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Three Guys Walk Into a Bar...

Del Denby’s

1553 Hertel Avenue, Buffalo

review by Donny Kutzbach

who walked in with…

Thomas Arthur Schaefer (fine artist/web designer, Atlanta, Georgia)

Chris Galas (Buffalo Zoo maintenance worker, Buffalo)

The late, great Buffalo News columnist Bob Curran was like the bishop of local barrooms, so it is fitting to start the inaugural edition of Three Guys Walk Into a Bar with him.

Curran spent his days dipping into the corner taverns and mom-and-pop gin mills strewn in and around the Queen City. In these joints he would find stuff to fill his Curran’s Corner column, pulling the stories of the regulars, plying folks with trivia, and trading in the lost art of local color.

Proudly framed and hung on the wall next to the first stool at Del Denby’s on Hertel Avenue is a copy of the Buffalo News Neighborhoods section with a Curran piece, vintage April 1981. It recaps his visit to the bar with the headline “Memories, North Buffalonia All Gather At Del Denby’s.”

It’s safe to bet that not a whole lot has changed at Del Denby’s since the mighty Curran’s visit almost 30 years ago. Not much has been done to Del Denby’s in a long time, and that is much of the bar’s charm.

Knackered old wood covers the smallish barroom, which is a museum of crusty prints of Buffalo sites and favored teams. We gently mix in with what looks like a couple of regulars and a pocket of young twentysomethings, belly up to the bar itself, and spy what looks like a relatively spartan line of bottles. Upon further inspection, however, the essentials are all there.

The bartender, known simply as “Nightmare,” proves instead to be an imbiber’s dream come true.

Nightmare’s resume at Western New York bars turns out to be a long one, and he can ably regale with tales from the cocktail frontlines. There’s probably not many other barkeeps who can tell you about they time he was arrested for driving a lawnmower through Amherst. That’s just one of Nightmare’s many yarns, which he will gladly spin as he gets your order.

A good bartender needs to do more than tell stories, however, and Nightmare passes other tests as well. He mixes drinks in the right glasses and pours them plenty strong.

Chris Galas surveyed his Jim Beam and ginger ale with delight. “It’s more like a lot Jim Beam with a little splash of ginger ale!”

As far as food goes, unless you are ready to make a meal out of a bag of chips or pretzels, Del Denby’s can’t help.

The trusty old CD jukebox in one corner is packed primarily with classic rock staples, some best-of compilations, and a smattering of blues, swing, and standards. A dollar-bill, three-song selection stretched out to 41 minutes with Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like,” and Dylan’s “Highlands.” Finding the best long songs on jukeboxes is an old trick but a good one.

The extended soundtrack allowed us to drink our drinks as well as the unmistakable atmosphere.

Thomas Schaefer pointed out that looking under your glass or bottle can be a good barometer of a place. “You can tell a good bar by the character of the wood on the bar itself,” he said. “If it’s got a slick, fake top or something with a really nice neat finish, maybe it’s time to move down the street.

“Look at this one,” he said, raising his glass. “It’s a got a patina of 20 or 30 years with nicks and ancient cigarette burns. This place has had real life in it.”

All of this adds to the vibe that hanging out at Del Denby’s is a little like sitting in the living room of some old bachelor uncle’s house. Sports are on the TV, it’s a little dingy, and the furniture hasn’t been changed since the Ford administration. But it’s really comfortable there.

There’s more.

A walk to the back of the small barroom reveals a door to a giant fenced-in yard with a big, covered wood deck and a well-clipped lawn. Nightmare refers to it as the “oasis on Hertel.” There’s probably room back here for a few hundred people, the ideal spot for quiet summer drinks on a weeknight or a raucous weekend evening.

The backyard is just another great surprise at Del Denby’s, a joint that turns out to be one of those great Buffalo dives that we’d been missing out on for too long.

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