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Three Guys Walk Into a Bar: The Golden Key Tavern

The Golden Key Tavern

367 Connecticut St., Buffalo

review by Donny Kutzbach

who walked in with…

Mark Norris (former AV managing editor)

Tim Maroney (Mac genius)

The esteemed Mark Norris twisted the old theme song from Cheers, that cherished sitcom about pathetic alcoholics, when he reminded me, “Well, sometimes you wanna go where nobody knows your name…”

On a late night in late July that place was the Golden Key Tavern, a joint that might seem a little out of the way even though it sits in the heart of what was once among the city’s most bustling neighborhoods.

Go figure that this classic Irish-style bar is tucked away in what was once an Italian neighborhood on the Queen City’s West Side. I wonder what it was like over here on Connecticut when the streets were teeming with good-timing locals and visiting revelers. That is not the case now: It’s a Friday night, and the bar is quiet.

A handwritten sign behind the steel-barred window in the doorway tells anyone and everyone coming through “This is a Tavern,” following with a dictionary definition of what a tavern is and a long list of what a tavern is not. Included on the “not” list are “flea market” and “your living room.”

Norris, Maroney, and I immediately notice the stuffed deer head sitting beside with a security camera, both keeping an eye over the Golden Key like solemn watchmen.

I grab a high-backed stool whose vinyl is torn away almost entirely, the foam strategically picked and pulled over many years, likely by regulars who can’t wait to get their hands on the next cold one.

Not that we had to wait long to get served.

The friendly staff was in the midst of changing over but attentive to us and the dozen or so others taking it easy as Friday turned to Saturday.

We ordered some beers—a red-and-white American for me and a couple from north of the border for Tim and the Norris—and I spied the ancient wooden coolers still on active duty behind the bar. The beers handed us were plenty cold, so these old beasts are still doing the job.

A sign hanging from the exposed brick at celebrates the bar’s 22nd anniversary and touts it as “established in 1934.”

Taking a look at the bulletin board, Maroney finds a posting torn from a spiral notebook letting anyone and everyone know that an individual known as Ronnie would be there to give haircuts the following morning at 11am. While that scrawled sign on the front door was pretty specific that the Golden Key is a tavern and not a bunch of other things, it never said it wasn’t a barbershop.

We all pondered the idea of sticking it out for 10 or 11 hours for a trim. Norris’s scruffy Rolling Stones hair sure could use it, I pointed out.

We wandered toward the back room, which proves to be a big open hang spot with a well-lit pool table, dart boards, and room to relax. There’s also a back area with pool table. All of us keen live music fans, we start talking about the stage-like raised floor against the Golden Key’s back wall, which from time to time has hosted bands. With the considerable vibe already here and the space to make it happen, the Golden Key could and should be a viable small venue in Buffalo along the lines of Nietzsche’s and Mohawk Place.

“This would be a great place to play a show,” said Norris, a vet of Buffalo’s famed girlpope who currently fronts the Backpeddlers.

Among the clutter in the back room, I gravitate toward a wonderful old wooden Bell telephone booth turned sideways and only slightly obstructed behind a disused refrigerator. Such a cool and fast-vanishing piece of Americana.

The obvious analogy is it that the Golden Key itself is a lot like that phone booth. It would be easy to rhapsodize about days past and how many people passed in and out of both the phone booth and the Golden Key, and how nowadays both languish, hidden away like relics of the past. It would also be lazy and inaccurate.

The Golden Key is probably not be the place it was when they put that 22nd anniversary sign up back in 1956, but it remains a perfect watering hole where locals and regulars gather for good times via a drink, some Prince on the jukebox, a game of pool, and maybe even a Saturday morning haircut.

And though—as Norris started it—they may not know your name initially, that turns out to be a temporary condition. They learn it quick and treat you like you’re one of the gang.

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