The mouth of Ohio Street off the Michigan Street bridge currently introduces visitors to two things: one, a winding swath of strewn dirt and gravel that, after an $11.3 million reconstruction, will prove transformational to Buffalo’s ongoing resurgence; and two, the entrance to a timeless brick tavern called the Swannie House.
The former is primed to serve as the city’s long-awaited connection between its inner and outer harbor, with trees, bike paths and street lighting revamping a 1.4-mile thoroughfare to Fuhrmann Boulevard. And whether architects and planners of the forthcoming boulevard intended to or not, they’ve also positioned the latter – one of Buffalo’s most cherished corner gin mills – to become their riverside project’s unofficial welcome center.
Lucky for them, the beloved Swannie has been welcoming blue-collar Buffalonians and visitors alike for around 120 years.
The late 19th century bar – first called the “Swanerski House” before some Irish-reared editing – is the second oldest in the city (behind the soon-to-be reopened Ulrich’s), with more history in its men’s urinal than most bars have inside four walls. The Tim Wiles-owned tavern has tamed Polish brawls, cashed grain scoopers’ checks and hosted generations of General Mills employees. It’s handled decades of Sabres fans, First Ward residents and Edward M. Cotter fireboat passengers. And its interiors detail the Nickel City’s waterfront history from its heyday to present day.
But it’s the presumed future of the Swannie House that makes the place even more intriguing. Step outside the bar’s stain-glassed doors one way and you’ll see the possibilities of Ohio Street, with plenty of parcels primed to join nearby River Fest Park and upcoming Freight House Landing apartments off the Buffalo River.
Walk the other way and you’ll find quick routes to Canalside; the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino; and old neighbor Malamute, which is primed to reopen as the craft cocktail-focused Ballyhoo in the fall. It’s at the axis of it all, not to mention a Michigan Street bridge walk away from the under-development Buffalo RiverWorks, the $15 million Ganson Street entertainment venue set to welcome its first regular action (via the hard-hitting Queen City Roller Girls) come January.
Often times, such transformation motivates changes within neighboring locales, if only to keep up with the Joneses. But if you walk into the Swannie House, look over their six taps and absorb the ambience, you’ll pray they don’t touch a thing.
On a recent Tuesday night, I stopped by the Swannie, ordered a Genny Cream stubby ($2.75) and a bag of Cheetos ($1), then settled into a barroom table surrounded by artifacts of Buffalo’s history. Old blue seats from Memorial Auditorium hung above my head, right near a picture of the Sabres’ French Connection and across the bar from a framed photo of Ward boxing legend Jimmy Slattery. Scattered around the front entrance are varsity letters from local high schools like Timon and Frontier; over the doorway leading to the back patio is a retired mile marker for the Shamrock Run.
I walked under the race placard to find Swannie’s clandestine outdoor seating, covered and surrounded by high wooden fencing and landscaping. Whether on a long lunch or out “running errands,” patrons can hide for a few pops while basking in sweet cereal smells from nearby General Mills.
Combine this kind of seclusion with the tavern’s intimate, wood-paneled interiors and you’ll understand how it’s still standing after so many bars around it have fallen. And such attributes will keep it steady as an unforeseen swarm of development rises around it.
Get ready for a refurbished corner of Buffalo – anchored by the same old Swannie House. Sounds welcoming.
Where: 170 Ohio St. (847-2898)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. every day but Saturday, when it closes at midnight.
When to go: After work for your dad’s domestic beers; lunch and dinner for sandwiches, soups and wings; or Friday nights for one of the city’s finest fish fries.
On Tap: Blue Moon, Guinness, Labatt, Labatt Blue Light, Saranac and Smithwick’s.
Price range: All fare – beers, shots, mixed drinks or meals – are available for typical Buffalo frozen-in-time prices.
How to pay: Cash only. ATM inside.
Parking: Spots available in side and rear parking lot.