New Hampshire diner dishes up comfort food at its decadent best
The scene: Food trucks may be all the hipster rage today, but the concept is hardly new. The earliest lunch carts were horse-drawn wagons, and such a cart rolled into downtown Portsmouth, N.H. everyday starting in 1912. In 1940, this cart was upgraded to a “new” model, one of just five such portable diners built by the Worcester Lunch Car Company in neighboring Massachusetts, and while the horses disappeared in 1974, it is still cooking up a storm, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and especially for a raucous late-night crowd. It’s the last of its kind, one of the most famous and iconic road food spots in New England. But even by classic diner standards Gilley’s is unusual for several reasons, including the fact that it’s not roadside Americana, but rather in the heart of what is rapidly becoming one of the hottest weekend escape destinations in the Northeast, just steps from Portsmouth’s epicenter, Market Square.
Gilley’s sits permanently in a small lot on a side street in the heart of downtown, with a few parking spots of its own, and the site is adjacent to a large public parking garage. There’s way less seating than parking, with three outdoor picnic tables and room for about a dozen people inside, crammed in. A third of the railroad car-style diner is for patrons, with stool seating or standing at a U-shaped railing counter that wraps around one end of the car. You enter Gilley’s through a sliding door that tends to confound first-time visitors, and there is immediately a counter on your right where you order from menu boards that explain everything, with the limited dining area to your left.
Behind the counter is the galley kitchen where staff — almost exclusively a single operator, no matter how busy - performs a choreographed whirlwind of multitasking, taking orders, ringing them up, opening and closing various cabinets and fridge doors, and slapping items on the grill or into the fryers with practiced, perfect precision. How much food is produced so quickly, to order, is truly amazing, and so is the place itself, with sodas pulled out of an original ice chest-style built-in enameled fridge and little in the way of technological advances in recent decades — except Gilley’s now takes credit cards using Square.
There are a couple of articles about the place hanging up, but not nearly as many as have been written. Open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. everyday, it’s a must for breakfast or lunch when visiting Portsmouth, N.H., and if you partake in the city’s extensive nightly bar scene, it is the place to refuel at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., when the line winds well out the door, albeit unsteadily.
Reason to visit: Grilled Cheesey Steak, steamed hot dogs, fries
The food: Historically, the steamed hot dogs are the claim to fame and centerpiece of the menu, with an array of topping options, and Gilley’s serves up multiple variations of other fast-food staples including burgers, grilled cheese and fries – there’s even poutine, the Canadian comfort food specialty of nearby Quebec, French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Unless you opt for a breakfast sandwich, it’s going to be some iteration of burgers, dogs, grilled cheese and fries.
Firstwefeast.com published a roundup of the nation’s 50 best hot dogs and picked Gilley’s as tops in the Granite State, one of several similar best in N.H. awards it has won. That being said, the hot dogs are fine, but in New England, where this food is taken very seriously, and Connecticut hot spots are famed for frying their dogs until blistering, the pretty basic ballpark-style steamed beef and pork frank — the only thing on the menu that is cooked in advance and not made to order — is just that, pretty basic. It’s the toppings that make things interesting, and regulars order by phrase: “The Works” adds mustard, onions and relish; “Loaded” is the works plus ketchup; and “Everything” is loaded plus mayo and pickle. This is all clearly displayed on a “how to order toppings” chart, so Gilley’s is not one of those places where you feel like an outsider if you don’t know the lingo, and you can also mix, match, customize and rotate in extras like barbecue sauce, brown mustard, chili and bacon.
The chili is very good, but it’s not the typical hot dog style found widely throughout New England and chili-dog obsessed places like Cincinnati, which tends to be mostly fine ground meat in sauce. This is more the chili you’d get a bowl of outside Texas, with lots of beans and less meat, and it makes it so messy you need a fork and knife (plastic of course) to eat the swamped frank.
The grilled-to-order burgers are good but equally basic, with smallish pre-formed patties, though the rolls are better than most and perfectly griddled. If you are having just the burger I’d recommend making it a double (and I always recommend adding bacon to any burger), though many people get a dog and a burger for more variety and less hard choices, which is easy to do with these bargain prices. However, the unsung highlight of Gilley’s menu is the traditional and perfectly cooked grilled cheese. It’s especially easy to overlook the Grilled Cheesey Steak, which is awesome comfort food at its decadent best. This is shaved beef cooked on the flattop griddle, just like a steak and cheese in Philly, then incorporated into a grilled cheese sandwich, hand buttered on both exterior sides, perfectly cooked until golden brown, and cut in half. It combines everything that is loveable about both steak and cheese and grilled cheese into one near-perfect sandwich. It’s also the heartiest thing on the menu here, and the most expensive — at under six bucks. This is what I will have next time, and every time, I visit Gilley’s.
Fries are made to order, pulled fresh from the fryer and well seasoned, then served in generous quantities in cardboard boats. They are rustic and have the look of hand cut, are very tasty, and these too have an array of toppings, including nacho-style pumped cheese, chili, gravy and poutine. Because the hot dogs are already steamed and ready for quick topping, they are the fastest item you can order here, while fries take the longest, and everything else falls in between.
What regulars say: “It’s the go-to place at one in the morning after bars when customers have ‘the lean’ going,” says a waiter and longtime local at nearby upscale Franklin Oyster Bar. “But at any time, it’s the only place in town where you can get a hand-flipped burger to order in five minutes, and it’s cheap. There’s just nothing like it.”
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Only for collectors of classic diner experiences, but a must if you are in Portsmouth, N.H. anyway.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 175 Fleet Street, Portsmouth, NH; 603-431-6343; gilleyspmlunch.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.