A wooden archway, once hidden under old boards, welcomes patrons at the doorway.
Inside, matchbooks and menus from bygone Buffalo nightclubs decorate the walls. Whiskey jugs from some of the city’s circa-1900 distilleries – there were 57 – line a ceiling shelf.
Salt and pepper shakers fashioned from old Buffalo-made pop bottles wait on tables.
More than a thousand days since Leonard Mattie and his wife, Nancy Abramo, bought the defunct old Park Meadow bar across the street from the Buffalo Zoo, the couple have opened their new restaurant – Parkside Meadow.
It’s like a love letter to their city and neighborhood.
“This is our legacy. We have no children,” Mattie said. “So this is what we’re leaving the world.”
He and Abramo have painstakingly transformed the old watering hole, notorious years ago as an underage preppy hangout, into what they hope will fulfill a neighborhood’s longing for a good place to grab a drink and linger for Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner.
A museum-like collection of small trinkets from the city’s grand past fills the restaurant’s walls and shelves.
“The rule is, every single thing you see had to have been made here … It was crazy. So much stuff was made here,” said Mattie, who scouted online for Buffalo artifacts.
When he was a young man in the 1970s, the Park Meadow was the hangout for young types who wore Lacoste polo shirts and went to Canisius College.
“It wasn’t our groove,” he said.
He was in the disco crowd. A graduate of Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, he studied industrial arts education at SUNY Buffalo State and had more fun at Hertel Avenue’s now-closed Mulligan’s. There he and friends dressed to kill and danced to exhaustion.
When the Park Meadow finally ended its long reign as a bar in 1990, Mattie and his wife were sorry to see one new pizzeria and diner after another flounder in the decaying old tavern.
But the couple saw potential in the 1915 building. They did some calculations. Their neighborhood of 1,800 homes had 2,500 residents. Just across the street, at the corner of Russell and Parkside avenues, Sweetness_7 Parkside café had a following for its coffee, breakfasts and lunches.
People could use a place to walk to for dinner and other meals. Tourist crowds at the Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin Martin House a few blocks away on Jewett Avenue were growing. By this year’s estimate, 27,000 visitors toured the Larkin Company executive’s century-old estate. Heading somewhere nearby for a meal might appeal.
Though they had no experience with restaurants, they bought the ailing building for $170,000.
Abramo, an advertising executive at Time Warner cable, took a Medaille College seminar and wrote a business plan.
Mattie, a retired weapons specialist, teamed up with two fellow retirees from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and a retired mailman neighbor. They spent the first year bringing the building to code and fixing heating, staircases and plumbing for the upstairs tenants. They cleaned out three tons of rusted metal, asbestos, rotted wood, sewage and trash from the basement.
“We traded in our missiles for saws,” Mattie said. “One week I’m a boilermaker. One week I’m a carpenter. The hat depends on the day.”
Work on the restaurant started in the second year. Not much could be reused, save two urinals now in the men’s room. Yet there were some finds. As Mattie peeled away boards around the front doorway, he found the remnants of a wooden archway, which he restored.
More plywood above the windows revealed fragments of ribbed transom glass, which he replicated and replaced along the tops of the front plate-glass windows. A green-and-white tile pattern still in the front step inspired him to search until he found more to buy at a Texas company making similar tile. He repeated the motif on the floor in the entranceway.
Back bar coolers, circa 1950 metal with a faux wood pattern, came from the Dudley Hotel in Salamanca.
Mattie is especially pleased about having his own set of beer taps to pour drafts for friends.
“It’s like being locked in a candy store,” he said with a grin.
The costs, financial and otherwise, have been steep.
The work took a physical toll. Mattie fell from a ladder when some siding came loose. He crashed backwards, ricocheted off a parked Jeep and landed face down. He spent seven months recovering from torn retinas, broken wrists and nose and a cracked cheekbone and skull.
“It’s been so incredibly, incredibly arduous. Beyond arduous,” Mattie said. “Sometimes I felt like my head was going to explode.”
Then, after trying and failing to get financial help and government grants, the couple finally drained the last of their savings account a couple of months ago. By Halloween, it will be three years since the pair bought the property.
“Len never gave up this vision,” Abramo said. “He had it in his head the whole time.”
“I haven’t been out on a Friday in two and a half years,” Mattie said. “It’s taken up every ounce of our being.”
One afternoon last week, he stepped down from a ladder by the bar, looking dusty, rumpled, ebullient and completely healed from the bloody fall.
It was a few days before the Friday opening when the staff of 22 officially began working to serve customers as they wandered in.
They hired a manager with a dozen years of Buffalo restaurant experience to oversee operations, but the building still needed minor adjustments. The air conditioner wasn’t keeping up with the 80-degree temperatures earlier in the week, and Mattie was working on the ceiling ducts.
“It’s just killing us,” he said of the way the sun’s heat radiated through the plate glass windows.
Tall and gregarious, he has the demeanor and ease of a natural host.
He was feeling numb with excitement about opening. Finally, neighbors and others from around Buffalo will sample the burgers, wings and the special sandwich he designed with roast lamb, Havarti cheese and spearmint aioli and take in the restaurant he built to delight and inspire with the city’s rich history and future promise.
“I knew I had one last project in me,” Mattie said.