Long-time Manchester restaurant reinvented as a dairy bar offering fish, seafood

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MANCHESTER — Restaurateur Melanie Allen said the COVID-19 pandemic convinced her to make a change she had long been considering and chose the Fourth of July weekend to unveil her reinvented eatery.

Even the name of the Gourmet Deli and Cafe at 4961 Main St. in Manchester will likely be changing.

The menu, however, has already seen a makeover.

Gone are the breakfasts and sandwiches for which Allen had become known and built a clientele.

Replacing those are fresh fish and seafood as Allen has chosen an old fashioned dairy bar for the next stage of her lifelong connection to the business.

"This is a fresh, new beginning," Allen said. "It's a little bit scary."

Her dedication to quality ingredients carries on and Allen said everything she serves is delivered fresh — never frozen — and if the first weekend is any indication, her customers have bought in.

Allen announced the new menu on Facebook on Friday and opened Saturday without knowing what to expect.

She said Saturday was steady but Sunday, "we just got obliterated."

In fact, the weekend outpaced her expectations and she had to announce an unplanned down day on Monday to restock.

"I wanted to make this change a year ago," Allen said. "With this pandemic, if I wanted my business to survive I needed to make a change to set myself apart from everybody else in this town."

Allen took advantage of being closed during the pandemic to put her changes into affect and completely rework the menu.

Allen said she didn't plan to launch the new menu on the busy holiday weekend, but after a delayed soft-serve ice cream machine slowed things down, she decided to just throw open the doors and see how it went.

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"We held off on our opening for so long," Allen said. "I wasn't going to open just to make the money. There's nothing worse than going somewhere that has opened because they had to."

Allen said that to her knowledge she has the only dairy bar in Manchester. And while there are few in nearby locations, she doesn't know anybody doing fresh fish and seafood to the extent she is.

"All of our fish and seafood is coming in fresh — not frozen — breaded and fried to order," Allen said. "All of my seafood items are priced as a basket."

Allen said that means healthy portions with the new signature fries and coleslaw. Her clam strips are breaded in house and the lobster rolls contain knuckle meat with no filler meat on a brioche bun.

Add scallops, clam strips, crab cakes and Panko-crusted flounder and you can already see the line forming.

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She promises a Fresh Ipswich whole belly clams are coming soon.

Allen promised large portions for the money with seafood baskets in the $10 to $20 range.

Hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and sides are all less than $10.

Sides include Allen's special fries, thick onion rings that are beer-battered sweet Vidalia onions, mac-and-cheese, and "tater bombs." Think large tater tots filled with bacon, cheddar and chives.

Allen offers soft-serve ice cream and hard ice cream from Wilcox Ice Cream out of Arlington.

She said a friend who was one of her opening day customers came and said he was missing his usual trip to the coast for fresh seafood, but said if he closed his eyes he wouldn't know he wasn't in a clam shack next to the saltwater.

Allen said the restaurant will have a rotating menu but she will never be a dairy bar with "five columns of everything fried under the sun."

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She said she wants people to taste the food three times — when you're reading the menu, when you see your food, and when you put it in your mouth.

"I go for the wow effect," Allen said. "If you miss one of those three factors I haven't done my job right."

Allen said she's owned the Gourmet Deli and Cafe for 16 years, but started working there in the mid- to late-80s.

"I've never done anything but the restaurant business," Allen said. "I've grown up in it. This is how I've raised my children."

Allen said her old website has been shut down and it and her Facebook page will be revamped soon.

The operation is a family-run business with two of her three children working with Allen.

Allen said one thing that won't change is environmentally friendly way Allen has operated for many years.

She said everything is recyclable or compostable, including the food containers and side cups so it can all go in the compost.

Allen said all employees are wearing masks and following all health guidelines.

There is outdoor seating available.

"I'm not going back to indoor seating," Allen said. "I'm going to stay strictly a take-out business."

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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