Sometimes you don't know what happened to you until after it's over. My recent breakfast visit to the Red Arrow Diner, a small, L-shaped, on-site diner in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, was like that. That evening, back at home, I tucked into the piece of chocolate pie I'd asked for "to go"-not just because I am pie piggie, not just because it was necessary for my "research," but because Carol Sheehan, the diner's owner, had proudly told me that her pastry chef Rachel McCullough makes all the pies "daily, from scratch." Last year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, other customers had taken home over 500 Red Arrow pies. Who was I to resist?
After all, eating chocolate pie on top of the splendid Eggs Benedict I'd had that morning would have been ... too much. I would've had to walk, or rather, stagger home! This turned out to be an outrageous concoction-silky chocolate cream ganache on the bottom layer, and a tower of chocolate-flavored real whipped cream, drizzled with chocolate syrup, atop that (it's called, if you must know, Death by Chocolate). Now I was far from the friendly, busy hubbub of this wonderful little diner. I was alone with the pie and a fork. But one bite brought it all back: Carol's friendly and vigorous diner management, the cleanliness and charm of the diner's interior, the efficient and cheerful staff...and the absolutely amazing food.
The Red Arrow is right downtown in Manchester, on a side street within walking distance of everything. Once upon a time, as with so many other cities along the meandering Merrimack River in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, this was a booming mill town. In those days, there were other Red Arrows, too, to serve the busy pace-one on Elm Street, one on West Merrimack St., one on Lake Avenue, and one out on the Daniel Webster Highway. This one on Lowell Street is the sole survivor, having weathered Manchester's ups and downs. These days, the city is coming back; the mills have been converted to businesses and art lofts and housing, and tall buildings of banks and so forth have sprouted up downtown. The plucky little Lowell Street Red Arrow abides, having proudly fed the city's citizens through everything, and ready, willing and able to ride the wave of downtown Manchester's present revival. As an "always open" focal point, it helps keep the neighborhood vital.
Carol and her staff make it impossible for you to forget the diner they all so obviously love and take pride in. There are lots of souvenirs, from t-shirts to mugs to lapel pins. Also, little wooden "$1 off your next meal at the Red Arrow" coins. And for the kids: yo-yos, paddleballs, frisbees. You don't have to buy the kiddie stuff. Your child can win these things by coloring a drawing of the diner's signature happy-face Moe Mug, available at the diner or downloadable from the website. Or order a kiddie Blue Plate Special meal; it comes on a plastic plate that turns out to be a Red Arrow Diner frisbee your child can take home-how fun is that?!
As for the menu, it's very affordable (nothing over $7.99!), and full of tradition and quality. All-day breakfast (famous baked beans with your eggs? how about thick, succulent, real Canadian bacon?), yes, bountiful burgers and sandwiches for lunch, yes, and yes, all your favorite dinner items from meatloaf to franks-and-beans to ale-battered fish to the night cook John Szwiec's teetering masterpiece lasagna slabs. Many items are named after regulars, and Carol's kids and their friends. Daily specials "sell like hotcakes," Carol says with a note of amazement in her voice. She should not be amazed, I think...she'd already told me she stocks the kitchen with excellent ingredients, and when they get into the capable hands of Rachel or John or her prep cook Anival Pascaval, consistency and marvelous quality combine to make wonderful meals.
When Carol showed me around the diner, including the tiny but streamlined kitchen and the bakery/office area in the basement, she took the time to greet each and every one of her staffers and make a point of introducing them to me. Back out front, my server, Shannon Arbon, was one of those rare waitresses that expertly gauges when you are ready to order, when you need more water, and when you need a question answered-all on instinct. Her natural grace was all the more impressive when I realized I was hardly her only customer. When I asked her what it was like to work inside such a confined space-the Red Arrow only seats 36 people at a time between the bustling counter and the few always-crowded tables-she grinned and replied, "it's like being an animal in a cage or a fish in a tank!" Everyone who heard her remark, and I suspect many of them have enjoyed her efficient and friendly service many times, laughed along with her.
Getting everyone invested in the diner, from staff to customers, is clearly Carol's recipe for success. She's owned the Red Arrow for 19 years, and she takes care to acknowledge and respect those who've contributed to the diner's history. She's posted a series of vintage photographs on the walls and recounts tales of the beloved past owner Levi Letendre in her informal diner newsletter (which appeals to customers for "more tales and any photos," to be rewarded with diner gift certificates). The "Moe" logo was supplied many years ago by a regular customer named Moe; then came a call to supply a gal pal. But instead of naming her herself, Carol involved the customers again and held a contest. The winning entry? "Dinah."
The Red Arrow's future is assured by only tweaking a winning formula. For instance, the diner went smoke-free in 1998, even though New Hampshire law did not require it. It "felt risky at first," Carol remembers, but she's been vindicated by a 20-percent boost in business. More recently, she's instituted a lively, interesting, interactive website, which nurtures the diner's sense of community with plentiful contributions from staff and customers.
As for the present, the place hums like a well-oiled machine, day in and day out...24 hours a day, 7 days a week (closing briefly only in the afternoon on Christmas eve and reopening to crowds the following morning). The Red Arrow is a happy and busy place because everybody is welcome, old, young, townie, and tourist. I can't wait to go back. I wish I could meet the night cook John (who, when not working or getting much-deserved rest, is an avid bicycler and contributes a rambling, philosophical blog-diary to the website) (if you stop him as he pedals by, he will give you a few of those "$1 off your next Red Arrow meal" wooden coins). I wish I could try another slice of Rachel's pie...I hear the Coconut Cream is outstanding. But most of all I wish the Red Arrow to be there forever, nourishing everyone who comes through its narrow door and into that welcoming little space, body and soul. This fun, beautifully run diner is truly what is best about American diners, a treasure to be treasured.
The Red Arrow located at 61 Lowell St., Manchester, NH. It is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day with the exception of 2 P.M. Christmas eve to 6 A.M. Christmas morning). Smoke-free; not wheelchair accessible.