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Time To Eat

A brief tour of the places we ate 20 years ago

When Artvoice began in the early 1990s, it was the heyday of a dining establishment called Just Pasta, located on the corner of Ashland and Bryant, where Trattoria Aroma exists now. Founded a decade earlier as a lunch place with 12 tables, the restaurant rode the 1980s “pasta” craze (up until then it was just called “spaghetti,” apparently) through the fusion food phase of the 1990s and halfway into the new millenium before closing its doors in 1996. During that time Just Pasta continually modified and expanded, closely following the food trends as dictated by changing times and the rest of the country, and succeeding as a culinary leader that set the standard for Buffalo restaurants.

Perhaps this is hyperbolic—Just Pasta was, after all, my father’s favorite restaurant, bar none—but many people still give it credit for changing the face of Buffalo dining—certainly changing the way Buffalonians “ate Italian”—and for furthering the concept of “casual elegance,” meaning upscale without being fancy, spawning other nice but not prohibitive restaurants that opened in the 1990s and are still going strong, such as Hutch’s and the Left Bank.

Trying to research the restaurant and dining scene in Buffalo during the time that Artvoice was launched is no easy task. Places have changed owners, names, and locations. On Just Pasta’s block alone there was the ambient little restaurant Buffalo Rome, opened circa 1990. (It’s now a clothing store called Nikki’s Secrets.) Buffalo Rome was formerly the Beanstalk, which was co-owned by Mary Tomaselli, current owner of La Tee Da on Allen, which is located in the storefront where Aqua, and previously Cybele’s, used to be. (More on that later.) As for Just Pasta, it underwent a brief transfer of ownership in 1994, then the new owner closed the doors in 1996, and the spot is now home to Trattoria Aroma, which could be said to carry on in the spirit of its predecessor.

Taking a restaurant tour of the entire city to see what was where once and what is there now would be a project of massive proportions. So we’re going to limit it to the Elmwood/Allen area, as that’s where Artvoice has always been located.

We can start at Elmwood and Bidwell, where the Artvoice Web & Copy shop was briefly situated. After that it became a Just Pizza franchise, then Sahara Grill, and now is Zetti’s Pizzeria. Look across the street and up a bit and there is a little shacklike structure, which will be remembered by many as the “old Pano’s,” a place that distinguished itself from the other Greek-American diners with its addictive dill sauce. Pano’s built a veritable empire out of that tiny establishment: Look up the block a little more to the monolith that is Pano’s new digs, and it speaks for itself. (Note: Falafel Bar also got its start at the same tiny location, and has since moved to a spacious locale on Allen Street.)

The early 1990s brought the first sushi restaurant to Buffalo (although it may have been served at some Japanese steakhouses out in the burbs), created at a downtown place called Saki’s by a chef named Kuni, who the owners had hired straight from Japan. Saki’s didn’t last all that long, but Kuni soon opened his own place on Elmwood near Breckenridge, in a little spot where a kosher/vegetarian shop called Preservation Hall used to be. It was a smashing success.

Where that Kuni’s­­—one of the most popular restaurants throughout the 1990s—once was is now Wasabi, another sushi place. The Lexington Coop, where Kuni’s is now, has moved to a new structure itself, accross the street from what was once the Chinese restaurant May Jen but is now home to the brand new Juniper. It also housed a much-missed little tea place called Tru-Teas in the interim.

Moving along toward Artvoice’s old stomping grounds in Allentown (the paper had its headquarters at Allen and Franklin for many years), we pass the former site of Reginald’s and Sequoia, which were both long-standing restaurants popular in the 1990s, located in a beautiful Victorian that has since burned down. Up a couple blocks more, past Cecilia’s (which was once a Rigoletto’s) with its huge streetfront patio, to Anderson and Elmwood we’ll see the Thirsty Buffalo, which was previously home to the legendary Jimmie Mac’s. Across the street is a beautiful but empty Victorian, the former site of Off the Wall and the Blue Moon Cafe. (And briefly to Preservation Hall.) Keep going past Ambrosia, which has expanded and remodeled throughout the years, then past Nektar, a higher-end place that belongs to Ambrosia’s owners, and past Bryant Street to the Wine Thief, which was a cafe called Solid Grounds in until just a few years ago.

Right before the Community Music School we’ll get to a little restaurant, which ends this particular restaurant row, that hides in the back of it one of the best patios in the city. This was the delicious seafood place Kodiak back around 1990, then for many years a high-end Greek restaurant called Astoria, and is now the newly opened French restaurant Tabree.

Keeping on Elmwood heading south we get to the Cozumel, which has been there for more than 20 years, and Allentown proper. We’ll pass the now closed Steel Crazy Cafe, former home to Cybele’s Cafe which opened in the early 1990s and stayed in that tiny place for 10 years before relocating to what is now La Tee Da on Allen west of Elmwood. Down the block from there—passing the ghosts of the Cafe Cosmos and DiGiulio’s—is the Allentown Hardware Cafe, which actually was a hardware store in the 1990s and is now owned by Mark Goldman, former owner of the Calumet on Chippewa (now Bacchus), a restaurant that spawned the development of the Chippewa district into what it is now (for better and for worse). Across the street from Hardware is a recent entry to the scene, Lagniappes, which is getting ready to move into new, bigger digs closer to Elmwood. In the other direction on Allen, still heading toward the old AV headquarters at Franklin and Allen, there’s Tempo on Delaware, in a bulding that housed the trendy restaurant Biac’s throughout the 1990s and which is now owned by Mark Hutchinson of Hutch’s. Around the corner from there is Fiddleheads, across the street from the old AV, which has been successfully serving for 15 plus years—though it changed ownership midway.

If we make a right just before Fiddleheads and turn down Virginia Place, there is a little street that has become something of a mini restaurant row. First we’ll come to Fat Bob’s, which in the early to mid 1990s was the Carribean restaurant Babalu, co-owned by the owners of Biac’s. Then there’s Mother’s, which has held its own tucked away on this tiny side street for pretty much the whole time Artvoice has been around. Mother’s alone would make the one-block-long Virginia Place a destination. Across from that is the newly opened Scarlett, which was once a club called the Gargoyle, and the back entrance to the Stillwater, which used to be Lord Chumley’s. And that building on the corner of Delaware and Virginia with the lion on the side of it? Across from the old Cloisters? That was the steakhouse Manny’s. Look up the block to the Snooty Fox, once home to the Indian restaurant Tandoori and then to an Italian restaurant named Bellini’s for a while. Then look across the street on the other side of Delaware to the Mansion, which was once called Victor Hugo’s, a very, very long time ago.

But this must stop, before we get to Merge, which used to be Prespa, and so on, and so on. Because by now, we’re almost at the current offices of Artvoice, at Main Street between Virginia and Edward, and it is probably time to go to work. If only Ray Flynn’s were still open right across the street…

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