with a side of
Served at State’s Diners
By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
While the name originally referred to dining cars on trains, diners now include many unassuming eateries where neighbors congregate and caffeinate in surroundings as comfortable as an old couch.
They are dine-in time capsules to many, who recall Formica tables, long counters, banana cream pies and waitresses who called them “honey.”
Diners are easy to name, but difficult to describe. The earliest were converted rail cars with booths and a long sit-down counter with direct service that allows diners to rub elbows and get acquainted.
The unpretentious eateries’ working-class roots run deep. As early as 1872, a pressman named Walter Scott quit his newspaper job, cut windows into a covered horse-drawn wagon parked in front of a newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island, and sold pies and coffee to night-shift workers.
A company in Worcester, Mass., began manufacturing similar lunch wagons a few years later, but it was not until 1906, and the founding of the Worcester Lunch and Carriage Manufacturing Co., that the diner business took off.
The prefabricated diners had to be narrow and streamlined to fit on a railcar or truck when they were delivered. They fit on tiny lots, which made them relatively affordable, and arrived nearly ready to begin serving and need only be hooked up to electricity and gas. In the early days, parking lots were not required because very few customers had cars.
The definition of the eateries began to blur in later years as additions were added to the railcars, including buildings. Such eateries were sometimes called restaurant-diners.
Here are some local favorites.
The Yankee Flyer, a Sterling Streamliner which was a fixture in downtown Nashua from 1940 to 1965, was so beloved that it still haunts the city in the form of a mural depicting the restaurant. The visual homage was painted by Nashua native and renowned artist James Aponovich on the side of building on Main Street, near its former location.
The Red Arrow in Manchester is the mother of all contemporary local diners. Where else can you get an Adam Sandler burger at 3 o’clock in the morning? It is open 24 hours a day almost 365 days a year and is so successful it has spawned Red Arrows in Milford, Derry and Concord.
A fixture in Manchester since it was founded by David Lamontagne in 1922, the sign of the smiling coffee cup has become a regular stop for campaigning politicians and touring musicians and has been named one of the top 10 diners in the country by USA Today.
They serve meatloaf, burgers and other diner staples as well as 100 different varieties of hash. Funnyman Sandler, a Manchester native, often drops by when he is town. There’s even a name plate on his favorite booth. His signature burger is topped with lettuce, tomato, raw onion and mayo.
But it has been one-upped by a certain real estate developer. The Trump Tower Burger, aka Newton Burger, consists of two grilled cheese sandwiches, topped with a fresh ground beef burger, fried macaroni and cheese and cheese sauce.
The Red Arrow has red bar stools and a humungous counter, and there are blue plate specials every day. On a recent weekday, regular customer Bertrand Gosselin sat at the counter on the eve of his 90th birthday. When another diner asked what Bertrand ate so she could stay as young looking as he does, two servers with a combination of three decades experience working at The Red Arrow answered in unison.
“Spaghetti,” they said. “He orders spaghetti every day.”
The Common Man family of restaurants is keeping the 1950s alive with four New Hampshire eateries. The Tiltn’ Diner off Route 93 in Tilton is a 1953 Worcester Dining Car and stands at the gateway to the Lakes Region and the Tanger Outlet stores.
The 104 Diner in New Hampton, and the Airport Diner next to the Holiday Inn in Manchester, are throwbacks to those original dining cars with booths and a counter where travelers knock elbows with locals. There is a soundtrack of oldies pop tunes, a glass case filled with pies and paper soda jerk hats for the kids.
The Hi-Way Diner at the I-93 rest areas is another mock ‘50s-style eatery featuring burgers, sandwiches, American chop suey and other diner fare, as well as a New Hampshire farm breakfast with organic eggs and bacon from the North Country Smokehouse in Claremont.
As befitting a former mill town, Nashua has more than its share of diners. Poor Pierre’s has been serving up breakfast and lunch at its location on Main Street since 1968. It’s bold orange color scheme keeps the locals awake.
Joann’s Restaurant and Coffee Shop has an unassuming appearance from Main Street, but its counter stretches forever. At Roland’s Restaurant on Kinsley Street, the counter is relatively small, but several of the servers speak French, and they offer Greek specialties as well as traditional diner fare and daily specials posted on a backboard.
Though it is not an original dining car, Norton’s Classic Café, also on Main Street, has the 1950s vibe nailed with a black-and-white tile floor and blue stools behind a shiny steel counter. They have a booth that’s made out of a Chevy Bel Air, and many of their dishes are named for classic cars.
In addition to Red Arrow, the Queen City has a number of other diners. The Red Barn Restaurant is a converted Worcester Lunch Car, which has been at the southern end of Elm Street since 1930. Not far away is Theo’s, also on Elm Street, which is known for its pizza as well as its Greek specialties. Margie’s Dream Diner on Hayward Street has potato pancakes that keep diners coming.
Suzie’s Diner on Lowell Road in Hudson has a counter and a score of booths and a rotating schedule of more than 200 specials, not to mention a die-hard loyal, local clientele.
Joey’s Diner in Amherst is a vision in crimson and chrome that is a throwback to the ‘50s with meatloaf, American chop suey, wieners and homemade chicken pot pies.
The Union Diner on Union Avenue in Laconia is the real thing, a 1950 Worcester Dinning Car with oak and mahogany woodwork, ceramic tiles and a stainless steel backbar. It was situated at a few other locations in town before arriving at its current site. It is decorated with ‘50s and ‘60s music memorabilia.
George’s Diner on Plymouth Street in Meredith is a few short steps from downtown, but a mile away from the tourist crunch. Where else can you find tripe on the menu? Grab a stool and check out the house favorite – dried beef or sausage gravy on roast with home fries, beans and coffee.
Visitors to MaryAnn’s Diner in Derry and Salem are greeted by a vintage Texaco gas pump and a jukebox, and the waitresses wear poodle skirts.
The Bacon Barn on Sanborn Road in Londonderry has counter service and does things to a pig that you wouldn’t believe. They have peppercorn, Applewood, bourbon, jalapeno or hickory bacon.
Fast Eddie’s Diner on Lafayette Road in Hampton has Formica tables, chrome and vinyl chairs and black-and-white tiles on the floor. They make their own doughnuts on Sunday.
The Peterborough Diner is a cream and green beauty manufactured by the Worcester Dining Car Company in 1950 and it has been on-site ever since, replacing another eatery that had been in town for years.
The Hometown Diner, at the junctions of Routes 202 and 119 in Rindge, is a streamlined steel model that was built by the Silk City Diner Co., in Paterson, N.J., in 1949. It was operated in Ohio before coming to Rindge, where it opened its doors in 2013.
The Miss Wakefield Diner on Windy Hollow Road in Sanbornville was built by the O’Mahony Diner Co. in Elizbeth, N.J., in 1949. Mahony built about 2,000 diners between 1917 and 1952, and Miss Wakefield is one of only about 20 that survive.
It was originally Pat & Bob’s Diner in Albany, N.Y., and was rescued from a junkyard in New York and trucked to its new home in Sanbornville in 1998.