Whether you’re exploring the innovative and eclectic restaurant scene in downtown Keene, or searching out local-favorite spots in smaller towns such as Peterborough and Jaffrey, the Monadnock Region has an array of dining options to suit your palate.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of the City of Keene
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Tucked into southwestern New Hampshire, the Monadnock Region is sometimes called the “Currier & Ives Corner” for its classic mix of historic villages, forests, and farmland lined with old stone walls. But in downtown Keene, the region’s central city, there’s also a brisk, modern energy in the air. As home to the area’s biggest employers, including Keene State College, it supports a collection of Main Street businesses that not only caters to a diverse local community but also draws visitors from across the region and beyond. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the restaurant scene.
“When I got here in 2000, I saw right away an evolution of this city becoming a more exciting dining community,” says Luca Paris, who co-owns Luca’s Mediterranean Café with his wife, Lindy, a Keene native. “That had ebbs and flows over time, of course, but in the past four to five years I’ve had this incredible opportunity to watch young entrepreneurs come in and want to take it to the next level.”
In fact, Paris — who’s collected numerous awards over his career, including Chef of the Year from the New Hampshire Restaurant & Lodging Association — jokes that one of his biggest challenges before Covid was just keeping pace with the “renaissance” he’s seeing here.
“Because of the picturesque nature of our downtown and where we sit in relation to other states, Keene has been really growing as a food destination,” says Paris. “And I honestly felt that as much this past summer as any other year, because the people who couldn’t go out to eat where they lived — they were finding us.”
That isn’t to say local eateries were complacent in the face of Covid, something Paris knows better than most. He took the lead in organizing weekly Zoom calls with area restaurant owners to talk about the issues they faced and to share information and best practices. And of course he had his own restaurant — the place he’s dreamed of opening since he was 14 — to maintain in a way that would keep his staff and their families safe as well as his clientele. That has meant everything from “tripling” the amount of cleaning to using contactless QR code menus, and even to doing his own deliveries during shutdown because he didn’t want to leave customer safety up to a third-party service.
“And it’s not just about what you do, where no one’s seeing it,” Paris adds. “It’s actually publicizing what you do. It’s getting on Facebook and the web and talking about your cleaning and having people see what you’re doing correctly.”
Despite all the hard work and tough times of this past year, though, Paris is quick to point out the upsides. The “incredible” support from city leadership, including Mayor George Hansel. The joy of hearing customers tell Paris’s staff how comfortable they feel dining at Luca’s. And most important, the newfound strength of a restaurant community that’s banded together in ways it never did before.
“We’ve looked out for each other,” he says. “We all stepped up to believe that we were comrades getting through this, versus competitors fighting for whatever dollars were left. It’s made us all grow closer.”
In keeping with that sense of camaraderie, Paris is organizing a new kind of support for his fellow eateries: the Monadnock Restaurant Project. Seeded with $10,000 from Paris’s own education nonprofit, Culinary Journeys, it is buying gift certificates from 24 Keene restaurants and distributing them to partner businesses to give to employees. The request? That recipients go out and use them now, in the slowest months of the year — and to spend more than the face value. When possible, a lot more.
“They always say charity starts at home,” Paris says. “Well, it’s not charity: It’s taking care of each other. And if all our communities do that, there is no reason for us not to prosper, and to get through this or anything that comes up in the future.”
Thinking of checking out the dining scene in the Monadnock Region? Here is a sampling of locally owned businesses that are open and ready to take your order! Find more options at visitnh.gov/things-to-do/food-drink/restaurants.
Machina Kitchen & ArtBar, Keene
Thai Garden, Keene
Yahso Jamaican Grille, Keene
Waterhouse Restaurant, Peterborough
De Olla Burritos, Peterborough
Fiddleheads Café and Catering, Hancock