In Manchester, N.H., a Diner Serves the Candidates Over Easy

A mural of presidential candidates decorates the outside of the popular Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester, N.H.
A mural of presidential candidates decorates the outside of the popular Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester, N.H. (By Lois Romano -- The Washington Post)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 3 -- It just doesn't get any more exciting for the pair of Greek-born sisters who open their restaurant doors Friday morning to a parade of would-be presidents.

Bill Richardson will be the first one to show up for his cameo, at 9 a.m. The main draw of the day, Hillary Clinton, reserved the lunch hour for her visit to the Merrimack Restaurant, where fish and chips is the Friday special. As always.

Connie Farr and Maria Saitas have owned this place with the brick-red banquettes and Formica counters for 27 years and have been a quadrennial part of the presidential process all along.

"Fox will be in the back room," Maria informs her sister, as anxious network advance people listen in. "Charlie Gibson has got the front, and it will be fine without anyone bumping into each other," she says.

"Whatever," Connie responds. "I just tell everyone to come whenever."

And they all show up. Heaven help the candidate who doesn't come by to pay respects early and often at this corner restaurant on Elm Street.

"I got turned off to Giuliani," says Connie, who does all the cooking. "I'm a people watcher, and he never looked anyone in the eye as he was shaking hands. He was always one step ahead. And he kept asking his staff, 'Who's here? What are they going to ask me?' "

She's not done. "I think he made a mistake shunning the state," she adds, addressing the former New York mayor's decision not to focus on New Hampshire. "What does that mean if he gets elected? Are we always going to be on the back burner?"

"I like everybody," says Maria with a huge smile. Then: "What happened to Fred Thompson? Is he still running?"

Both the sisters like Hillary Clinton but haven't firmed up their choices. Maria, a Democrat, is keeping her thoughts private. Connie, an independent, is also giving a once-over to Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, whom she finds sincere.

They'll certainly be getting an eyeful and earful, along with the rest of New Hampshire when the moving mob of media, operatives and yes, the actual people running for office, flee the bitter cold of Iowa for the bitter cold of this smaller state, also with an outsize role in the selection of the next president. All the remaining candidates will be arriving in the early morning to start the five-day sprint to the first electoral primary, on Tuesday.

And even as pundits jawed about whether the Iowa caucus results would influence the primary here on Tuesday, Granite Staters were adamant about their independence. "Oh no, not at all -- my vote is my own. I don't look to see what anyone else is doing," Sandra Barlow says, as she waits to hear Rudy Giuliani talk at a VFW hall here. She was leaning toward Mitt Romney, but no longer. She said she is now taking a good look at Giuliani and John McCain.

The sisters, among other New Hampshire voters, are clearly disappointed that the schedule is so jammed this cycle, and there isn't more time between the Iowa caucuses and Tuesday's primary. "It's just not the same," says Maria Saitas. "Everyone is so rushed. There's no time to ask questions."

They say that while they are frantically busy right now, they really won't necessarily do much more business. It's mostly foot traffic and gawkers -- not paying patrons. "It's not about the money, or who buys an extra meal," Connie says. "We've met everybody."

Best as anyone can recall, it was Gary Hart who put the Merrimack diner on the map in 1984, when he set up his headquarters in the space above the restaurant -- now occupied by Dennis Kucinich, although no one expects he'll pull the upset win that Hart did here. Former Nebraska Democratic senator Bob Kerrey, a favorite of the sisters, served coffee to patrons. Joe Lieberman held one of his "Cup of Joe with Joe" events here in 2000 when he was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. And Bill Clinton, who was dubbed in 1992 "The Comeback Kid" after winning New Hampshire, loves the place -- and he is for sure a sentimental favorite for the sisters, who say this may be their last race. They have put the diner up for sale.

Two months ago, they report that they opened the restaurant for him on their day off, and that he spent three hours chatting them up.

"He came in and took off his coat and said, 'well I'm on a diet,' " reports Maria. "Then he ordered the chicken fingers and onion rings."

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