One of the delightful, satisfying pleasures in life is discovering a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with good food, friendly service, and great prices. Think no-frills, casual joints and roadside shacks, where in-the-know diners go for a hearty breakfast, oversize lunch sandwiches, and meatloaf and fish platter dinners. Here are 8 of our favorite down-market, decidedly ungentrified restaurants in the Northeast that are mightily loved by locals.
1. Gilley’s Diner
At one time, this diner, built in 1940, was towed into Market Square in downtown Portsmouth by horse. Today, Gilley’s Diner is a permanent, iconic fixture in the city, drawing a loyal following.
Not much has changed inside the cramped, rough-around-the-edges burger and hot dog stand, with its original oak trim and porcelain fixtures, and handful of bar stools.
Not much has changed with the menu, either. If you crave a good, cheap, hand-packed juicy burger, made with 100% prime triple-ground chuck ($4.45), a steamed or grilled Shields hot dog ($3.45), or crispy fries ($3.65), this is a tried-and-true favorite. In the before times, many a night of bar hopping has ended at Gilley’s (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol). Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
2. Flo’s Hot Dogs
Cape Neddick, Maine
Expect a line out the door at Flo’s Hot Dogs, a longstanding roadside stand that’s been selling steamed hot dogs since 1959. Yes, it’s just a hot dog, but oh what a dog it is, with a meaty custom grind; a soft, perfectly steamed bun; and Flo’s secret relish.
Ordering is simple: Just say how many hot dogs you want and what you want on them. Ninety-five percent of the orders are for the House Special ($3.50), which is a hot dog with Flo’s relish, mayo, and celery salt. It’s a unique, winning combination, a little sweet, a little spicy, a little salty. Open Thursday–Sunday. Cash only, takeout only.
3. Red Arrow Diner
Manchester, New Hampshire
The Red Arrow Diner has been featured in movies, touted in songs, and visited by hundreds of celebrities, newscasters, and politicians. The walls of the original restaurant, first opened in 1922 and a favorite stop along the presidential campaign route, are filled with framed photos of its most famous guests.
Open 24/7, it consistently offers a winning formula of friendly service, a gigantic menu, and generous portions of delicious home-style cooking at thrifty prices. You can get breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day.
Blue Plate Specials, like pork pie dinner on Monday ($12.99) and Sunday’s chicken and waffles ($13.99), are actually served on a blue plate. The house-made beans and chili are legendary, as are the freshly baked cream pies ($5.50 a slice). Other New Hampshire locations in Concord, Londonderry, and Nashua; check website for hours.
4. Bob's Clam Hut
Any New England best-of list will inevitably include Bob’s Clam Hut, an often-busy, circa-1956 restaurant in southern Maine. The casual eatery has won a slew of awards and served a host of famous folks throughout its 66-year history. Orders are placed and picked up at takeout windows and enjoyed at indoor and outdoor picnic tables.
The menu includes a variety of seafood baskets and sandwiches, but the best-selling dish remains the namesake fried clams. Should you order them Bob’s or Lillian’s style? Bob’s are lightly dredged in unseasoned flour and fried in super-clean oil. Lillian’s gets an extra pre-dip of egg wash for a milder, sweeter rendition.
We like to order a half Bob’s and half Lillian’s whole clam basket with a side of tangy coleslaw and pay a bit extra for crispy onion rings instead of french fries (market price varies, typically around $32–$36).
5. J’s Oyster
The late Anthony Bourdain once said that if he lived in Portland, he would want to live above J’s. If you’re looking for uber-fresh seafood, J’s is the place.
This come-as-you-are restaurant on Portland’s working waterfront buys from local fishermen and women daily, and offers lots of seafood options: lobsters, clams, crabs, scallops, shrimps, mussels, and more. The locally harvested oysters are a big draw. Order a fresh shucked Baker’s Dozen ($30), followed by a cup of lobster stew ($13) or haddock chowder ($8), and watch the boats come in and the tide roll out.
6. Handy’s Lunch
The unpretentious, welcoming Handy’s Lunch is a Burlington institution where locals gather for hefty breakfasts and lunches since 1945.
“We have many longtime customers,” says third-generation owner Earl Handy. “Their parents or grandparents started coming in when my parents and grandparents were running it.”
The breakfast sandwiches made with French toast are top sellers. If you can, order the Chuck Norris breakfast sandwich ($16.75): Featured on the Man v. Food and Cheap Eats TV shows, it has 4 eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, a burger, and corned beef layered with cheese within its 5 slices of French toast.
For lunch, try the Texas Hot Dog, with Handy’s house-made chili, a recipe passed down from Earl’s mom and dad. A combo comes with 2 dogs, fries, and a drink for $9.75.
7. Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant
Meredith, New Hampshire
Sometimes you just want a good, old-fashioned meal like mom used to cook. You’ll find it at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant, a rambling Lakes Region restaurant owned by generations of the Hart family since 1954.
The dining room is cavernous and the decor a bit dated, but the food is hearty and homey.
The menu offers lots of options, including turkey prepared every which way, like a roasted jumbo turkey leg ($15), turkey croquettes ($16), sauteed turkey livers ($16), turkey tempura ($17), turkey piccata ($21), and more. On our last visit, we counted more than 30 turkey choices on the menu! You can’t go wrong with the traditional roasted turkey dinner ($18–$28) with stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and 2 sides. But you’ll need a nap afterward.
8. Ray’s Seafood Market & Restaurant
Essex Junction, Vermont
For 70 years, the Dunkling family has been trucking in fish and shellfish from the East Coast, building a solid reputation for quality, fresh seafood. Upon its debut in 1951, Ray’s was the first seafood market in landlocked Vermont. When the Dunklings opened the restaurant in 1994, it quickly became a local favorite.
You can get all things seafood at this casual, community hangout, including fried seafood baskets and platters ($13.90–$39.95), baked and broiled seafood dinners ($23.80–$34.75), sandwiches, and rolls. While we like its saltwater offerings, we’d make the trek here just for the baskets of freshwater walleye ($15.95–$22.95) or Lake Champlain yellow perch ($13.95–$20.90), arguably the sweetest crispy fried fish you’ll ever eat.
New England–based writers Diane Bair and Pamela Wright cover food and travel for several publications and are frequent Boston Globe contributors.
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