LACONIA — The Lakes Region has long been a mecca for diners, which enjoyed a golden age in the post World War II era and attracted tourists and locals alike before the fast food era arrived.
Popular local diners included Jerry's Shore Diner on Paugus Bay, where local front counter legend Spider Osgood wowed diners with his non-stop virtuosity at the grill, Dearborn's Diner on Union Avenue and Una's little diner of Main Street.
The Shore Diner gained a little nationwide publicity in the 1950s when it turned away actor Tab Hunter, who was performing at the Lakes Region Playhouse that summer, because he wasn't wearing shoes. It was sold in the early 1970s to make way for a Burger King franchise and Osgood moved across the street to the Paugus Diner, which was one of the last dining cars ever made by the Worcester Dining Car company. The 1951 diner had originally been Manus' Diner in Concord before it was moved to Laconia.
Now known as the Union Diner and operated by Rose Pucci since 2009, the Paugus Diner still has its classic design trademarks that include solid construction and old-fashioned styling that features oak and mahogany woodwork, intricate ceramic tile patterns, and a backbar of stainless steel. A dining room addition was completed in 1994, and both the original diner and addition are filled with vintage 60's and 70's music memorabilia.
Pucci, a 1987 Laconia High School graduate who had been working in Boston as a benefits and payroll manager for a large firm, says she decided to ''return to her roots'' and moved back to Laconia where she decided to use her passion for cooking and being around people to her advantage by going into the food business. She worked as manager for The Mug in Center Harbor before buying the Sunrise Cafe in Laconia (which she sold several years ago) and two years later bought the Paugus Diner.
"We strive for a welcoming hometown feel where you can relax with old friends and enjoy one of our signature burgers with a beer or a family gathering place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We want our food to fresh and local and offer all of the classic diner comfort food, along with reinventing some new ones.'' says Pucci.
"Our seafood is fresh and hand-battered to order, prime rib is slow-roasted, omelets are made from fresh-cracked eggs. Our way of doing things is simple, great food made with fresh products at a fair price,'' says Pucci.
Another classic diner car serves as the foundation for one of the two Common Man owned diners in the Lakes Region, the Tilt'n Diner in Tilton.
The 1953 dining car built by the O'Mahoney Diner Company in New Jersey, it was shipped to Waltham, Mass., where it was known as Linda's Jackpot Diner until 1971.
Mark Grotheer, manager of the Tilt'n Diner, says that the diner got it's name not from the town of Tilton, but from a comment made to owner Alex Ray when he was getting ready to move the diner to its new location.
''People told him that the site was nothing but swampland at one time and that the foundation would be tilting back towards the swamp,'' says Grotheer.
Since it opened in 1992 the diner has become a ''must stop'' location during the New Hampshire Presidential Primary campaign, according to the Associated Press.
Complete with be-bopping' music, hearty breakfasts served all day, including the popular "Cadillac," and classic comfort food favorites like baked shepherd's pie and White Mountain meatloaf, Tilt'n Diner offers something for all tastes.
Among the more popular items are classic frappes, flavored Cokes and home-made pies.
It also hosts a Classic Car Cruise Night on Wednesdays with the event benefiting local charities.
Grotheer says the diner averages 7,000 guests a week during the summer months and hosts over 300,000 people a year, making it one of the busiest diners in the entire state. ''The traffic count on Rte. 3-11 is actually higher than it is on I-93. We're always busy here,'' he says.
''Right now we have 68 employees and the Common Man has over 1,200 employees all over the state. And we all live by Alex Ray's motto ''if you're not proud of it, don't serve it,'' says Grotheer.
Rte. 104 Diner
Another Common Man-owned diner is the Rte. 104 Diner in New Hampton, which originally was opened as Bobby Girl's Diner in 1994 by Bob and Gloria Merrill, The Merrills had previously owned Glory Jean's Diner in Rumney, which is now Plain Jane's Diner.
The Rte. 104 diner was at one time owned by Alexis Stewart, daughter of Martha Stewart, who wanted to set it up as The Delish Diner in Bridgehampton, N.Y.. The deal was never closed and the diner sat in a field for two years before it was bought and moved to New Hampton.
Bobby Girl's Diner was sold by the Merrills and later sold at an auction in 2009 when it was bought by Common Man, which operated it as joint venture for several years with Plain Jane's.
The Tuesday Night Cruise Night which was started by the Merrill's continues as a tradition at the 104 Diner according to Meg Diltz, one of the supervisors at the diner.
She says the diner is open daily at 7 a.m. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner (breakfast available all day) it open Sunday - Thursday until 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.
Diltz says that the diner specializes in home cooking in a 50's style roadside diner setting. Favorites include the tuna melt, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches and diner classics like homemade mac 'n cheese and shepherd's pie.
Plane Jane's Diner
"The Diner is basics, and basics are the key to the culinary world. It's the foundation," said Jeff Day, owner of Plain Jane's Diner, located on Old Route 25 in Rumney. Day came to own the Plain Jane after a background in fine dining. A Bristol native, he received his culinary training at the community college in Berlin, N.H., then worked in restaurants in San Diego, Calif., just across the street from the beach.
New England called him back, though, and 11 years ago he found himself owning the diner in Rumney. Why did he buy Plain Jane's? "Being a chef, I always wanted a restaurant, and the owner was a good salesman. He chased me down for five months."
Day, whose experience includes running kitchens for fine dining restaurants, said owning a diner has its own unique charms. In other restaurants, regular customers might visit a couple of times each month. Regulars at a diner are in at least twice a week. "You get to know your customers really well," he said.
He also likes how diners attract patrons from all walks of life. Wealthy families from out of state will stop in for breakfast on the way to ski slopes, while in the next booth are local residents who arrived via snowmobile. "Our market is large because of what we are and what we do."
Though he's cooking in a diner, Day is still a chef in the kitchen and prides himself on making food from scratch as much as possible. The most popular dishes at Plain Jane's are reuben sandwiches, hand-breaded and fried chicken fingers and onion rings, hand-packed burgers and their home-made white chocolate bread pudding.
Day thinks that diners such as Plain Jane's continue to be successful because they offer a connection to a different, simpler era. "People want to step back in time and take a break from their hectic lives. Remember how things were, or imagine how it used to be if they're too young. And, economy. People know they can get a good, homemade meal at a fair price."
Main Street Station
Another popular local diner is the Main Street Station in Plymouth.
Chris Giguere was born to be a line cook. He grew up in the Plymouth area, graduated from a 2-year culinary program at the Huot Technical Center in Laconia and went to work in kitchens. Past jobs include running a pizza restaurant in South Carolina and a 118-seat breakfast restaurant in Plaistow. About a year ago, he was hired by owner Dori Dearborn to take over the kitchen at the Main Street Station in Plymouth.
"This is my dream job. I'm running a diner in my hometown, on Main Street," Giguere said.
Though, when he was hired, the kitchen was less of a dream and more of a nightmare. Disorganization and inexperience among the cook staff led to long waits, as much as an hour, for diners. Giguere was hired to fix that. "We've changed the dynamic in here immensely... in the last 12 months, I've turned that around to 12 to 15 minutes, even on a Sunday."
The Main Street Station, located in a diner that has been on Plymouth's Main Street since 1946, is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Giguere said the record for a day under his kitchen management is 320 people served. "And no complaints... pretty fun," he said.
Giguere is one of a unique breed. He wants nothing more than to see a huge crowd fill his diner with no warning. He can't wait for the order slips to start coming. Giguere pulls the slips, calls out the orders to the other cooks, and personally cooks the most critical element of any diner breakfast: the eggs. "I love it, the more the merrier," he said. "It's in your blood. You either can do it or you can't do it...I was built to do this. I can do it all day and it doesn't frazzle me... Line style cooking, fast-paced, that's what I like."
Center Harbor Diner
Another busy place is the Center Harbor Diner located on Rte. 25 just over the town line in Moultonborough.
Amanda Verbanic, who along with William Taylor has been running the diner for 30 years, say that the diner has built up a strong local following, so much so that when they had the old building torn down last September that regular customers eagerly followed the rebuilding process and posted information on the progress.
''We were closed for 16 weeks, from September 7 until we reopened on January 5. We were as eager to get back as our customers were to have us reopen,'' says Verbanic.
She says the diner opens at 5:30 a.m. seven days a week and remains open until 2:30 for six days and until 2 on Sundays, serving breakfast and lunch. Breakfast favorites include buttermilk blueberry pancakes and omelets while luncheon favorites are homemade meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, baked haddock and fried chicken.
''We have specials every day and use local ingredients like summer squash for our side dishes. We also offer gluten free breads and try to make sure that we're serving what our customers want. We have a lot of loyal customers and it's always nice to be able to meet them on a regular basis and get to know about them. It makes it a lot of fun to work here.''