Review: The Star 09-13-2007
Jo Matyas, Special to the Star

MANCHESTER, N.H. By 8 a.m. it's possible "even likely" that you'll have to wait for a seat at the Red Arrow Diner, a classic of its kind awash with scrubbed linoleum counters, neon signs and those clammy plastic chairs that stick to your skin.

You can tell the regulars and there are a lot of them by the slightly miffed looks on their faces. The Red Arrow has been running 24 hours a day since the doors opened in 1922, and the regulars like to know their stool at the long counter or their usual table hasn't been taken over by gawkers from out of town.

Daytime is easier than night. Try to snag a spot on any Saturday at 1:30 a.m. and you'll almost certainly have to stand in line.

"Our busiest shift is always the bar rush, 12:30 to 3:30 in the morning," explains Carol Sheehan who became the third owner of the Red Arrow when she bought the business in 1987. Breakfast is popular all day.

About 5,400 eggs are served each week, about one every two minutes.

Things weren't always so good for the classic American roadside diner. In the 1950s, they were the heart of a community. Romances blazed and fizzled in the booths, business deals were sketched out on paper napkins, local gossip competed with whatever was hot on the jukebox. But roadside diners were edged out of the market by the rise of the ubiquitous fast-food joint, and by the late 1960s, business was in a serious slide.

Now, fuelled by a nationwide wave clamouring for all that is nostalgic, the classic diner is enjoying a comeback, renovated, rebuilt and restored. And, once voted one of the top 10 diners in the country by USA Today, the Red Arrow seems to be leading the way.

Hometown boy Adam Sandler eats here when he's in town (there's a burger named after him). And the stools at the long counter have supported other public figures, like one-time vice-president Al Gore and Hollywood legend Paul Newman.

My waitress recommends anything with chili or the pie, even though the morning clock is still in single digits. The Red Arrow is famous for its chili (the breakfast menu has a highlighted box drawn around the famous hash brown special with grilled onions, chili and cheese, $6.50 U.S.), its made-from-scratch pies (by the slice or whole pies to go) and of course the anytime breakfast menu that features different combinations of toast, eggs, bacon and sausages.

At one time, the city of Manchester was an industrial force to be reckoned with. Known as New Hampshire's "Queen City," an enormous complex of cotton spinning mills, stretching for two kilometres along the Merrimack River, was the economic engine that made the city the largest producer of cotton textiles in the world.

Along came the 1929 stock market crash, ushering in the Great Depression. Industrial cities around the world saw their power and strength come to a sudden end.

Along the wide, turbulent Merrimack River, a large-scale restoration of the decaying Amoskeag Millyard began about 15 years ago, and in 2006 the classic red brick complex now home to offices, day spas, antique shops and upscale office space won a prestigious National Preservation Honor Award.

At the time of the 1929 stock market crash, the Red Arrow had only been open seven years. Barely enough time to set any records for customers served or eggs fried.

Years ago, there were five Red Arrow Diners in Manchester, but the original on Lowell St. is the only one that remains, the only one to weather the region's economic ups and downs. And it's the only one to see "smoke-free" dining become the norm.

"I still can't really believe it myself," says Sheehan. "It smells so nice in here now, you can actually smell the food!" The regulars seem to appreciate the change business increased 20 per cent.

"People come in just to be entertained," adds my waitress. And that is a feeling even money can't buy.

Jo Matyas is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ont. Her trip was subsidized by New Hampshire Tourism.

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