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TOP SHELF
LAUGHLIN'S MAY SEEM PREMIUM, BUT THE REST OF US ARE WELCOME, TOO

Laughlin's Beef and Barrel Restaurant

333 Franklin St.

Scene: Secretaries to pseudo-sophisticates

Drinks: Anything premium

Dress: Dressy, not messy

Music: Eclectic background

Best time to go: Happy hour

Next week: The Rendezvous

If any bar in Buffalo is appropriate for a midnight meeting of the Freemasons or Stonecutters, Laughlin's is it.

It could be the latticework on the refurbished Second Empire-style roof, the two Buffalo-shaped gargoyles perched ominously before the gilded oak door or the three floors of dimly lit opulence inside. Whatever it is, Laughlin's implores you to class yourself up.

But for all its leather chairs, flickering candles set into brick walls and mechanical waving palm fronds, the place actually feels comfortable. You don't even need to know the password to get in.

And shockingly, this upper-crusty milieu, with such prime real estate (at the corner of Franklin and Tupper streets) and an entirely renovated building that has housed some of Buffalo's more storied whiskey joints, now caters to the after-work crowd. Here, the suits show up in force around 5 p.m. and tend to trickle home well before any midnight meetings.

But that didn't stop us from straggling in with ripped jeans and wide-open minds on a recent Thursday night at the stroke of 12. What we saw implied "out of our league," but our experience begged - no, pleaded - to differ.

The four of us kicked out some stools at the corner of the long bar and ordered up the standard drinks, a couple Blues and vodka tonics (we would work up to the fancier ones). In the corner, a group of twentysomethings chatted beneath a row of four undulating mechanical leaves, meant to circulate the idea of sweltering Southern heat - a nice touch, if terribly ineffective. Sizzles and clatter escaped from the small kitchen adjoining the bar as dim light filtered down from the open space above.

Barkeep Matt Barnes, lately in the employ of Buffalo restaurateur Mark Croce (also of D'Arcy McGee's and the Buffalo Chophouse), gave us the rundown: The owners were shooting for a New Orleans look, which they more or less accomplished with a few additional accoutrements. The place is laid back enough that he doesn't need a bouncer, and there are happy hour specials from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, but damned if anybody cares to order them.

"It says we have specials, but there's nothing special," Barnes said when asked what made that happy hour so happy. If cheap is your game, this bar doesn't play, but the rest of the place is special all over.

The bar is stocked with top-top-notch liquor and wine, a fine selection of honest-to-goodness Scottish Scotch (in preparation for the bar's upcoming Scotch tasting from 5 to 8 tonight) and an impressive assortment of vodkas.

A stroll up the stairs reveals a collection of plush, comfortable chairs, some set low and loungy around coffee tables and others for those stiffs who want to sit upright. Another flight up and you're effectively in the penthouse, where the coup de grace is a nook containing a 10-person table that looks just sinister enough to accommodate all the Dons who ever passed through Buffalo.

Back downstairs, thoroughly impressed by even the bathrooms, with their old-fashioned wash basins and nuclear-powered hand dryers, we finished the night off with a couple of tasty chocolate martinis as two secretary types made eyes at us from the other end of the bar.

Whether it's after work or after hours, Laughlin's offers a truly unique sophistication that Buffalo would otherwise be hard-pressed to produce. Even our scraggly selves got an evening out of it.