WARNER, N.H. — In small New England towns, news travels fast. Warner has a few thousand residents, no traffic lights, and you can count the dining options on one hand. So townspeople were excited to learn that a couple of industry veterans, sisters who had honed their skills at a popular local place, had converted a 1916 schoolhouse into a casual restaurant.
The one-room School House Cafe once was once filled with students and desks. “I used to go to school here,” says an elderly woman near our sunny table. She is Jeanette Cloues, born in 1923, and she is here for breakfast with her son and daughter-in-law. (Cloues grew up just down the street, where her family owned a country store, and also ran the Amesbury boardinghouse.)
Co-owner Caleen Fisher, 41, says that Cloues is the only former student to come in since the restaurant opened two years ago. Fisher should know. She is always on the floor of the dining room, taking care of customers, many of whom she knows from her 25-year tenure as a waitress at The Foot Hills. Her sister, Kathy Shifrin, 49,heads the kitchen, turning out breakfast all day: steak and eggs, deep-fried stuffed French toast, fluffy omelets, and buttermilk pancakes with real maple syrup. Customers rave about the cinnamon toast, a tender white loaf with thick swirls of cinnamon-sugar running throughout. House-made doughnuts, whoopee pies, and all kinds of cookies satisfy a sweet tooth. And that tall, cold glass of milk to wash it all down is from Contoocook Creamery, just down the street.
Lunch includes diner favorites like hearty Reubens with hand-cut onion rings, an assortment of juicy burgers, homemade soups, and fresh salads. Sandwiches such as The Bubba (bacon-wrapped hot dogs), Uncle R (tuna melt), and The Matson (cracked-pepper-corned turkey topped with cheddar and coleslaw) are named for friends and family who helped get the restaurant up and running. The construction team was made up mostly of local firefighters, with former Warner fire chief Dick Brown acting as the general contractor. Fisher and Shifrin pull out a photo album filled with snapshots from the renovation. There is grungy carpet, a pool table, torn-down dry wall. You quickly glean the scope of the project: a staircase had to be moved, plumbing disasters averted, and a commercial kitchen installed.
But with decades of restaurant experience, Fisher and Shifrin knew what they were getting into. The sisters ran their catering company, Mink Hills, for eight years before purchasing the restaurant. The School House is now home to the business, which offers backyard barbecues and wedding feasts. You’d be hard pressed to find a local who hasn’t eaten the women’s food. Tuesday through Friday, the two offer an oven-ready, takeout dinner from a menu that changes daily ($7 for an entree, $2.95 dessert). “We do a lot of comfort food,” says Shifrin, citing pork chops and meatloaf. “The vegetarian stuff wasn’t really selling,” she says, with a knowing look.
Though its community sustains The School House, word of the homestyle cooking and inviting service has spread. It’s located just off Interstate 89, and travelers headed to New Hampshire’s mountains and lakes have found the spot.
Sundays, cafe business gets a boost from a flea market held in the schoolyard out back. On one visit, I score a deal on a cast-iron skillet and a sturdy food mill. Then I wander inside for a memorable breakfast. You can’t beat that.
The School House Cafe
787 Route 103 East, Warner, N.H., 603-746-3850.
Due to a reporting error, in an earlier version Jeanette Cloues’ name was mispelled.