EXETER — A landmark in the heart of downtown Exeter nearly 40 years, The Loaf and Ladle restaurant has temporarily closed its doors.
A closed sign was placed outside the well-known soup and bread restaurant on Water Street a week ago, fueling speculation about the future of a place many consider an institution.
"We're in a temporary closure with the hopes of finding a buyer soon," said owner Meredith Stolper, who bought the restaurant and its bakery in 1986 from Joan Harlow, the original owner who opened it in an old downtown building in the early 1970s.
Stolper said the Loaf's bakery has been relocated to a new commercial space and that its bread is still being sold at some local businesses, including Barker's Farm in Stratham, Applecrest in Hampton Falls, Calef's Country Store in Barrington, and Heron Pond Farm in Kensington.
The sudden closure has left generations of loyal customers wondering what the future holds for the place known for its bread, especially anadama, and award-winning soup and chili.
"It was an unanticipated closing because of a staffing change, and I'm sympathetic to the feelings of the people. It's a landmark that has a lot of memories for a lot of people and I realize that," Stolper said.
The Loaf has faced financial struggles in recent years, but customers have continued to come back to the restaurant along the Exeter River. The eatery's financial woes were compounded by floods that struck the building in early 2010 and caused significant losses.
The building has changed little over the years. The tilted hardwood floors, spoons used to tie back curtains in the dining area and upside-down terracotta pots serving as lamp shades were trademarks.
The Loaf even had its own cookbook. Harlow released the first edition in 1979 and a second in 1983, giving fans their first look at the recipes behind some of their favorite breads, soups and other baked goods.
In her book, Harlow talks about how she decided to open the Loaf after visiting friends in Exeter and discovering that the bustling downtown lacked a good restaurant.
In addition to serving food, the Loaf and Ladle has also served as a campaign stop for many political candidates over the years. While most were Democrats, some Republicans swung by as well.
"I know everybody has stories, and they want to tell me their stories," Stolper said as she reflected on the Loaf's legacy.
The Loaf also gave many people their first jobs — and in some cases, their first loves.
"I wish I had kept track of the marriages of people that met there. A lot of friendships were also formed there with all the young people that worked there," Stolper said.