes and the diner’s signature eggs benedict with homemade Hollandaise sauce.
A steady stream of regulars make up the diner’s clientele, Andreoli said, but during the summer tourist season and political seasons, MaryAnn’s sees plenty of visitors from outside Southern New Hampshire. A candidate hotspot, the diner has been visited by Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Rick Santorum. In 2004, John Kerry announced his presidential candidacy there.
But it’s the regulars — both customer and staff-wise — that really make MaryAnn’s feel like home.
“A lot of the draw is that when you come here over and over again and always see the same faces,” she said. “We have a lot friends and family working here. Many of the waitresses have kids that also bus.”
6. The D.W. Diner
416 DW Highway,
For Peter Yeanacopolis, silence is golden. As the owner of the D.W. Diner, he pays attention to his customers’ eating habits — the less they’re talking, the more they’re enjoying the meal.
“I watch how people eat, and if they’re not taking time to talk and they keep that fork moving, they’re enjoying what they have,” he said.
The diner, named after its location on New Hampshire’s statewide highway, opened in its Merrimack location in 2005. In January, Yeanacopolis opened a second location on South Main Street in Manchester.
At both locations, Yeanacopolis said when it comes to food, he wants to give his customers the best ingredients and plenty of them. For breakfast, he said the diner’s three-egg omelets offer customers a full meal and a chance to get creative. The menu offers traditional omelets like the meat lovers, packed with bacon, ham and sausage, a vegetarian omelet and a western.
The international omelets go around the world: there’s Irish (corned beef hash), Italian (sausage with onions, peppers, tomatoes, spinach and provolone), Mexican (onions, peppers, salsa and cheddar), Polish (kielbasa) and Greek (baby spinach, tomatoes, bacon and feta). Customers can also build their own omelets, and Yeanacopolis said they can be assured that the fillings will be plentiful.
“With some omelets you get it and the ingredients are all in the middle, but we fill the omelet,” he said. “People usually say it’s too much food, and I’m good with that because I don’t want them to leave hungry.”
D.W. Diner may not have the decades of history that other area diners have, but Yeanacopolis said he has amassed a loyal group of regulars in the diner’s eight years.
“What I enjoy is servicing the community, creating jobs and giving people what I would want when I went somewhere,” he said.
7. Murphy’s Diner
516 Elm St., Manchester,
Ralphie’s Diner in North Baltimore City may have closed down, but its legacy lives on on Elm Street.
Keith Murphy, the owner of Murphy’s Taproom, one of Manchester’s most popular nightlife locations, got his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher and busboy at Ralphie’s. When presented with the opportunity to open a new restaurant adjacent to the Taproom, Murphy said he wanted to provide Manchester with a flexible dining option and pay homage to his roots.
The diner is evocative of 1930s and 1940s art deco style. Everything from the floor pattern to the ceiling design to the booths is nearly identical to Ralphie’s, Murphy said.
“I do talk to the [Ralphie’s] owner about business, and I have sent him pictures and he couldn’t believe it,” Murphy said.
Murphy said some of his diner’s most popular menu items are some of its most unusual. For breakfast, he’s received heaps of compliments about the diner’s Captain Crunch French toast. The cereal is crushed into a batter, which is then used to make the dish.
Though Murphy said diners are not known for their Irish cuisine, he wanted to incorporate some of the Irish flavor that’s popular at the Taproom. Corned beef hash is used in a variety of dishes, including omelets and some side items; for an extra kick, the diner cooks it with Irish whiskey.
The diner stays open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, and Murphy said many menu items are designed with the late-night crowd in mind.
“With the Buffalo Bill omelet, if you're out drinking on a Friday or Saturday night and want an interesting meal and get a craving for buffalo chicken, this is a place you can still come and get it,” he said.
On the flip side, the diner opens daily at 7 a.m. for breakfast and lunch. Murphy said the diner makes for a perfect family meal out.
“Whether people are coming from work or church with their kids or with their parents they find something to eat on our menu and will enjoy being here,” he said.
8. Joey’s Diner
Joey Medeiros was no stranger to the local restaurant scene before he opened Joey’s Diner nine years ago. He owned a few other restaurants in New England, but his dream was to open a 1950s-style diner. He said he liked the comfort, the homestyle food and the era it represented.
“The ’50s were a pretty good time in the country,” Medeiros said. “Lots of folks were working, it was family-friendly, everybody knew each other. Everybody was very polite. It was a nice time, and whether someone coming in here is 75 years old or 5 years old it has a positive visual.”
Both the interior and exterior are covered in chrome and splashes of bright red, and the inside is decked out in 1950s paraphernalia.
Medeiros said being a location for families to step back 60 years in time allows for parents, grandparents and even great grandparents to share their memories of the time period with children.
“I’ll hear folks telling a story about a particular thing,” Medeiros said. “Maybe it was one of the cars or a picture they saw.”
When it comes to the menu, Medeiros said he likes to have simple options, but with a fresh, homestyle flair. Some of the most popular items include steak tips, burgers and pot pies. He said the diner is also popular for its tater tots — since he started offering them, they have been just as popular as french fries.
For breakfast, the diner offers a stuffed French toast. The twist to the classic breakfast dish includes a homemade cream cheese spread with fresh strawberries. He said the omelets are also popular, with the fillings sauteed and cooked simultaneously with the eggs. For dessert, the diner’s thick frappes are popular, especially on a hot day.
Medeiros said he has enjoyed providing a classic family atmosphere.
“For the most part, diners have that home feel and don’t have the corporate feel the chains do,” he said. “A lot of people like to go back and remember and pass on the feeling they get in here to their kids and grandkids.”
9. Suzie’s Diner
BJ Neault, the manager of Suzie’s Diner, has one piece of advice for first-time visitors to the restaurant: when deciding on what to order, don’t just stick to what is listed on the menu.
Neault said he has a database of about 200 different specials that rotate in and out of the breakfast, lunch and dinner lineup, so no matter how many times a customer stops by, there will always be something new to try.
“We try to do something depending on the weather. Like if it's raging hot out, you might not want to eat a certain type of food,” Neault said. “There are so many things that change every single week. They're always adding on new ideas and fresh ideas.”
Neault said that in the kitchen, the staff only uses fresh ingredients and makes homemade sauces, soups and gravy. Though most of those ingredients are made for typical diner fare, Neault said there are some menu items that get their own twist at the diner.
For example, Neault said his personal favorite menu items are the sandwiches that have an unusual ingredient. Just about every diner has a turkey melt on the lunch menu, but Neault said at Suzie’s, making it a pesto turkey melt gives customers a unique taste.
“We do tons of good sandwiches for specials,” he said. “We try to incorporate some sort of special [ingredient] beside the basic condiments.”
Neault said the diner sells a lot of seafood, and its haddock chunks are particularly popular. The fish dish consists of 1-ounce to 1 ½-ounce pieces of fresh haddock, breaded and fried.
Snce the restaurant became Suzie’s 13 years ago, it has much of the same staff.
“Everyone loves the waitstaff, and that's what brings people in,” he said. “It's nice that you can directly talk to the person that's behind the whole operation.”
10. The Red Barn Restaurant
113 Elm St., Manchester, 623-9065
At the Red Barn, co-owner Bob Barton said the world’s problems are often solved over a cup of coffee.
The diner, a converted Worcester Lunch Car, was placed on the southern end of Elm Street in 1930, and despite having a few different names and a few different owners, Barton said the diner remains many Manchester residents’ home away from home.
“Most everybody knows each other,” Barton said. “People will sit in the same seat at the same time and order the same meal day after day. Oftentimes a regular comes in and we already know what they want.”
Since Barton bought the diner in 2007 with his wife Jean, he said their team has worked tirelessly to modernize the restaurant and its menu. They’ve added new coats of paint and made upgrades to the kitchen equipment.
Barton said the diner is determined to use the best ingredients it can. Its eggs are Esbenshade extra large grade AA, which Barton said are produced by the Pennsylvania Amish. He said the diner’s burgers are among the most popular lunch and dinner orders and are all made from 8-ounce premium ground chuck patties.
“We have a variety of traditional diner fare and we’ve tried to bring back the entrees that are common to diners, like liver and onions and meat loaf,” he said. “On Fridays we have fresh haddock and beer-battered haddock. We have a turkey dinner available with all the fixin’s all the time and we have a baked ham steak dinner.”
Barton said despite all the work his team has put into the Red Barn, there’s always something more to be done. But, he said, as long as his regulars, families and travelers are all leaving full and satisfied, he’s on the right track.
“It’s the friendly, family atmosphere that brings people in,” he said. “It’s good food and it’s reliable food. Often, I hear people say they’ve never had a bad meal here.”
11. Jackie’s Diner
168 Main St., Nashua, 889-4957
Jackie’s Diner in downtown Nashua is small. The Main Street restaurant seats 28 on the inside and 12 outside, but what the diner lacks in size, it makes up for with attention to detail and personable customer service.
Carol Montminy took over the diner 12 years ago, bringing along her ability to replicate classic diner fare with a French Canadian influence. On July 19, Montminy and kitchen manager Eric Christensen debuted a new menu, adding some classic lunch sandwiches and entrees and some creative breakfast dishes to the mix.
A Christensen creation now being dished out in the Gate City is the breakfast boat. The dish starts with a baked potato, hollowed out, deep fried and stuffed with two scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese and a choice of veggie and meat.
Montminy and Christensen agree the two favorites are the French toast and the bacon. Christensen said that even before he started working for the diner, he would come specifically for the French toast, which he described at “crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.”
Montminy said the bacon has a two-step cooking process of grilling and deep frying. She said despite deep frying the bacon, it is not too greasy.
Some of the Canadian dishes include poutine, gorton and a hot chicken sandwich. The sandwich is made with sliced chicken breast on toast points, topped with peas and a gravy similar to the kind used in poutine. The dish is served with French fries and cranberry sauce.
Montminy said she likes that her diner has a family-friendly atmosphere — she even named the diner after her mother. She worked alongside her mother until a few years ago and said that if weren’t for her mom, the diner wouldn’t be as successful as it is.
“She’s the one who showed me basics of cooking and baking, and she’s the one who sent me to college,” Montminy said.
12. The Peterborough Diner
It's been about 60 years since a green and cream colored Worcester Lunch Car found its way to Peterborough, providing a comfy spot for locals and travelers to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The Peterborough Diner was the first Worcester Lunch Car produced in this color scheme. Kitchen manager Rich Golden said the color combo adds to the diner's personality.
Once inside, Golden said, customers will find a vintage diner atmosphere, evocative of the 1950s, with some modern touches. Two televisions have been added to the dining room, the booths have been redone and the air conditioning is getting an upgrade.
The menu is in the midst of a revamp as well. Golden said he is working on adding more gluten-free items.
“We're just trying to keep up with the times and give the customers the food they want for an affordable price,” he said.
Best sellers include burgers, prime rib and fresh seafood. Breakfast includes a variety of combinations of eggs and meat; pancakes come in plain, blueberry, strawberry and chocolate chip. For more fork-free dining, egg sandwiches are offered with a meat choice of bacon, sausage or ham and a choice of American, Swiss, cheddar, provolone or feta cheese. Sandwiches can be served on toast, an English muffin or a bagel.
Golden said he wants customers to feel at home inside the green diner.
“We try to make it as comfortable and homey as possible,” he said.
13. Chez Vachon
Tucked into the Rimmon Heights neighborhood of Manchester's West Side, Chez Vachon has brought a taste of Canada to the Queen City for 30 years.
Co-owner Jessica Perkins said Canadian cuisine includes crepes, pork pies, salmon pies and gorton, a ground pork spread that can be eaten on toast and crackers.
A quote on the restaurant's sign on Kelley Street explains why this restaurant has evolved from a West Side breakfast spot to a New England destination. The sign reads “Famous for Poutine,” a Canadian dish that Perkins said Chez Vachon replicates with authenticity, despite its origins south of the border.
She said poutine consists of three ingredients: french fries, peppery chicken gravy and curd cheese. Add-ins are available, like hamburger, chicken tenders and veggies.
Because the Canadian cuisine may be a new culinary adventure for customers, Perkins said some of the dishes are offered in small samples. One dish in particular is the restaurant's smoked meats, made Montreal-style.
Perkins said in Montreal, smoked meat is done differently than in the U.S. There, a meat like a beef brisket is marinated in an array of spices, including coriander and three types of peppercorn, and then smoked.
While giving Granite Staters a taste of Quebec has made Chez Vachon famous, Perkins said the rest of the menu offers traditional American diner fare. For breakfast, Chez Vachon has an extensive list of egg, pancake and omelet options, and it recently expanded its lunch special and sandwich options.
“It's a place people come back to because it's where their grandmother used to take them out for lunch,” Perkins said. “We're taking that reputation and growing it.”
14. Norton’s Classic Cafe
As a kid, George Norton always wanted a 1957 Ford Fairlane. He never got one, so instead, he modeled one of the booths in his Nashua diner after the classic car.
Every table in the restaurant is equipped with a drive-in movie-style speaker playing oldies music. Model cars line the shelves on the restaurant’s walls, and vintage movie posters and Coke machines are situated throughout the dining room.
Norton’s breakfast items are named after some of his other favorite classic cars and include the Chevy Bel-Air (two eggs and a choice of ham, sausage or baked ham), The Ford Fairlane (two eggs, two pancakes, two sausages and two pieces of bacon), The 54 Mercury (Two poached eggs with grilled corned beef hash) and the Crown Vickie (two poached eggs on top of Canadian bacon, on two English muffins with Hollandaise sauce).
But when it comes to breakfast, Norton said it’s the omelets that draw a crowd. While every diner serves omelets, Norton said, his way of preparing them packs the most flavorful punch, by sauteing the meat and vegetables and then adding in the eggs.
The diner offers specialty drinks too.
“The soda fountain is something people still like,” he said. “A lime rickey is something that you can’t get everywhere.”
For lunch and dinner, Norton is in the process of expanding his menu. For Friday nights, he recently brought in fresh seafood. He said he is also looking into expanding his specials and sandwich options.
15. How's Your Onion?
91 W. Broadway, Derry, 216-8838,
Marc-Damian Hartley's grandfather had a favorite question he would ask his grandkids, prompting them to respond the same way every time. “Good enough to make you cry,” they would respond.
The question, of course, was “How's Your Onion?”
When Hartley transformed the superette his parents owned on Broadway in Derry into a diner, he decided to keep his family's mark on the location by naming it after his grandfather's famous question.
Approaching its third anniversary, How's Your Onion? has been serving homemade breakfast and lunch dishes with some creative twists. The most popular, Hartley said, is the restaurant's spiked potatoes — mashed potatoes rolled with bacon, cheese and peppers, battered and breaded with barbecue chips.
But it's the jalapeno roulette that brings in the crowds on Saturday nights. The game consists of six jalapeno poppers, five of which are your typical run-of-the-mill peppers. The sixth, he said, is brutal, with a coating of habanero dust and ghost pepper dust you can’t see. The person who selects this pepper monstrosity receives a free scoop of ice cream to put out the fire.
“You can't go in scared,” he said. “But most people can't get through the whole popper.”
The diner's walls are lined with locally produced artwork, arranged by Hartley's mother, Rosalind Hartley.
“This is an everyday place,” Marc-Damian said. “This is a commute-to-work or stop-by-for-toast-on-the-way-home place. Do they really want toast? Who knows. Most likely they just wanted to say hi.”