Why Manchester, New Hampshire, Is The Chicken Tender Capital Of The World

Ever since I was a kid, chicken tenders have held a special place in my heart. Whether from the freezer aisle or the drive-thru, there's something undeniably, enduringly comforting about breaded and fried strips of chicken, juicy on the inside and golden-brown on the outside, primed for dunking in anything from honey mustard to ketchup to ranch. Even contemporary recipes that skew decidedly more cheffy still feel inherently nostalgic. And when it comes to tenders vs. nuggets, I've always been team tender. That's partly because of textural preferences, but perhaps more so the fact that I grew up in the chicken tender capital of the world.

Unbeknownst to me, my home city of Manchester, New Hampshire, is a chicken tender oasis. Growing up five minutes outside of the state's largest city, I was spoiled with a wealth of tenders, and I didn't even realize it until I moved away for college and found out, much to my chagrin, that not every place has the chicken tenders per capita that Manchester has. So now, when I go home to visit family and return to my favorite restaurants like the Puritan Backroom, I have a newfound appreciation for the pastime — one that's become such a source of cultural pride that Manchester was indeed just named the Chicken Tender Capital of the World. That's right — thanks to pioneering and historic restaurants like the Puritan Backroom and an endless love for fried strips of chicken, my home city, "Tender Town," is getting the badge of honor it always deserved.

It all started at the Puritan Backroom

The restaurant at the epicenter of the chicken tender fame is the Puritan Backroom, an institution so lauded and historic that it took home an America's Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation. Opened initially as a confectionary company by Greek immigrants in 1917, it's always been one of the most popular restaurants in the state — a must-visit for politicians on the campaign trail and homesick celebrities, like New Hampshirite Adam Sandler. I, too, was a frequent fixture growing up, and despite the inevitable wait for a table, it was always a special treat to eat here, in all its comforts and conviviality, with my family. And there was always one thing we were after: chicken tenders.

The restaurant is so bold as to claim it invented chicken tenders, and whether or not that's true, they've certainly perfected the recipe over its decades of seasoned existence. They're so good that they're bi-partisan, earning rave reviews from both sides of the political aisle. For me, the whole experience of dining at the Puritan Backroom is as heartwarmingly nostalgic as it gets. It's the one restaurant I need to return to when I'm visiting family, and it's been an enduring, consistent part of my life since I was old enough to chew. It's the bustling, colossal dining rooms, the heaping portions, and the cozy, wood-filled atmosphere. And at the heart of it all? Chicken tenders.

Perfecting the tender

It all started with friends Arthur Pappas and Louis Canotas, who emigrated from Greece in 1906 and opened a candy company in Manchester. The full-service restaurant didn't arrive until 1974, and the idea for chicken tenders came to fruition when they'd have excess strips from their boneless chicken breasts each day. This little bit of dexterity resulted in one of the first documented forms of chicken tenders on menus, served in mammoth portions with sweet duck sauce for dipping.

Today, customers can get their tenders spicy or coconut-crusted, as well as skinless and broiled for a healthier approach (if you can call a metric ton of chicken "healthy"). And it all comes with sides and optional soup or salad. My routine, which I've honed over the past 20+ years, is a small Greek salad — topped with a brick of feta — and a baked potato. Adam Sandler and I aren't the only diehard fans, either. Every four years, when New Hampshire turns into a political Lollapalooza, the restaurant is always an essential stop for presidential candidates. Most recently, Joe Biden paid a visit, while previous candidates included Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Sarah Palin.

Welcome to Tender Town

The fact that Manchester was finally designated the Chicken Tender Capital of the World, officially declared by Mayor Joyce Craig in July, speaks to the cultural impact of chicken tenders and the source of pride that they've become for New Hampshirites. While Manchester's long-running nickname has been the Queen City, some have taken to a tastier moniker: Tender Town.

Growing up in New Hampshire, I always felt a bit jealous of the surrounding states. Maine had lobster rolls, Massachusetts had Boston cream pie and chowder, and Connecticut had its own style of pizza. I knew chicken tenders were pretty omnipresent, but they still felt somewhat lowbrow compared to other regional specialties. It takes perspective to really appreciate the form and the craft that goes into it. Unlike nuggets, for instance, tenders come from an actual cut of meat. They're also a blank canvas of creativity, breading options, spices, and sauces. And they've become such a Manchester thing that the local minor league baseball team, the Fisher Cats, host chicken tenders nights and have even temporarily changed their name to the Manchester Chicken Tenders. You can even buy Tender Town t-shirts from Wicked Joyful, a company owned by Nick Lavallee, who has long championed Manchester's chicken tender destiny.

More Chicken Tenders in Manchester

The Puritan Backroom's chicken tenders are iconic, political, and frankly paradigm-shifting, but they're not the only ones in town, nor are they the sole reason that Manchester is now the Chicken Tender Capital of the World. A true team effort, tenders can be found on menus all over town, at venues practically as historic and political as the place that allegedly invented the dish.

The Red Arrow Diner, a century-old institution that is another must-visit stop for presidential candidates, uses chicken tenders in a plethora of ways, including as the base for chicken parmesan, served with waffles, and topped with brown gravy. Of course, you can always just order them straight-up, or as a party bucket large enough to feed 20. The Irish-inspired Shaskeen Pub is another one, where chicken tenders are beer-battered and served with sauces and seasonings like maple bacon, Jamaican jerk, or sweet Thai chili. My favorite, though, is the Goldenrod, an old-timey drive-in known to fry everything — from clam bellies to chicken tenders — with reckless abandon. Though I haven't been back to the Goldenrod in ages, it and its golden tenders, much like those at the Puritan Backroom, are engrained in the deepest trenches of nostalgia — a source of comfort and pride for my Tender Town.