A guide to living local in New Hampshire

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Family Atmosphere is Heart & Soul of

Firefly American Bistro

Story and Photos by Ami B. Cadugan

During the height of the 2008 recession, sibling restaurateurs Diane Downing and David Becker risked everything to open Firefly American Bistro and Bar.

Everyone said they were crazy.

But how crazy do they seem now? It’s 10 years later and they’re running one of the top restaurants in downtown Manchester.

Both Downing and Becker started working in restaurants when they were teenagers. Downing worked in the front of the house, while Becker’s passion focused on the back. According to them, working with food is addictive, even though they did not come from a culinary family.

They each have more than 25 years of restaurant experience. Becker having been a chef in places as diverse as Charleston, S.C., and St. Thomas, while Downing’s managed restaurants throughout southern New Hampshire.

They both got to a point in their careers when the natural next step was to become business partners. But why Manchester?

“We spent over two years analyzing the market, demographics, available properties, menu offerings and price points,” Becker said. “When we started working on our business plan in 2006, the economy was doing fine. At that time, Manchester was a city trying to reinvent itself. Remember, back then, there was no Mint Bistro, there was no Republic.”

Even in the face of recession, Downing and Becker pushed forward. Take their building, for instance.

“It was in shambles, but we loved the bones,” Becker said.

They admired the exposed, blackened brick, a layout divided by an elevator shaft (good for separate dining spaces) and the manageable size.

“It was a gut job, but still the perfect choice,” Becker said, also mentioning that there was a fire during their soft opening. “It was one of the most stressful nights of our lives. But it didn’t stop us. It only made us stronger.”

Firefly caters to a variety of diners with a menu designed to have a little something for everyone. The Go-Go Bread (garlic bread with gorgonzola fondue for dipping) is a favorite appetizer. There’s a classics section, which is approachable for guests (think burgers or fish and chips), but there are also options for more adventurous diners.

The “Land” section of the menu features a cast-iron-roasted duck breast. Grilled Atlantic salmon is featured under the “Sea” section, and daily specials also showcase fresh and creative options like blackened mahi-mahi, drizzled with a Meyer lemon sauce, served over Parmesan risotto and asparagus, or a grilled eight-ounce flat-iron steak with goat cheese and applewood-smoked bacon and mashed potatoes.

Whether one wants steak tips and a Bud Light after a long day, or has plans to celebrate a 50th anniversary with a bottle of Moët & Chandon White Star and pan-seared scallops with applewood smoked bacon, wilted spinach and roasted garlic cream, Firefly has menu options and dining spaces to accommodate everyone.

Two distinct dining areas were created to give customers the option to go casual or upscale. “The Lounge” is a vibrant dining area, which also houses the bar. There are high tops, low tops and barstools, so people can hang out with their friends – or make some new ones.

The “Art Room” allows customers to enjoy an upscale dining experience. Works by local artists are prominently featured on the walls, and these are rotated quarterly. A wine-and-cheese reception is held when a new artist is featured and the artwork is also available for purchase.

Firefly also sources as much product as possible locally. Hatchland Farm in North Haverhill supplies milk and cream products. Dowie Farm in Derry provides a lot of produce while sausages come from North Country Smokehouse in Claremont.

“When we walk in the door, we’re greeted by bags of freshly baked bread, delivered daily by local bakers,” Becker said.

But the restaurant doesn’t stop with the food. Firefly has an extensive wine list, featuring more than 50 by-the-glass offerings, including Bella Donna Tannat Cabernet Franc, Cono Sur Organic Sauvignon Blanc and Ricardo Santos Malbec, to name a few.

“That’s highly unusual in the industry. You need to have high turnover to do this, because once a bottle is opened, it has a pretty short shelf life. Our wine menu was born out of the recession. Back then, everyone was looking for good value when dining. It’s easier and more affordable to commit to a glass of wine, rather than a whole bottle,” said Downing.

If custom cocktails and craft beers are more your speed, take a look at Firefly’s cocktail menu, curated by Rachael Jones, bar manager, event coordinator and social media manager for the restaurant. The “Throwbacks” section features Prohibition-era favorites like the Maple Glazed Old-Fashioned, added this season. For those craving a tequila fix, there is the Sparkling Margarita.

Wondering what it’s like to go to Carnival in Brazil? A taste of the Downeast Caipirinha could virtually transport you there. If you’re still feeling adventurous, Firefly’s Sunday brunch features a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar. Tito’s anyone?

New Hampshire has more than its share of homegrown brewers and Firefly has 16 handles worth of hoppy pleasure waiting. Seasonal varieties from Great North Brewery in Manchester, 603 Brewery in Londonderry and Able Ebenezer in Merrimack are currently on tap.

Both Downing and Becker attribute much of Firefly’s success to their employees.

“Many of them have been with us since we opened, and we promote a family atmosphere here,” Downing said.

Firefly is open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday and Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m., and until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The Bloody Mary bar is the star of Sunday brunch, served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Firefly is also available for private events, including holiday parties, luncheons and bridal showers. Reservations are recommended. Plans are currently underway for a 10-year anniversary celebration. Check fireflynh.com and social media channels for updates.