A restaurant legacy looms large within my family. On just the paternal side, there are two notable Buffalo restauranteurs. Each of them crafted a restaurant/bar that would likely make it into the Buffalo Restaurant Hall of Fame, if there were such a thing. In the 1980s, after high school, my brother Scott bartended at his cousin’s establishment. Scott and I spent most of our young adult years working in restaurants in Seattle. In the early 2000s, Scott moved back and bought a neighborhood tavern in South Buffalo. When I finally returned, I worked in his bar as a waitress, bartender and sometime manager.
The restaurant business is in our blood. My Nana dreamed of creating a supper club, but when she bid on some property on Abbott Road, the Castiglia’s family funeral business outbid her. One generation informs the next of what is possible and probable.
In Seattle, especially in the '90s, the success or failure of a restaurant was not banked on an owner’s personality: corporate investors, business acumen, and acquiring notable chefs, yes; personality-driven restaurants, no. When Scott bought his restaurant here, time and time again people stressed that the business would ride on whether he was constantly present, if his personality was big enough to attract people, and whether he had at least one comfort food dish he was known for – preferably a WNY favorite such as wings, corned beef sandwiches, or even a soup like Beer Cheddar. The more modern rules of the restaurant business--his ability to bring quality food, service and ambiance to his customers mattered less than if he was present to shake hands and enthrall them with his dogged personality. His personality didn’t need to be genial, in fact notorious was better. My brother had two of the three skills required to be a successful tavern owner in Buffalo, but that last requirement--to be constantly present--almost did him in.
As for my cousins, the success of their restaurants depended as much on their BIG personalities as on the food, service, and/or ambience. One cousin’s restaurant continues to be the standard bearer of ostentatious opulence in an outer ring suburb, while the other established an Allentown classic dive bar known for day drinking, a grilled NY strip steak sandwich, and the boundless loyalty of the college crowd. Their characters and individual reputations are as much a part of their brands as are the steak sandwich or lavish décor.
Reader, you have noticed I am not identifying these icons of the industry and I do that for good reason:
One of them is so distant a cousin that he does not know me. Nana referred to this branch of her family as full of “big businessmen.” When they were guests at a family dinner, my great grandmother served them steak whether she could afford it or not. Nana and her mother had cooked in this man’s father’s tavern, but when the son took over, he moved the restaurant out of the neighborhood and their association became minimal.
The other cousin, who is closer in age to me, knows me but only distantly. His annoyance with people in general is part of his character. He’s grumpy and outspoken. Because his brother and his father were both big, warm, kind, and funny, people often think that beneath his cantankerousness is a heart of gold. He would find that clichéd and rubbish. I will respect the fact that if he thought of me once in five years it would only serve to make him grumpier.
And, if you are not privy to Buffalo restaurant lore, their names will mean nothing to you; and if you are, well then, it’s more fun to guess.
Most people in Buffalo probably don’t know these two Buffalo restaurant icons are related. Both of these men pride themselves on a sort of bootstrap mentality in which their constant presence, hard work, and dedication have made their restaurants successful. Even from the cheap seats, I see that their drive has made the most impact.
In Seattle, I had fast-moving, fast-talking waitressing jobs. I whipped trays above my head, balanced layers of dishes on my arms, greeted guests like I was Minnie Mouse and this was Disney World, and remembered a guest’s order six months later. I could sell fish to a vegan. And I knew enough to stay out of the bar-tending business.
Bartending was a drag. But, working at my brother’s bar, I joined this cult of personality-driven business. Trapped behind the bar, I stole away to my composition notebook every chance I could get. My drink-making skills were abysmal. My brother had to come out from the kitchen to make a Cosmo or appletini. Whenever anyone ordered anything more complex than a gin and tonic and no one was around to make it, I employed the old timers’ trick – fill a shot glass full of Irish whiskey and shame people into having a real drink. I played ol’ time country music about crying in your beer and loathed the regular’s favorites like Van Morrison and Billy Joel. And during my shift, I enforced my rules. Conversational tones on any topic was tolerated. If hateful remarks were loud enough for me to hear--especially racist remarks, I politely informed the perp of the rule: if I heard it again, beers would disappear.
I kicked one belligerent old Irishman out the door because he defied me. As he exited, he said in his brogue, “This’ll be the end of your brother’s business.”
I shrugged it off as “just part of the brand.” When I tried to act as I had in Seattle and present my corporate image: a bright smile, upselling, or an attempt to pour an appletini, customers complained I was too uppity. This emphasis on personal dynamism brought on way too much alcohol-fueled dysfunction, especially for the owner.
I met my husband at my brother’s tavern. He seemed intrigued by the barkeep who wrote in her composition notebook during breaks in the action. I quit my job when I was five months pregnant. Since that time, I’ve been busy with home and hearth--little opportunity for a night life, and I made a vow: no more restaurant-work. I use my genetic proclivities baking in my own kitchen.
Recently our youngest went off to kindergarten. This has given us the opportunity to go out to eat more frequently. And wow, there are so many good restaurants in Buffalo now. Buffalo is like a hot pot of popcorn kernels, as new restaurants just keep popping up. Yes, some of the owners have big enough personalities to hang in that imaginary hall of fame, but customers seem less interested in glad-handing than in the goods and services. I like this new wave. And there’s new and sometimes vintage vocabulary to go with this new emphasis: artisanal foods, mixology, industrial décor, reclaimed spaces, brewpub, distillery... Rehabs of historic spaces and locavore are the headlines now.
How quickly my attention can be diverted from those portraits of hall-of-famers to the plates and drinks before me. Here is a list of three restaurants (for dining only) I see in my now freed-up future: