The Common Man prepares and presents comfort food in a setting that is as comfortable as it is historic. Its 1794 building in Merrimack was once the home of Colonial patriot Matthew Thornton and his wife, Hannah Jack Thornton, who are buried in a graveyard across the street.
Hannah Jack’s Tavern operated at the site for decades before the Common Man chain took it over five years ago. The building retains its historic character with broad plank floors and hand-hewn beams that still show the marks of an ax. Wall sconces with “electric candles’’ cast soft light suitable for the period.
The menu is definitely New England traditional with a twist, and an emphasis on seasonal dishes. There’s apple chicken ($16), a breaded boneless breast browned with cheddar, drizzled with apple cider glaze, and accompanied with a cornbread kind of stuffing plus a starch and vegetable. It really is one of the restaurant’s best dishes: hearty, flavorful, and reasonably priced.
Other homey choices include baked macaroni and cheese ($14), made with aged cheddar; country meatloaf ($15), a carnivore’s dream with pork, beef, and veal in the mix and topped with caramelized onions and a rich pan gravy; and New England pot roast ($16). There are plenty of choices for those who don’t eat meat, including a vegetable medley ($13) with roasted portabella mushroom and vegetable ravioli with herb dressing.
While pondering these choices and sipping a cold Common Man Brew ($4), we shared a basket of freshly baked date-nut and ciabatta bread, and visited a help-yourself bar with three choices of cheese and crackers.
We began a recent meal with a huge Caesar salad ($6) and the “almost escargot’’ ($5) appetizer, mushroom caps baked in a garlic-herb butter, browned with cheddar and garnished with puff pastry. They were excellent, though we preferred the Common Man’s actual escargots ($6).
We also shared steamed fresh mussels ($7) with basil, garlic, butter, white wine, and cream, and grilled ciabatta to soak up the sauce. Other members of our party had the shrimp cocktail ($13), five really giant shrimp with a lemon citrus cocktail sauce that could have used a bit more zing; grilled-cheese sliders ($6) made with Swiss, cheddar, and pepper jack; and a great take on a 1950s classic: pigs in a blanket ($7), maple sausage wrapped in pastry with caramelized onion and the house mustard.
We had a craving for seafood and we were not disappointed. The New England baked haddock “Oscar Style’’ ($20) was a generous portion of fish topped with crabmeat, broccoli, and béarnaise sauce. The Nantucket saute ($20) was a full plate of shrimp, scallops, and shell-on mussels in a light tomato, almost-Newburg sauce served on a bed of corkscrew-shaped cavatappi pasta. It was excellent.
Two members of our party tried the rainbow trout ($16), pan-fried with a crispy panko and homemade-potato-chip crust in pistachio basil butter. One liked it, the other found theirs a tad overcooked.
We also had the harvest duck ($19), a half-duck roasted to crispy skinned perfection, and served with maple-syrup-flavored carrots that were just sweet enough.
And a less-hungry member of our clan was satisfied with her big cucumber salad ($7), made with fresh cukes, tomato, red onion, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and romaine with a delicate Greek vinaigrette.
The chive and cheddar mashed potatoes offered as a starch were great.
Don’t miss dessert at the Common Man: All are $6. It’s always something rich and gooey. Our favorites are the white-chocolate bread pudding, the white-chocolate brownie, and the homemade seasonal fruit pie.