Happy Birthday wishes and the story behind the famed greasy spoon.
Tonight, we are celebrating the 100th birthday of The Red Arrow Diner. The landmark opened its doors 100 years ago this week, and as Jean Mackin shows us, the diner still draws crowds to the exact same spot where it served its first meal a century ago.
Jean Mackin: Generations have taken this hungry journey for the past 100 years, called by cravings and tradition to 61 Lowell Street in Manchester – the one and only, the original, the Red Arrow Diner. Where regulars walk in with a wave and Red Arrow rookies get the bell.
Aja Vitti: “And I got a Red Arrow first timer in this house! This person has never been here before. Let’s welcome them!”
Jean Mackin: The row of red stools remains sturdy, the counter like an old friend to lean on. Come fill your belly with food, feed your soul with conversation – just like diners have done in this city landmark for a century.
George Lawrence: “Totally unbelievable. It really is.”
Jean Mackin: We gathered the three proud owners at the end of the counter. Carol Lawrence, taking the Red Arrow reins in 1987, along with her father, George, and Amanda Wihby.
Amanda Wihby: “The generations that keep coming here. And the stories that you hear of ‘my grandfather took me here’ and they’re a grandparent now.”
George Lawrence: “And the big thing for eight years old, eight, nine, maybe, was a stop back at the Red Arrow and have a vanilla Coke.”
Jean Mackin: Their recipe for success? Honoring the rich Red Arrow history. This is the original Lowell Street location today, and this is the spot where the Red Arrow Quick Lunch opened in 1922 – right behind that wagon. The Red Arrow pointing the way for mill workers to find a reasonably priced meal.
Historians guess the name came from the Red Arrow Garage across the street. The man behind the legendary landmark – a legend himself – David Lamontage.
Ray Lamontagne: “My dad bought a little lunch cart, I think, on Lowell Street. That’s how it all got started.”
Jean Mackin: We caught up with his son, Ray Lamontage.
Ray Lamontagne: “My dad was born in 1898.”
Jean Mackin: His father came from Canada in 1910 in search of a job.
Ray Lamontagne: “12 years old. To work in the mills. There no child labor laws in those days.”
Jean Mackin: He worked in the Amoskeag Mills, delivered ice, and saved money as a boxer to buy the Red Arrow Lunch Cart on Lowell Street. Soon opening new locations, like the Red Arrow Lunch on Lake Avenue, beyond the barbershop, meat market, and confectionery company.
David Lamontagne got married and raised a family with his wife, Mabel. Their children, Ray and Rita, were Red Arrow regulars.
Ray Lamontagne: “After going to the movies to see these cowboy movies we used to see every Saturday, we always would end up at the Red Arrow and we could eat our house out and not have to pay anything – which is sort of a childhood dream! And then I started working there.”
Jean Mackin: The old menu offers a taste of the early years. 30 cents for a toasted liverwurst sandwich. 50 cents for fried clams, or splurge for the 75 cent special: tomato juice or fruit cup, fresh lobster salad, grilled sirloin steak with mushroom sauce, sliced tomatoes, or green peas.
Two fires ravaged the Red Arrow. The first in February 1946. The inferno left the Elm Street location encased in ice, along with a block full of businesses and apartments. David Lamontagne rebuilt.
Ray Lamontage: “My dad had been in both Boston and New York on various trips, and he had seen something then called ‘cafeterias.’ So that’s the first time that the Elm Street restaurant became a cafeteria.”
Jean Mackin: When fire struck again here in 1953, the doors on Elm Street closed. But other Red Arrow Diners remained open. In the 1950s, there were six locations in Manchester and Nashua. They’ve opened and closed here and there throughout the years, but one always keeps the lights on and coffee hot. The Red Arrow on Lowell. 24/7, 364 ½ days a year. Closing only on Christmas Eve.
Ray Lamontagne: “I wish my dad would know how important it became has now become a legend, in a way.”
Jean Mackin: The Lamontagne Family eventually sold the diner. Ray went on to work with his friend, actor Paul Newman, at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children in Connecticut. He brought the Hollywood star to sit and savor the Red Arrow, where their name plates still mark the booth.
The diner is full of famous seats. Wallpapered with snapshots of celebrities who stopped by. WMUR’s own Ray Brewer even has his picture framed. You can find his favorite booth by the window, engraved with his name.
George Lawrence: “You find out that they’re regular people. Just great. Kevin Costner – you can’t believe it! And she [Diane Sawyer] comes in for a while, she ordered Twinkies.”
Amanda Wihby: “And Adam Sandler, hometown Manchester native, he usually comes whenever he’s in town.”
Carol Lawrence: “I think with Adam, him and his dad, that was a big bond. Because his dad loved the Red Arrow and took him here on Saturdays. So we have a plate named after his dad, ‘Stan the Man.’”
George Lawrence: “Stan the Man – we sell that more than anything else.”
Amanda Wihby and Carol Lawrence: “It’s our number one seller.”
George Lawrence: “Two eggs, any way you want, with bacon, pan fries, and toast.”
Jean Mackin: Other tasty staples have stood the test of time.
Carol Lawrence: “I like the old timers’ stuff like the number one, hot hamburg sandwich. I mean, the pork pies is my grandmother’s recipe. The baked beans are the original recipe.”
Jean Mackin: Customers come for the tried-and-true traditions, every day.
Aja Vitti: “They line right up and we ‘em in, we get ‘em out. It’s just like an auctioneer house. Like, ‘what do you need? What do you need?’ and people love it. The Red Arrow is iconic.”
Jean Mackin: Every four years, they see the spectacle when the First-in-the-Nation red carpet runs right through the Red Arrow.
Carol Lawrence: We’ve had a front-row seat to the primaries for years now.
Jean Mackin: Then the diner goes back to the daily grind, serving those dreamy cream pies and blue-plate specials, pinning up napkin art featuring mascots Moe and Dinah – the faces on the famous mugs of never-ending hot coffee, drawn by a regular named, “Moe.”
Carol Lawrence: It’s the mug – and sitting here on the stool. You must sit on a stool when you go to a diner. I always say, “Keep up the quality and the consistency that the Lamontagne Family started in 1922.” And that’s what we all strive to do every single day.
Amanda Wihby: The legacy continues, and I think that’s why people keep coming.
Jean Mackin: For 100 years and counting, to have a “Diner Day.”
Carol Lawrence: You have a Diner Day. What does that mean? You come in and you have a nice, homecooked meal and you talk with your neighbors on one side and the other, and you’re gonna have a Diner Day.