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Day Tripping: A Tour Of Lakes Region Diners

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 1, 2013


The signs say it all when it comes to diners: Time To Eat … Here.

What a Laker dream story! When I received the schedule of summer story assignments for The Laker in the spring, I was excited to see that Diner Tour made the list.

Ahhh … diners. The word evokes thoughts of bullet-shaped eateries, lots of chrome and great signs. And, of course, solid, home-cooked food served up by fast-moving, coffee-pouring waitresses.

Those images were becoming a thing of the past until the recent revival of diners, but some of the assumptions we have about diners hold true today. Diners are all about history, whether from the 1930s or ’40s or ’50s. They bring back memories of a simpler way of life when no one worried about how many calories a hamburger might hold or how other diners would view us if we ordered extra whipped cream on our homemade pie.

I have always loved diners, probably because I love old movies. Give me a black-and-white, 1940s film with Bogie gulping down his coffee while perched on a diner counter stool “putting the heat” on a waitress he calls “Doll”. Those old films were full of wise-cracking detectives and waitresses and diners and I just loved the atmosphere in the movies.

As I headed out to complete my Diner Tour assignment, I knew I was in for a real treat. I started with that most beloved of Lakes Region diners, the Union Diner at 1331 Union Avenue in Laconia. Historically, the Union Diner opened June 2009 in an authentic 1951 Worcester dining car with an attached dining room filled with vintage ’60s and ’70s music memorabilia. The diner has had various owners over the years and today retains a lot of its lunch counter charm and décor.

I chose to sit at the counter to get the full effect of the diner culture and I didn’t have long to wait before I overheard a few local customers, also seated at the counter, discussing the weather and lots of other topics. Because it was breakfast time, I ordered coffee and eggs and bacon … all were served up fast and were delicious.

Back on the road, I decided to do a  “diner tour loop” taking me on Laconia Road to the Tilton area from Laconia. No diner trek is complete without a stop at the Tilt’n Diner at 61 Laconia Road in Tilton. The diner has it all, from a 1950s light pink exterior to signs inviting the public to sample “real food”.

The Tilt’n Diner is a traditional ’50s-style diner with décor in keeping with the era. From the moment I parked my car outside, I felt as if I had, indeed, stepped back in time!

The menu graphics feature cute clip art from the 1950s and everything is very authentic. The pace is fast, as it was with old-time diners when customers expected a cheap, delicious meal served quickly so they could get back to their job. It was mid-morning by the time I took my seat at the counter. The menu had everything, from a classic burger to diner-titled meals such as the Cadillac (eggs, bacon, and pancakes) to the Doo Wop (eggs and bacon) to desserts featuring lots of pie. I chose the grapenut pudding and coffee. Old-timers are familiar with this type of pudding and I must admit I love it. A cross between custard and grapenut cereal, the pudding is a smooth treat not always found on restaurant menus.

After my Tilt’n Diner stop, I drove through Tilton and Franklin and followed Route 3A north to sample diner food at the Bristol Diner. I grew up in Bristol, so I know this diner quite well. When I was in high school, it was a great place for an after-school snack and also was the place I went on Sunday mornings with my Dad for coffee and diner socializing.

The Bristol Diner has been around a long time; my mother worked there was a waitress in the 1940s and she used to recall the starched, matching uniforms they wore and being taught to wait on tables “the correct way”. The diner has always been located right beside the bridge that spans the Newfound River leading into town. It is an all-American diner with a curved ceiling and a long counter; a dining room was added some years ago. (Historical information claims the diner was built in 1926 and was called a Pollard diner. Other information mentioned that as early as 1930 the eatery was known as the Bristol Diner and was a thriving business.)

The eatery has changed ownership and business names over the years, but has always been known by many as the Bristol Diner (locals simply call it “the diner”). When I stopped in, it was lunchtime, so I had the perfect excuse to perch on a counter stool and indulge in a mid-day meal. The menu offers daily specials as well as diner fare — burgers, fries, desserts, etc. I chose the hamburger with fries and a coke — a standard menu choice for a diner! The talk by the locals at the counter was interesting and ranged from politics to who just got married to the work being done on the roads in the area. It is always a joy to listen in on these conversations and it gives a glimpse into the lives of other people that cannot be beat.

After the filling lunch, I headed out of Bristol on Route 104 toward Laconia. In New Hampton, I knew I just had to stop at the Route 104 Diner. The business opened some years ago as Bobby’s Girl Diner. Later, it changed ownership and today it is the Route 104 Diner. This diner is an architectural gem that salutes the 1950s. From the neon sign at the edge of the parking lot to the atmosphere once you step in the door, it’s Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean time warp all the way! (There is also an Airstream Ice Cream stand on the property open during the summer.)

The diner is a classic Worcester Diner Car and also has a good-sized dining room (booths and a counter are in the diner portion). This time I chose to sit at a booth because I love to people-watch as I eat. There was a lot of activity in the diner, and the parking lot was bustling with people stopping to eat and a few even snapping photos of the colorful outside sign and the sleek diner building.

I decided to finish off my diner tour (and add a few more pounds!) by ordering a hot fudge sundae. I listened to classic music as I worked my way through the smooth hot fudge, the creamy vanilla ice cream and the mounds of whipped cream. I really felt as if I had stepped back into the 1950s when hot rods, poodle skirts, and Elvis ruled the land.

After this dream Laker story assignment, I vowed I would not eat for a week! It was worth the trek, however. Diner food may not be gourmet fare, but it is the kind of food most of us love: mashed potatoes, fries, burgers, homemade soups, pies and ice cream … and lots of hot coffee and sodas.

There are many other diners in the area, such as Plain Jane’s in Rumney, the beautiful Main Street Station diner in Plymouth’s downtown, and others out of the area such as in Littleton. But those diners are a story for another day. … 

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