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Shiny Armor; Great beer selection, many changes make the 'new' Armor Inn a success

It's not easy replacing a legacy -- just ask the 10 or so quarterbacks to follow Jim Kelly in the red, white and blue -- but it's a lot easier when said legacy closed and sat dormant for several years.

That was the case with Hoak's Armor Inn, a longtime Southtowns restaurant at the corner of Armor Duells and South Abbott, an establishment many remember as "the place with the old Metro Rail car."

The Armor Inn Tap Room, then, is nothing less than a completely new beginning, a new bar and restaurant with a new aesthetic.

Result? A surefire success, it seems. My wife and I were meeting another couple for dinner and drinks on a Saturday, and the joint was hopping. A valet service was parking cars, and that was a necessity.

The inside feels open, almost banquet hall-like, with soft lighting and dark wood. There are two bars, with the larger near the entrance to the main dining area. (Our waitress told us there is overflow seating upstairs, with another bar.)

We were told we had a 20- to 25-minute wait (it turned out to only be 10 or 15 minutes), so we sidled up to the crowded, mixed-age bar. The setup was quite nice, with a very attractive wood fridge stocked with beer, and a very friendly staff.

The music was not overpowering; we could even hear the sound of the early March Madness game pumping on the flat-screen. I did notice the band space, and made a mental note to leave before then. No offense, but if I'm having dinner with friends, I don't want to hear Van Morrison covers.

Our friends arrived -- let's call them Helen and Moe -- and we were brought to a table near the bar. Very helpful, this was, as it allowed me to keep a close eye on things.

Most noticeable? The contented crowd, many of whom already seemed to be regulars, greeting the bartender and the chef.

That was a good sign, but what makes the Armor Inn very special is its beer selection. As drinkers have grown more brew-savvy, restaurants and bars have faced the option of trying to keep up, or scaling back. The Armor Inn has stepped up to the plate, and I think beer snobs will judge it very favorably, even ironic beer snobs -- Pabst is available as a "retro special."

My night was made with the option of a flight of three drafts for just six bucks -- I chose the Long Trail IPA, Arrogant Bastard and Magic Hat No. 9.

The menu -- we're talking food, now -- was rather short, with a real focus on its "Big Bad Wolf BBQ." I can't lie: Our food was just so-so. My wife and I shared crab cakes and calamari, while Moe ordered crab cakes with a side of mac and cheese.

The real disappointment was Helen's pulled pork nachos, which were way too busy, and served with burnt pork, to boot.

This is most definitely not a restaurant review, but considering the setup -- one large space, featuring two bars and lots of tables -- it's worth mentioning, since I think many drinkers here will also eat.

I would certainly give the eats another chance and we all enjoyed dessert.

I was bummed to see the many TVs switch five minutes late to the Sabres game. (A Jessie J video? Turn to MSG!), but with a large patio area, convenient location near the 219, and relaxed vibe, it's a winner.

The lights dimmed at nine, the band finished setting up, and we paid the bill and departed, all agreeing that the Armor Inn is well worth another visit.

No old Metro Rail car, no problem.

***

Armor Inn Tap Room

5381 Abbott Road, Hamburg 202-1315, www.armorinn.com .

Scene: Mix of ages and styles, but certainly relaxed, and not scary for hungry kids. Happy hour: 3 to 7 p.m. with $3 domestic bottles and $3 well drinks.

Beer: 24 different beers on tap, 50 bottles -- a very strong selection.

Music: Lots of live music; a full calendar is listed online.

Hours: Kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday; bar is open until midnight or 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday.