Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

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…