A Love Letter to Manchester Hospitality

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As I’ve written here before, I love Manchester.  I love the community, I love the city’s rich history, and I love the diversity mostly unique to the rest of the state.  Manchester has lots of things it can and needs to do better, but – perhaps because I’ve lived here my whole life – I can still immensely appreciate the things that make it great, despite its shortcomings.  Independent of my feelings on Manchester as a whole though, there’s one part that holds a special place in my heart, and that’s our city’s incredible hospitality industry.

I’ve worked on Elm Street for five years now, and lived here for the past three.  As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time, probably too much time, in downtown restaurants and bars.  It’s been great exploring all of the amazing food and drink available downtown – offerings that only continue to get better and better.  What’s been more important to me and much more rewarding, however, is getting to know the incredible people behind its restaurants and bars.

Most of you reading this will be regulars at one spot or another on Elm and will already understand what I’m talking about, but for anyone who only goes out occasionally and doesn’t necessarily get the opportunity to really meet the people who make Elm Street what it is – I encourage all of you to do so.  It’s hard to describe how comforting it can be to sit down at The Shaskeen with Neal, or Miketon, or Kayla behind the bar and feel at home, or to truly appreciate the kindness of Chan at Golden Bowl when you show up for takeout during quarantine and are offered a big soup bowl to take home and bring back next time, so you can fully enjoy your pho experience.  The whole crew at Boards & Brews is also pretty amazing (I swear I’m not biased or anything).  The fact is, it feels really, really good to be so welcomed by the people who run the places you enjoy the most. 

That said, working to help open and run Boards & Brews these last few years has only deepened my appreciation for all the people who make these places what they are, and for the very real sense of family shared by everyone involved.

A few weeks ago, as Manchester experienced the first snowfall of the season, I woke up overwhelmed by a number of emotions.  The first emotion – as I looked out the window and saw that thin layer of snow forming on the trees – was joy.  Snow is certainly a polarizing subject for New Englanders, even amongst lifers, but I, for one, love it and get excited every year when I first see it.  In 2020, a year that’s basically felt like one really long, really shitty March, the prospect of any kind of change made that excitement hit even harder.

This excitement, however, quickly turned to worry – worry for what the snow would mean for the people at Boards & Brews and for everyone in our Manchester hospitality family.  At the time, expanded outdoor seating, which has been critical to downtown restaurants’ survival, was just about to go away. This has since been extended into winter, but the cold realities of the season and the aggressive resurgence of COVID 19 make the worry for what’s to come for our city’s hospitality industry all the more real.

All these conflicting emotions left me not knowing exactly what to do, but feeling like, no matter what, I needed to get outside and spend some time amongst the people and places most important to me.  I called up a few friends and was able to convince Boards & Brews’ finest, Fritz Manson (forgive his last name), and 815’s own TJ Rushton to join in the adventure.  We grabbed some much-needed coffee at Cafe La Reine, persuaded Richard and Erol to lend us one of their tables (thanks again!), and had an incredible time “dining” in the snow in front of some of downtown’s best spots.

Here are those establishments and the photos we took there – hopefully they bring a smile to some and remind everyone how lucky we are to have such an incredible hospitality industry in Manchester.


The Shaskeen


The Shaskeen is much more than an Irish pub – it’s a community, it’s a hub for live entertainment, and in many ways, it’s the backbone of Manchester hospitality.  Open seven days a week, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., the Shaskeen is unquestionably the most dependable establishment in the city.  In a time when most restaurants and bars throughout Manchester (and the country, for that matter) have scaled back hours and even the days they’re open for service, the Shaskeen has maintained its consistency – because it’s who they are.  Hosting live entertainment seven days a week (pre-COVID), they’ve created the best venue in the state for intimate music and comedy shows featuring both local and regional bands, as well an incredible number of top tier national hip hop and hardcore acts.  The owners and staff are all incredible people and all work incredibly hard to make all this happen.


Café la Reine


Alex, Dominique, and the entire crew at Cafe La Reine (past and present) have become a second family to me.  I live right upstairs, so whether they like it or not I’m there most mornings getting coffee and inserting whatever entropy I can into their lives.  Every single member of their staff is incredibly kind, smart, funny, and real – exactly the type of people you want to get to know as you show up day after day for your morning cup of coffee.  Make them a part of your routine if you haven’t already.


Boards and Brews


What can I say about Boards & Brews?  As mentioned, I’m a co-owner, so I’m certainly not without bias, but I think what we’ve created is pretty great.  From the start, Keating, Japhet, and I created Boards & Brews as a community – a place that would welcome everyone and provide a safe haven for serious gamers and anyone looking for more than just another place to drink – all while remaining a fun place for those who may not consider themselves to be “gamers” to enjoy a drink and a casual game.

Since opening, we’ve seen an incredibly broad spectrum of groups enjoy our space, and we’ve thrived by embracing this great diversity amongst our guests.  We’ve visited a number of board game cafes throughout the country, and I can confidently say that we’ve created one of the liveliest (if not the liveliest) communities of any of the places we’ve visited.  This is no small feat considering we’ve visited cafes in NYC and other major cities across the country.

We’ve carried on throughout COVID and have been able to keep out heads above water, but much of what we committed to creating – a sense of togetherness at every table with guests welcoming new games and even joining with other groups to try games together – has become impossible given our current reality.  The community around us has continued to show us support through these difficult last eight months, but it’s hard not to miss the vibrancy and sense of aliveness that had always filled the cafe.  We hope you’ll all feel just as welcome to join us and help rekindle this magic once it’s again safe to pack the space with people excited to try something new.

I can’t go on without calling out every one of the amazing people at Boards who make us what we are – Tina, Fritz, David, Jimmy, Dan, Charlie, Dowlay, Caleb, Tori, my co-owners Keating and Japhet, and all our past employees – you’ve all been an incredibly important part of who we are today and what we’ll be in the future.


Mint Bistro


Since opening, Mint has been unquestionably one of the best dining experiences in Manchester, and owner Tim has been one of the best examples of the sort of quality people behind the establishments we love.  Anyone who’s met Tim will immediately appreciate how genuine a person he is, and how much he cares about his business and the staff that make it a reality.  During his tenure as Ward 3 Alderman he dedicated a great deal of time to representing our downtown and drawing attention to critical issues in our city.  The bar, the kitchen, the sushi counter, the service, and every aspect of Mint is top-notch, as are the people behind them.


Castro’s


I don’t smoke cigars (as you can probably tell from this photo), but I can’t help but appreciate the community that Castro’s has created for those who do.  Castro’s is an environment where people can come together, share common interests, talk, and learn about each other.  Whether you smoke tobacco or not, it’s hard to deny the importance of a space like this.


USA Chicken and Biscuit


If you haven’t eaten at USA Chicken & Biscuit you’re missing out.  They consistently put out delicious chicken at an incredibly reasonable price, and have an incredibly friendly staff.  Plus, if you haven’t tried a “Spot” you are really, really missing out.


Ben & Jerry’s


The young staff at Ben & Jerry’s is incredibly friendly and willing to work on their feet.  How could you possibly say anything bad about a group that will happily make you a personalized ice cream cake featuring a unicorn circumscribed in a pentagram, on an hour’s notice?

The recent addition of a functional takeout window to the Ben & Jerry’s storefront is another example of the comradery amongst our downtown businesses.  Owners and management at several nearby businesses pitched in to help bring the window back to service –  essential to accommodate the high volume of summertime ice cream orders during a pandemic.


The Bookery


The Bookery has quickly become a strong part of downtown Manchester.  As a community bookstore with a cafe and a few draft lines, it’s become a destination on Elm for the thoroughly literate as well as those, like myself, who mostly just pretend to be.  This is exactly the sort of community we aimed to create at Boards & Brews, and an incredibly important presence in a downtown largely characterized by more traditional bars and restaurants.  I commend Liz and Jeremy for creating such a vibrant space, and for everyone who works day in and day out to grow its community.


Copy Express


Sure, Copy Express isn’t really a part of the hospitality industry, per se, but they work closely with many downtown restaurants, including Boards & Brews, and really are fantastic people.  Brian, Brian, and John really are the “bad boys” of printing, and they’ll do everything they can to satisfy your printing needs – even point at a clipboard or two.


Golden Bowl


On average, I’d say I’ve had lunch at Golden Bowl at least once a week for the last four years.  The food is amongst the most consistently delicious to be found in Manchester and the owners and staff are some of the most friendly and positive people I’ve encountered.  If you’ve never been to Golden Bowl, I implore you to check it out.  #24, #28, and #31 are my favorites – which I prefer with egg noodles (as they always remember, even when I forget to specify!)


815


Finally, we come to 815.  Ryan, Sarah, TJ, more recently Spencer and Aidan (can’t leave him out, he’s blood), and everyone past and present who’ve worked to make 815 what it is, I can’t say enough about how important you’ve been to me and to Manchester.  Credit for bringing truly amazing cocktails to the city lies firmly on your shoulders, as does credit for inspiring so many Elm Street bars, including Boards & Brews, to attempt to match your cocktail program with menus worth drinking.

In addition to consistently pushing the envelope with their cocktails, Ryan and Sarah regularly go out of their way to bring people in the industry together and reinforce the sense of togetherness that is so great about Manchester hospitality.


And a few oversights

The Birch On Elm

We neglected to take a photo outside The Birch – perhaps because it felt like a lot to take so many photos on the same block after The Shaskeen, Boards & Brews, Cafe La Reine, and Copy Express – but there are few Manchester restaurants more worthy of note.  What Joel, Nick, Jeremy, Dan, and the rest of the OG crew created a few years ago is still, in my opinion, the restaurant with the best food in Manchester, and probably all of NH.  The fact that they have yet to reopen is one of COVID’s biggest tragedies for Manchester’s hospitality industry.

It’s been hard seeing what COVID has done to one of the most vibrant restaurants in the city.  The intimacy of their space and the complexities of reopening during COVID have made it exceptionally difficult for them, but it’s all the more exciting to see Paris and Jeremy (of Noodz) and the rest of the staff grinding day in and day out to get the Birch ready to reopen and resume their tradition of excellence.

Industry East

Speaking of the Birch, it would be criminal to forget two of the people who did so much to make it what it is.  Jeremy – the creator of many of the finest cocktails I’ve ever had in NH – and Dan – one of the friendliest and most charismatic people I’ve met in the industry – have been working tirelessly despite the chaos of 2020 to open Industry East – a new spot coming soon to Hanover.

They’ve been busting their asses to clear all the hurdles involved in opening a restaurant/bar in Manchester (trust me, there are many), so Industry East should be the first place you visit whenever you’re comfortable venturing out into the city again.

The Current State of Our Community

It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this on the night before Thanksgiving – a night when people who haven’t seen each other in a while get together, a night known for being one of the busiest nights of the year for bars across the country.  I look out my window onto Elm Street now as the evening is well underway and I see a very different picture.  Given the current situation in our city and country, this isn’t really a bad thing, but it highlights just how dangerous the situation is not just for public health, but for our city’s restaurants and the outlook of each and every bar and restaurant that make our city’s hospitality industry what it is.

We’ve made it through one shut down with a few exceptions, Matbah being the one truly upsetting casualty of COVID 19 for our city’s downtown.  With COVID cases continuing to spike throughout our city and state another shutdown is not out of the question.  As a restaurant owner in the city I truly hope it will not come to that, but given the reality of the situation, it seems very much within the realm of possibility.  I can first-hand tell you all, on behalf of restaurant owners throughout Manchester, being forced to pay months of rent without the ability to welcome and serve guests sucks.  I can tell you on behalf of our staff that working as a server, relying heavily on tips, when you see a tiny fraction of the guests you’re used to in the aftermath of the shutdown, really sucks.

I can again tell you all first-hand, speaking at least for Boards & Brews, that without the aid of federal money through the Main Street Recovery Program and similar funds, we would 100 percent not have made it through this situation and would not be there to welcome you all on the other side.  At Boards & Brews we used the money provided by the state and federal government to supplement our staff’s normal wages as long as we could, but anyone who could see our finances would see how unsustainable this is without government assistance.

How to Show Support?

So, what am I asking of you and of Manchester a whole?  I’m asking you to really understand and appreciate what we have here in our city’s hospitality industry.  I’m asking you to think of the people at the places you regularly choose to spend your money, or who you used to visit when it was safer and more comfortable to do so.  From ownership to management, to the servers and kitchen staff who really do the work for you to enjoy your time out, these are very real people, and very good people, who are living in very uncertain times.  These are people who even in good times often make far less than they deserve and many of whom rely on a newly unreliable source of income to support their families.

I’m asking you to remember that supporting these businesses with gift card purchases in the case of another shutdown goes an incredibly long way.  I’m asking you to remember that supporting the staff at these businesses with generous tips (yes, even for takeout orders) also goes an incredibly long way.  Many of you already do these things, and you are immensely appreciated.  Please continue to do so, because we have a really good thing going here and it would be such a shame to lose it.

I want to thank all the staff, managers, and owners who continue to grind through a situation nobody could have planned for.

Lastly, I want to thank the late Dan Vine, who introduced me to so many of the people in the industry who’ve become my friends and taught me that the people behind the places you love are the ones really worth appreciating.  You’re missed by all who knew you, friend.

  • Dave Casinghino is co-owner/operator at Boards & Brews.
  • TJ Rushton is bar manager at 815.
  • Fritz Manson is general manager at Boards & Brews.