MANCHESTER, NH – Flight Center Taphouse and Kitchen has landed on South Willow Street, an aeronautics-themed eatery described by “Chief Dishwasher” and local restaurateur Seth Simonian as an American-style gastropub with Latin flair.
I stopped by for the soft opening Wednesday night and discovered there’s a lot more going on inside the former British Beer Company space than meets the eye. Just don’t ask me about the speakeasy, because I’m sworn to secrecy.
By the time I arrived, just before 7 p.m., the Flight Center was bumping with diners who seemed to be enjoying several of the more than dozen oven-fired pizzas on the menu, along with a list of crowd-favorite appetizers, soups salads and entrees, prepared under the direction of Executive Chef Gabby Salinas. Like its sister Flight Center in Nashua, the heart of this eatery is the craft beer selection which can be consumed in convenient multi-glass flights to maximize your sampling pleasure, with dozens of local craft beers to choose from.
“We opened the Flight Center in Nashua five years ago and were the fresh-faced guys on the scene, but Liu Vaine was our go-to mentor,” Simonian said of the man seated at what may or may not have been a hand-hewn dark wood bar that was not located anywhere near the craft beer taps. But don’t ask me anything else about Lost Luggage, er, the alleged speakeasy, because as I said, I’m sworn to secrecy.
Vaine, who has made a name for himself as the speakeasy-rider of the region, has planted several other concept bars in southern New Hampshire, including CodeX, a speakeasy wrapped in a bookstore, and Chuck’s BARbershop in Concord, a speakeasy wrapped in a barbershop. He also established 815, a second-floor speakeasy on Elm Street, which he later sold to two of his former employees, and the whiskey bar Cheddar & Rye, which shares a kitchen with Peacock Tails Lounge on Hanover Street in Manchester.
Simonian and Vaine spent several years brainstorming how they might combine the easy-breezy vibe of a beer cafe with the intrigue of a speakeasy. Finding just the right location was the roadblock. They were scoping out a spot in Westford, Mass., that got scooped up – another former British Beer Company location, and were asked if they’d like to take a look-see at the Manchester space.
“We didn’t want to like it,” Vaine says. “But we loved it. We knew as soon as we walked in. Everything was perfect,” which is not a definite confirmation that there is actually a secret bar under the Flight Center roof that is nearly impossible to find, without a hint.
However, should you find it, you’ll be greeted by someone cool like bartender “Micky Ford” who plays the part of your friendly prohibition-era mixologist with flair. If he offers you a cocktail by the name of Last Word you can expect the most delightful gin and chartreuse drink you’ve ever tasted.
Simonian could not confirm or deny that the entire staff of the alleged speakeasy are hired for their fun factor and encouraged to create a character they can run with.
“The whole idea is to provide an experience to drive you back through the door,” Simonian said. To that end, he is eager to hire more help. Like every other restaurant in town staffing up is the greatest challenge to operations these days. For example, as they work out the kinks and continue to hire they will be open for dinner service just five days a week – Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 4-11:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturdays, 4 to 12:30 a.m.
“We’d like to be open 7 days a week, but it’s going to take us 90 days to fully staff up,” Simonian says. Anyone interested in working at what may or may not be a new speakeasy in town – or Flight Center – should email a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org detailing what makes them so interesting.
“We want people who want to have fun, and who want a drama-free work environment,” he said. “And we hope the public will be patient and kind as we ramp up.”
As Vaine was about to dive into some Cauliflower Tacos he was approached by Marc Lafleur and Jim Berry, two government contractors from Georgia who were working in the city for a few days. The front desk clerk at their hotel mentioned she’d heard something about a new speakeasy opening nearby.
“We weren’t sure what exactly that was so we Googled it,” said Lafleur. But they weren’t sure where to find it, so they set out to find something different.
“We saw a lot of chain restaurants that we have in Georgia, but this place looked different. We had pizza on the other side and it was just unbelievable. But we were intrigued by this secret door that we saw kept opening,” and that’s when they did the secret thing that made a bell ring and a discrete door open, prompting someone to await the password phrase that provided entry into what Lafleur said was sensational.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere from the other side where people are watching sports center and drinking beer. We couldn’t get our server to break character for anything,” he said, which is familiar feedback so far, said Simonian.
“The feedback has been all positive. People love finding a hidden world inside an unexpected place.”
And that’s all I have to say about that. My lips are sealed.
Flight Center Taphouse and Kitchen is located at 1071 South Willow Street in Manchester. Frequent fliers can join the Mile High Club (not what you think) for discounts. Learn more here.