It seems like everywhere you turn in New Hampshire, there’s another Common Man property. There’s restaurants, diners, at least one honest-to-goodness pub, a couple of resorts, and on and on. And yet, for some reason, it never occurred to me that I might stop. After all, there were other places with better neon; McDonald’s may be crap but it’s familiar crap. But then random chance took a hand, and I stopped.
And then I went back. And did it again the next day.
Right. So, first and foremost: Cracker Barrel? A bunch of poseurs. You only think they do kitsch because you don’t know any better. This place isn’t a cookie-cutter instant fake country restaurant; it’s the real thing. The one in Concord is set in what looks for all the world like a collection of old barns tacked together without the farmhouse attached — and that’s before you go inside.
To begin with, there’s no spring on the door. Instead, there’s a pulley-clothesline contraption weighted with an old teapot, a stuffed animal riding inside. You’re in a waiting room that’s a closed-in front porch filled with battered overstuffed armchairs. Books are piled on endtables, and if you forgot your reading glasses there’s some spares sitting around; like as not, you forgot them here, so it’s take-a-pair leave-a-pair.
Fair notice: There’s also a sign which advises you to put away your cell phone in the dining area for the convenience of the other diners. If you want to talk, there’s the porch or outdoors. And, if you can’t be bothered to socialize for the duration of a meal… you have my sincere pity, but you can probably get away with it in the taproom.
Once you venture inside, you’re overwhelmed by the floors of pumpkin pine, the roaring fireplaces, a great big staircase leading up (and, yes, one even longer coming down), and smells of such delight and amazement that your senses start to get overwhelmed. Downstairs are tables ranging from cozy to massive; upstairs is a bar and a taproom, the latter complete with comfy chairs scattered here and there. (Full disclosure: This is the moment I decided to move to New Hampshire and take up residence in one of these restaurants. I don’t know how yet, but I’ll manage it.)
And then there is the food. Oh Lord God in Heaven there’s the food…
Let’s start with cheese and crackers, because it’s complimentary — if you’re in the taproom you can fetch it yourself from around the corner; the dip is to kill for, and there’s probably twenty pounds of sharp cheddar on the board. They have sweet tea the way it ought to be made, enough different beers on tap to make tasting an adventure, and… yes, that’s The Balvenie up in the shadows; looks like Caribbean Cask. My second visit, I got a plate of nachos approximately the size of a truck tire. I searched in vain for a single chip (double-fried for extra crisp) that didn’t have cheese on it.
I could go on and on about all the selections on the menu — Nantucket pie, quinoa-stuffed peppers, pulled pork mac — but what’s the point? You’re going to go there and try them out for yourself and you know it. And I haven’t even mentioned the staff: honestly delighted to see me; remembered me from last time; refills before I even thought of asking — and, the second day, tolerant toward the happy fellow who too obviously dozed off for half an hour after dinner.
(I snore something wicked. Nobody complained.)
And then she brought me my bill… tucked inside a cozy mystery novel. “No hurry,” she said, twinkling at me.
There are something like nineteen different The Common Man locations; I’ve lost count but fully intend to try them all. The one in Concord is at 25 Water Street and opens at 11:30 in the morning, seven days a week.
Usually I don’t go on about other things than the food, but I just want to take a moment here to gush about the management. It’s obvious they treat their staff well; everyone’s happy and works hard, which is a rare combination. But they also get involved in charity work both local and far off — sometimes at vast expense, but they don’t seem to mind. These are grand people.