Pancakes and politics – the finer points of the diner meet and greet
January 9th, 2012
05:30 PM ET
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Steve Kastenbaum is a CNN Radio National Correspondent, currently covering the New Hampshire primary. He previously wrote about the mystique of the Brooklyn bagel.

A presidential candidate wouldn’t dare campaign in New Hampshire without making a stop at a diner. Sometimes they’ll hit several in one day. As they look over the menu to figure out what suits their tastes, patrons size up the presidential candidates here in the same way.

The Red Arrow Diner sits on a side street in the heart of downtown Manchester. The historic landmark has been here since 1923. There’s almost always a wait for a seat. The corned beef hash and the fried haddock sandwich are favorites among the locals and first timers struggle to eat every bite of the generous tall stack of pancakes.

But they also serve politics here and that’s the real draw. The walls of this old diner are lined with photographs of just about every presidential candidate who ran for office over the past few years, Republican and Democrat.

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“We would always welcome them no matter who they are or whether they’re Democratic or Republican,” said Elaine Boule, waitress at the Red Arrow for the past 16 years. She relishes the opportunity to meet the candidates up close and personal.

“I certainly have plenty of pictures at home with each of the candidates as well as Barack Obama,” said Boule. “If you could see the pictures that I have at home I just certainly can’t complain.”

She admits, though, that it is an intrusion into the daily routine at the diner. “It’s hard for us… We have a lot of regular customers who get kind of put out because there are so many people here.”

Then there are the politics junkies who seem to set up residence at the diner before a primary. Boule said, “Lots of times people will come in and they might sit at a table for a couple of hours waiting for a politician.”

Seventeen year old Tyler Isabelle grew up at the diner. His parents own the place. He thinks diners play a pivotal role in helping people decide who to vote for. “This is a really big focal point… You can be sitting on the counter and on the right of you, you can have a high class lawyer, on the left of you, you can have a homeless person.” The politicians will talk to both.

“Some politicians look you in the eyes, they talk to you and wait until you are done,” said Isabelle. “They’ll sit with you, they’ll order a coffee with you, spend twenty minutes if you really want to,” said Isabelle.

There’s something about the color red and diners in Manchester. About a mile away is the Red Barn Diner. Despite having the same red stools at the counter the two are not connected in any way other than they serve similar food.

Politicians don’t stop in at the Red Barn. “And that’s okay with us,” said owner Jean Banton. “It makes it easier to run the business. There are people here trying to earn a living and pay their bills.”

When a candidate walks in the door of any establishment during an election year everything stops. “Servers can’t get around. People are talking more than eating and ordering and paying for meals and leaving tips,” said Banton. “It’s disruptive.”

But she understands why campaigns are always stopping at diners. “The regulars come in and they talk about everything, every day,” said Banton. “I have guys that sit in a corner for two and a half hours every morning. They discuss every topic out there from social security to where the best fishing-hole is. So the candidates want to come in and see what the locals are thinking.”

When I paid the check for my western omelette I asked Banton if she wanted me to tell the campaigns about the Red Barn.

“No,” said Banton, “I think we’re fine.” She’s okay with the press stopping by as long as they remember to tip the waitresses.

Previously - At a Des Moines diner, voters get to the meat of the matter and Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches – an Iowa tradition

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Filed under: Campaign Trail • Diners • New England • Radio • Restaurants

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