The Stories Behind Three Famous Local Watering Holes
by Ann Marie Awad
The Elmwood Lounge
522 Elmwood Avenue
Opened in 1920, the Elmwood Lounge had already been a fixture at Elmwood and Bryant when John Gikas bought the place in 1969. “I come here for a drink one night, it was a Sunday night and I talked to the owner, he said to me, ‘I’m selling this place. Give me five hundred dollars [deposit] and I’ll sell you this place,’” says Gikas, who also owns The King’s Court restaurant. “Never been closed one day,” he adds.
After owning the place for 42 years, he’s seen people come and go; trends start up and fade out. “I have everybody here. I have hockey players, lot of judges, lot of big people,” he says. “Lot of people come through here.” Gikas also owns The King’s Court restaurant.
He remembers when customers would come in for cocktails and stay until the early hours of the morning, before there was a mandated closing time. “Try to close up before three in the morning, people, they wanna kill you.”
Throughout the years, the place has changed quite a bit. When Gikas first purchased it, it was set up like a coffee shop with booths flanking every wall. Now amidst the lights and chandeliers, the only thing that hasn’t been replaced is the bar itself. He looks forward to changing the look of the place in the future, but he’s not so sure if it will actually happen. “It dropped out. Bar business is not what it used to be,” he laments. “We have [a] new generation, you know? That’s the whole problem.”
Throughout the years, he’s seen the place calm down. People don’t want to party like they used to. “New generation, they come in here for dinner. I ask, ‘What are you drinking?’ They say, ‘Glass of water.’ I mean, come on, it’s a joke,” he says.
Gikas came to America in 1958 from Athens, Greece. “Had to wash dishes. The money from the dishes went to buy the place. I come here with no money at all,” he says. “My father came here. He was crazy, I dunno. I didn’t have to come here, I wish I went back. It’s better than here.”
Although he sounds somewhat jaded by the years, Gikas still has some good memories. “I was 26 years old. Business was so good, you know, you have a lot of fun with the people. You party every day. But today, I’m not a young guy no more.” But changes are changes, and things aren’t how they used to be. “Most of our old customers, after they died, there’s no good replacements because the ones we used to have had a lot of money,” he says. “They had good money; they come in here every night. Today, they’re not coming in every night.”
333 Franklin Street
Laughlin’s was a lot of things before it was Laughlin’s. At the turn of the century, it was a dentist’s office. When Dave Shatzel, who currently owns Cole’s on Elmwood, bought the place in the 1960s, he named it Laughlin’s. After that, it became Shubert Alley. Then after that, it was After Midnight, a theater bar. “After the theater got out after midnight, all the stage hands and actors and actresses would come and have a drink,” says Scott Croce, who now owns Laughlin’s along with his brother, Mark.
A little over a decade ago, it was The Sanctuary. Some may remember the place being shut down by the city 10 years ago. “The Sanctuary was an S&M club,” Croce adds.
A few years after The Sanctuary closed, the building was condemned by the city and slated for demolition. Considerable damage was done to the exterior of the building when an elderly woman lost control of her car and rammed it into the building. The Croce brothers bought it and have owned it for six years now.“We brought it back to life,” Scott says. “We thought it was a beautiful building on a great corner.”
While the Croce brothers were remodeling the place top to bottom, they came to the conclusion that it would be best to have a priest come in and bless the building before they opened their business. “Because of the S&M,” says Scott. “We have totally gutted and renovated the whole building after it was The Sanctuary. Because of what went on there, which doesn’t really bother me.”
Choosing a name for the building was easy. “When we bought the business and we were thinking of a name, it was in the actual brick from when Shatzel owned it,” he says. “We wanted to preserve the old name, it was a staple in the ’60s and ’70s, and a lot of people remembered it.
“We wanted to get away from the younger kids on Chippewa,” he goes on. “So we figured if we named it Laughlin’s, maybe the older folks that, when they were young, used to come down to Franklin Street in downtown Buffalo, and maybe they’d come back.”
Scott Croce has his chiropractor’s practice on Delaware, and has recently bought the site of the old Cloisters restaurants. His brother owns the Buffalo Chophouse, and has just purchased the Curtiss building on Huron and Franklin, where he plans to build a boutique hotel. “We’re huge supporters of Buffalo, we were born and raised in Buffalo, so we just continue to keep reinvesting in the city and doing the right thing,” Scott says. “We’re just waiting for the day, and we think it’s going to come soon, that the city is vibrant again like it was at the turn of the century. The city’s going to bounce back with a vengeance.”
Staples of Allentown
253 Allen Street
For 37 years, Richard Sasala’s parents have owned the red and white building that hugs the bend where Allen turns into Wadsworth. Fran and Rick Sasala tried many businesses at that corner over the years: a deli, a laundromat, a liquor store, and finally a bar.
One would think that a bar that opened only three years ago wouldn’t have a great deal of history to it. However, Staples was a work 10 years in progress.
Rick Sasala built the bar with the help of some noted Allentown personalities, including Johnathan Schwartz, nicknamed Hatchet John for any number of nebulous reasons chronicled in Allentown folklore, and Charles Arbia, once famous for Bumper the Wonderdog, his dog who supposedly performed miracles. “My father’s just been around, met a lot of people,” Richard says.
Schwartz is the one who painted the famed wine quotes on the bathroom walls. The idea for the quotes came from a wine calendar that Fran bought for her husband, which inspired Rick to learn a lot about wine. In fact, Staples was originally meant to be a wine bar. The vestiges of that vision are seen in those quotes, the wine books, and even the wine press over the beer coolers behind the bar. However, the wines never became popular. But the Sasalas don’t seem discouraged by that slow change. “I think we’ve created a comfortable, inviting and eclectic place,” says Richard.
All of the wood paneling, doors and trellises in the back of the bar were salvaged from an old Catholic church. The deli case and the beer coolers were taken from the deli that used to be where the liquor store, Spirits of Allentown, is now. “Piecing different things together and working with different ideas,” Richard explains.
When Rick Sasala bought the building in 1973, he was a retired gym and health teacher for public schools. “My father had pretty good foresight. He saw the bar scene kind of rise from the ashes,” Richard says. “We wanted to create a place that embodied the spirit of the neighborhood. The diversity of it, I guess.”
Not only a meeting place for people, but a meeting place for all of those old ideas that have managed to manifest themselves in some way. Although only three years old, the place feels like an old neighbor. “Not a whole lot of places like us around anymore,” Richard says.
Stories Behind Famous Local Watering Holes
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