Next story: The Stories Behind Three Famous Local Watering Holes
Three Guys Walk Into a Bar... Nor-Tel Grill
by Donny Kutzbach
Nor-Tel Grill732 Hertel Avenue, Buffalo
review by Donny Kutzbach
who walked in with…
Nick Mendola (WGR550 radio personality and writer, Tonawanda)
Scott Frauenhofer (Finance Director, FC Buffalo Soccer, Buffalo)
When I revealed to Artvoice’s editor Geoff Kelly—himself something of a local watering hole goliath—that the next Three Guys column was going to be at the Nor-Tel Grill, he seemed genuinely excited.
“Nice,” Kelly replied. “Last time I went to the Nor-Tel, the boys at the bar broke into the Riverside High fight song.”
A neighborhood fixture that dates back to the early 1930s, the Nor-Tel Grill is in its third generation of family operation under the love and care of Barbara Strzyz, whose grandparents established the venerable working-class bar and restaurant. The name comes from the corner it sits at on Norris and Hertel Avenues, just a block from Elmwood Avenue, at the crossroads of North Buffalo and Black Rock.
On our Tuesday afternoon visit, Strzyz’s husband John was the barkeep. While John insists he’s “just the fill-in guy,” he knows his way around the joint and was a warm, outgoing, and genuinely good host.
For the visit, I was able to wrangle local sports talk celebrity Nick Mendola—who is recognized at every bar he goes into —and the esteemed Scott Frauenhofer to join me for an afternoon getaway.
We arrived a few hours before the two dozen or so regulars who make up the euchre card club that meets at Nor-Tel weekly. We weren’t able to stick around but John insists that the euchre nights are a blast.
This is the “restaurant week” among Western New York’s premier eateries, but it’s places like the Nor-Tel that tell the real story of Buffalo cuisine. Mendola, Frauenhofer, and I were hoping to sample from the Nor-Tel’s menu, which boasts a variety of comfort food delights, sandwiches, and favored local staples like wings, beef on weck, polish sausage platters, and, just in time for Lent, the obligatory fish fry.
We didn’t get the chance to order anything, and while that’s a little disappointing, it’s not as if we left hungry. In fact, we were stuffed.
Chalk the Nor-Tel up as the last local gin mill with real class, because as John continually kept our glasses full with a generous selection of draft beer—from Bud and Blue to Sam Adams and craft brew selections—he also had a spread of hors d’œuvre that included not just the usual chips and pretzels but also cheese and cracker platters and cocktail shrimp. John said it was “Snack Tuesday.” All of it was on the house, and all of it to further credit of the Nor-Tel.
Now, the Nor-Tel has all the telltale qualities that Three Guys Walk Into A Bar admires: a lovely old sign out front greeting us, ancient wood paneling, a sturdy Formica bar top, a small red felt pool table, a jukebox with Bob Seger on it, and even a retired Smokeeter machine hanging from the ceiling. These are totems that show a bar has some vintage and that things haven’t changed too much in the last three or four decades. It’s kinda like that Stevie Wonder line from “For the City”: “Her clothes are old but never are they dirty.”
Another of the Nor-Tel’s many upsides is that, while it has the old-time earmarks, it certainly isn’t a dive. Quite the contrary, in fact. While details and decor haven’t changed much in the ensuing years, it has been immaculately kept up.
I still can’t get over how warm, clean, and inviting the place was—not a bit of dust, not a speck of grime. Even the rest room sparkled, and while the Nor-Tel is mostly a beautiful blast from the past, here were gloriously modern auto-flush units!
Peeking into the dining room—which we were told does a steady lunch business from 11am-2pm daily—we found textbook mid-20th-century grandeur bolstered by lots of wood, neat green tones, and vintage wall sconces.
Back at the bar, our friend Josh Batten showed up, thinking he was simply dropping in to grab hockey tickets. Instead, he wound up being the fourth of three guys and joins, in on the fun and drafts.
And the drafts did continue to flow.
Nick and I high-fived over the jukebox selections, particularly after a buck bought us Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway” along with some Rush and J. Geils Band. Scott tried to prove that the Guess Who’s best song was “These Eyes.” Barkeep John even got into the action, busting out some Clapton and Who.
Meantime, two Nor-Tel regulars who go by the noms-de-bar of Statler and Waldorf (an homage to the Muppets) eagerly coined away the silver from the Lotto machine scratchoffs and kept their eyes on the Quick Draw results.
From the four seats at the front of the Nor-Tel’s cozy old bar, we watched the several TVs as spring training baseball gave way to Ryan Miller on Jim Rome’s talk show. We debated what the best use of time machine would be. Most of all we drank beer and ate all that cheese and crackers and shrimp.
There’s a good feeling to be had at Nor-Tel, and we were all feeling it.
“The appeal to a place like the Nor-Tel is getting back to simplicity, substance over style,” Frauenhofer said. “That vibe of getting off of work and having a couple of drinks before heading home really speaks to me.”
The “fourth guy,” Josh Batten, added, “I thought I was just stopping by somewhere to pick up some Sabres tickets from Nick and I ended up drinking a few beers and having a few laughs.”
Needless to say, this is going down in the books as one of the best Tuesday afternoons I can remember. My only regret is that it took so long to finally walk into the Nor-Tel.
Other Places to Walk Into...
The Deerhead Inn
2683 Clinton St., West Seneca
This is not what Hemingway meant by a clean, well-lighted place, but the adjectives fit. And Papa would have been intrigued by the glass case filled with taxidermied animals in the dining room. Cocktails come in human-scale glasses here, not in buckets, and the food is simple and solid. The last Monday of each month is “Stinkin’ and Drinkin’ Night,” featuring draft beer and limburger sandwiches.
Gray’s Place3682 Delaware Ave., Tonawanda
We walk into Gray’s Place and are welcomed by handsomely shag-carpeted walls—yes, shag carpeted walls—in a steely color accented with cream and maroon stripe. There are no framed jerseys or autographed memorabilia hanging on the walls here; instead Gray’s Place boasts a folksy mural behind the bar where Bills, Sabres and Bisons logos were done by hand. Like a leveled local sports playing field, a Lancaster Speedway image sits alongside Buffalo’s big three on almost equal footing.
Read more in Donny's earlier installment, when 3 Guys Walked into Gray’s Place.
The Golden Key Tavern367 Connecticut St., Buffalo
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. 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.”
Read more in Donny's earlier installment, when 3 Guys Walked into The Golden Key Tavern.
The late, great Buffalo News columnist Bob Curran, the bishop of local barrooms, spent his days dipping into the corner taverns and mom-and-pop gin mills strewn in and around the Queen City. Proudly framed and hung on the wall next to the first stool at Del Denby’s on Hertel Avenue is a copy of 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, and that is much of the bar’s charm.
Read more in Donny's earlier installment, when 3 Guys Walked into Del Denby’s.
Wallenwein’s Hotel641 Oakwood Ave., East Aurora
There are East Aurorans who bemoan the owner’s decision to remove the indoor horseshoe pits many years back. And then there are those who wish the horseshoe pits had never replaced the bowling alleys many years before that. And then there are those who remember when women could only enter the back room at Wallenwein’s through the side door on Elm Street. Despite all these changes—in recent years, Wally’s has added a deck out front, too—the character of this tavern, which serves as a public square and satellite office for many of the village’s notable characters, remains intact.
Swan Lounge716 Swan St., Buffalo
Perhaps even more interesting than the sports memorabilia are old life-preservers from the SS Kinsman Independent and a paddle from the SS Kinsman Empire, two storied Great Lakes freighter that would regularly unload grain up the road at Lake & Rail elevator. There’s plenty of perfectly beat-up old couches to fall into and—if the beer flows and the hours pass—maybe to sleep on. Tammy, the bartender, tells us that folks frequently do.
Read more in Donny's earlier installment, when 3 Guys Walked into Swan Lounge.
Stories Behind Famous Local Watering Holes
Shaken Not Stirred • Steaking our Reputation
Food For Thought • Boozy Playlist
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