If you've run for president, chances are you've made a stop at the Merrimack Restaurant. Located on Elm Street, a popular area for New Hampshire campaign offices, the family-owned diner has been a popular stop on the campaign trail for over 20 years.
Gary Hart was a regular in 1984 and former President Bill Clinton came every time he was in town when he ran in 1992. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., filmed a commercial there when he ran for president in 2004, as did former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. CNN's Crossfire even took over the front window for two days that year to broadcast the feisty debate program. The photos on the walls are a veritable who's who of recent presidential politics and on the outside wall of the building is a 35 by 10-foot mural, painted by local illustrator Peter Noonan, which features among others, Bob Dole, Steve Forbes and Bill Clinton behind the bar.
Inside, there's a short lunch counter with red upholstered bar stools. The walls are covered in red plaid wallpaper and the carpet, also red, is adorned with flowers. The fare is basic but tasty and the regular customers who dine there are true locals, many of whom know the staff and the owners, sisters Maria Saitas and Koni Farr, by name.
"It all started with Gary Hart," said Saitas when asked to tell the political history of the Merrimack. Manchester was a dying mill town in those days and there were few businesses downtown, she said. "There were just campaign offices all up and down the street." Hart, who had an office upstairs from the restaurant, would often come in for a bite or a campaign staff meeting. As his popularity grew, so did the number of customers.
Saitas said in the days before the primary, the sidewalk outside her restaurant was always packed with young volunteers. Members of the press were constantly in checking to see if Hart had another dish of rice pudding that day and soon, other candidates were making appearances.
Saitas estimates that since then, 99 percent of the candidates running for president have been to the Merrimack. President George Bush was the only former candidate she could think of that hadn't stopped by. Recently, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., made a surprise visit on a busy Saturday morning and Saitas said former President Clinton was in last Tuesday to dine at one of his favorite New Hampshire eateries.
"It was mellow," Saitas said of the visit. "His home away from home, that's what he called it."
And what did he eat? "No red meat. He's watching his health. He had chicken fingers, onion rings ... why do people always ask that?"
Saitas won't admit to having a favorite candidate, but did joke, "of course our favorite candidates are the ones that become president."
She did, however, speak highly of Clinton, Hart, Lieberman and McCain. Having seen nearly every presidential hopefully over the last 20 years, Saitas has become savvy when it comes to judging the candidate's character.
"We're so lucky because we see them off camera," she said. No one will ever do all the things they promise, she added, but when it comes down to casting her ballot, Saitas looks for someone who is trustworthy and has a good personality.
"I vote for the man who is going to do the best for our country," she said.