NIAGARA FALLS – The Culinary Institute Niagara Falls has hosted hundreds of college students and a bevy of politicians since its ribbon-cutting last month.
Now, the doors swing open to the public with the staggered debuts of the institute's student-run deli, bakery, fine dining restaurant and wine boutique.
La Patisserie, the bakery, opens Monday, followed by the The Wine Boutique on Oct. 26 and Savor, the gourmet restaurant later.
The Old Falls Street Deli opened Tuesday, and after a few hours, positive reviews were streaming in.
"I just thought the hospitality was incredible," said Teri Hescox, of the Town of Niagara. "They're very welcoming. You could feel their excitement."
Hescox brought three of her girlfriends downtown for lunch, where the big hits were chicken soup, apple salad, homemade potato chips and, surprisingly, pickles with a sweet and sour tang.
The deli, which faces Old Falls Street, offers fresh entrees made from scratch by culinary institute students who are plying their trade, said manager Ashley Hansen. Most items – panini, wrap and soup combinations among them – sell for less than $11, and local items like D'Avolio olive oil (Lewiston) and Johnnie Ryan soda (Niagara Falls) line the shelves.
The deli is expected to draw some of the 8 million tourists who stream through Niagara Falls State Park each year, many of whom either eat lunch in the park or must choose from the relatively limited downtown options.
Hansen and manager Stephanie Jemiolo know firsthand the lack of variety. While preparing to open the deli, they were hard-pressed to find many lunch spots that offered what they wanted.
"We tried to get food, and there was nothing," Hansen said. "There was burgers and pizza and things like that, and people need to eat that, but they also [need something else]."
And with a lack of major downtown attractions, the culinary institute, with its glass-walled classrooms and community kitchen, is expected to become a draw in itself.
"It'll give tourists more of a reason to stay," Hansen said. Simply put, "there's food around."
But more importantly for some, the restaurants and Barnes & Noble store of the culinary institute also will attract city residents who for so long had few reasons to come downtown.
Before recently, there was "just that casino, that was it," said Vickie Bundy of the Falls. But with the restaurants opening in the culinary institute, "you're not afraid to walk down here," Bundy said.
The deli appears to have expanded the culinary horizons of residents like Pete and Tina Gilmer, who live on 59th Street.
The Gilmers came downtown to check out the new cooking school, but when they found places to spend their money, they were glad to order lunch and purchase a cookbook from the Barnes & Noble.
"We didn't even know it was open," Pete Gilmer said of the deli, "and then we realized it was, and we ordered some stuff."
Gilmer and his wife had the vegetable panini, which workers said was the day's favorite item.
"It's the first time I've had an all-vegetable sandwich," Pete Gilmer remarked. "I'm a meat and potatoes guy. [But] it's good."
Like the Gilmers, many couples came downtown Tuesday just to stroll around the lobby of the institute, to see with their own eyes how a vacant, outdated shopping mall was transformed into a $30 million hub of education and commerce.
"They finally did something right in this city," said Elsie Martino of Grand Island. "It's about time."
Martino, who grew up in the Falls, ordered a children's book for her grandson at the bookstore.
Her visit, she said, follows decades of disappointments that left downtown an embarrassing mishmash of tacky attractions and vacant buildings.
"This city has been in ruins for 40 years," she said. "Tourists come and want to spend money, [and] there has been nothing on this street with quality."
The culinary restaurants, she said, represent a break from the cheap trinket shops that have long dotted the downtown area.
"They did it with style, quality and just the variety of things," Martino said. "I'm overwhelmed. It brings me to tears."
It's the students, she said, who will benefit most from the restaurants.
"You can teach anything you want to in a classroom, but you throw them in there and see what it's like when it gets busy," she said.
Not lost on the residents are new employment opportunities the restaurants bring for people like Mike Crogan, a former resident who came down to check out the new restaurant.
"It's beautiful," he said while looking at the dark wood of the restaurant's bar. "This is done right. It looks like a high-end restaurant."
Decades ago, Crogan's father worked at Sears, Roebuck, and his grandfather operated a limo service, just steps from where the culinary institute stands. He still remembers how urban renewal ripped that landscape away. More painful is how he found Main Street upon returning to the city after many years.
"I came home, and I went into shock," Crogan said. "What the heck happened here?"
Looking out the windows of the new restaurant, it's clear the redevelopment of downtown has a long way to go.
"But this is a start," Crogan said.
"They need a lot more than this [culinary school]," added Monica Swain of Grand Island. "But who knows – who ever thought this would be here?"