PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — In a city of celebrated restaurants, chefs and foodies, John Mikolajcyk is likely the most enduring person in the Portsmouth food business.
Born in Portsmouth almost 80 years ago, Mikolajcyk opened his first restaurant, Sam’s Railroad Diner, on McDonough Street in the late 1950s. Today, he manages the Portsmouth Elks lodge, which includes cooking Friday night dinners for more than 100 locals who include fishermen, lawyers, contractors, police officers and city officials.
“It’s probably the last bastion of old Portsmouth,” Mikolajcyk said about the Elks lodge at the end of Jones Avenue and along the shore of Sagamore Creek. “So many restaurants in Portsmouth try to out-gourmet each other. I’m not big on a hamburger with an egg and an avocado on top.”
An Elks member and frequent Friday night diner, Portsmouth City Manager John Bohenko described the three-course Friday night dinners as “excellent” and called out the chicken Parmesan as a favorite. The $10 per-meal price, said Bohenko, is “very affordable.”
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“We see a lot of people we know,” he said. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere, so we enjoy it.”
Mikolajcyk’s first restaurant was Sam’s Railroad Diner, which got its name from his high school nickname, “Sam.” It was so close to the railroad tracks, he said, “when the trains went by you could touch them.”
The Continental shoe factory was next door, employed more than 150 people and many of them ate at Sam’s, Mikolajcyk said. The menu had “simple burgers,” hot dogs and lots of coffee and doughnuts in the mornings.
“It was strictly business then,” Mikolajcyk said, explaining the lunch crowd stuck to the factory’s designated half-hour breaks. Soon after starting business administration studies at the University of New Hampshire, from which he graduated in 1961, Mikolajcyk turned the diner over to his parents, John and Mary.
After graduating from UNH, Mikolajcyk started and ran a construction company for 20 years. During that time, he bought a stable on Market Street and the deed listed the names of three horses sold with the building. The horses were used to deliver groceries from the store across the street, which still has faded grocery ads painted on the side of the brick building.
Mikolajcyk said he turned the building, across the street from what is now the road salt operation, into a restaurant he named Horse of a Different Color in 1977. He put booths in the stables, there was a grill and lounge upstairs and a restaurant on the first floor.
“It was a local place where everyone knew everyone,” he said. “It was a very successful restaurant.”
While running Horse of a Different Color, he started a catering business with the same name and today operates the Portsmouth Elks catering business under the Horse of a Different Color name.
When the Elks opened its new lodge on Jones Avenue in 1987, Mikolajcyk was on the building committee and in the early 1990s he became the manager. He said people were bringing in pot luck dinners and the Elk’s food program was unorganized at best. So he took over the kitchen and the local Elks membership jumped from about 400 to 1,400 today.
“The perception is the Elks is a dark and dismal place, with spittoons and cigar smoking,” Mikolajcyk said. “That’s not who we are.”
Mikolajcyk’s son-in-law Bill Clark is head chef and together they plan the weekly menu choices, one featuring fish, the other meat. The fish, he said, comes from Rye’s Seaport Fish or the Boston Fish Pier.
Mikolajcyk said many people don’t know about the Elks’ idyllic location, or its members’ swimming pool, boat dock, kayak launch and Friday night dinners. He said they can’t advertise because they’re a nonprofit organization, so membership is “all word of mouth.” Mikolajcyk said there are openings for new members and all one has to do is show up, introduce themselves and someone will help them become an Elk.
Longtime resident Harold Whitehouse said he’s dined at the Elks most Friday nights for more than a decade. He said his favorite meal is the blackened salmon, he enjoys “one drink” from the bar before dinner and mingling with the crowd.
“The meals are unbelievable. For $10, I don’t know how he does it,” Whitehouse said. “If you stay there long enough, you’ll meet everyone in the city.”
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com