The Old-School Restaurateur’s Guide to Interior Design:
1. Select a color scheme from your choice of beige, taupe or beige.
2. Buy discount art from your choice of Marshalls, Ikea or Marshalls.
3. Open for business.
The New-School Restaurateur’s Guide to Interior Design:
1. Pick a vibe.
2. Decorate accordingly.
3. Choose art from local artists and galleries that serves both your chosen vibe and the community you wish to feed.
Buffalo’s vibrant landscape of restaurants, cafés and bars mostly follow the old-school guidebook, in which visual art is treated as an afterthought rather than an essential ingredient.
But in recent years, thanks to pioneering work of community institutions like Betty’s and Spot Coffee, more owners are featuring art as part of their hyperlocal missions. As cuisine has shifted toward locally sourced ingredients, so have attitudes toward local art.
[See Sharon Cantillon's photo gallery of art in restaurants]
And in many places, from claustrophobic coffee spots like Taza in Allentown to airy institutions like the Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora, art exhibition programs have become an essential element.
Rather than slapping art on walls as space fillers, these businesses follow a model established by galleries, with fresh exhibitions that rotate on at least a semi-regular basis and attempt to reflect the community they hope to draw.
Here is a sampling of area restaurants and cafés whose owners have shown a commitment to feeding people’s minds as well as their mouths.
370 Virginia St. (362-0633)
Stepping into Betty’s, the cozy and community-oriented eatery, feels a little like walking into your neighbor’s kitchen. Every element of the space – the warm colors, the smell of baked goods, the casual choreography of the wait staff – seems engineered to communicate the feeling of home.
That includes Betty’s respected and long-running art exhibition program, launched by owner Carol Ann Simon in 2004 and overseen since 2006 by Buffalo artist and curator Kathleen Sherin.
Sherin’s curated exhibitions, which rotate every two months and normally focus on a single artist, are clearly the result of careful consideration and a particular vision.
Now on view: Betty’s 11th annual staff exhibition, featuring works by professional and amateur artists who work at Betty’s. Next: Drawings and paintings by Bill Cooper, opening May 23.
Pairs well with: Betty’s Mediterranean pasta ($18).
Wine on Third
501 Third St., Niagara Falls (285-9463)
This upscale restaurant and wine bar on a revitalized stretch in downtown Niagara Falls doubles as coveted gallery space for local artists. Its exhibitions, usually focused on a single artist from the Falls area, change every month.
They’re curated by Brook D’Angelo, the artist responsible for the city’s much-buzzed-about “Totes McGoats” recycling campaign.
Though the space is somewhat fractured, the art exhibition creates a sense of flow through the restaurant, accenting the wall above diner’s heads in the narrow bar area and continuing into the larger dining room. The current exhibition is intended to raise money for the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center during an auction April 10.
In addition to the single-artist shows, the popular after-work spot also hosts live outdoor painting events during the summer on its patio, during which art is created to be part of the following year’s auction.
Now on view: NACC fundraiser show, through April 10. Next: Sidni Monroe, April 15 to May 14
Pairs well with: Wine on Third’s tapas menu, which features everything from politely grilled asparagus ($12) to flaming saganaki ($15).
Ashker’s Juice Bar and Café
1002 Elmwood Ave. (886-2233)
Art is part and parcel of this popular juicery, café and breakfast spot in the heart of the Elmwood Village, which thrives as much on its cold-pressed concoctions as it does on its adventurous and often challenging exhibition program.
The front space currently features a series of alluring encaustic paintings based on trees by veteran local artist Mark Lavatelli, which lend a definite sense of warmth to an otherwise sleek interior. But it’s in Ashker’s main seating area – expansive, flooded with natural light and usually slammed with customers – where art really has a chance to shine.
The space, called Buffalo Art Harbor, has hosted exhibitions featuring boundary-pushing work by former Western New York Book Arts Center print shop manager Chris Fritton, photographer and installation artist Max Collins and the manic drawings of Kurt Von Voetsch. These shows, curated by Matthew J. Kinsley, rotate on a monthly basis.
Now on view: New photography by Rick Steinberg, opens April 1. Echo Art Fair satellite exhibition, May.
Pairs well with: Zinger juice with carrot, apple, lemon, ginger and orange ($3.99).
227 Delaware Ave. (332-2299)
Going back a couple of decades, Spot Coffee’s Delaware Avenue location (and its outposts on Elmwood Avenue, Hertel Avenue and elsewhere) has been a great place to discover under-the-radar artists whose work rarely shows up in traditional gallery shows.
With no particular schedule and no curatorial philosophy, Spot’s exhibition program is totally egalitarian. New work, which tends to rotate in every couple of months, usually gets pitched to one of the baristas. Shows are then installed and uninstalled on an ad hoc basis, based on supply and demand.
The very nonchalance of the endeavor is what makes it appealing. And that appeal is fully in evidence in Spot Delaware’s current show, which features the refreshingly outrageous illustrative prints of Japanese-born artist Harumo Sato.
Now on view: Prints and large-scale stickers by Harumo Sato.
Pairs well with: Red eye ($3.50).
439 Delaware Ave. (842-0600)
Since opening in early 2009, visual art has been central both to the mood and mission of Merge, a popular vegetarian spot that has become a favorite destination for culture-makers from across the spectrum.
With a raised stage in the middle of the space and tables arrayed on either side, performance also is an integral aspect of the restaurant’s modus operandi.
True to its community focus, the restaurant often hosts exhibitions featuring art by clients of the nearby Starlight Studio and Gallery and the social service agency Aspire, both of which help adults with developmental disabilities to express themselves through visual art. And it is a must-visit stop on the Buffalo Infringement Festival circuit, hosting a dizzying array of visual and performance art as well as musical performances.
The exhibition program, which typically rotates on a monthly basis, is overseen by Eliza Schneider and evinces a sort of grass-roots feel in keeping with the creative clientele.
Now on view: Art by clients of Aspire. The space will feature new live paintings by Elizabeth Jancewicz, executed starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays in April during performances by Buffalo-based band Pocket Vinyl.
Pairs well with: Moroccan stuffed acorn squash ($18).
Pausa Art House
19 Wadsworth St. (697-9069)
At Pausa, which has infused Allentown with a welcome dose of ear-stretching entertainment with classical, jazz and world music flavors, music is the main attraction. But art comes in a close second, with food more or less an afterthought.
Since it was launched by Lazara and Jon Nelson in 2013, the venue has brought a steady stream of art lovers through its doors for a series of smartly curated solo exhibitions featuring work that is often abstract, often easy to get lost in and always seems to resonate with the venue’s musical sensibilities.
Pausa’s owners set out to create a space where all kinds of creativity can thrive, and where a certain cross-section of Western New York’s creative community can commiserate and feel at home. That sense is accentuated by a comfortable bar area that moves smoothly into the slightly more formal but equally cozy performance space, encircled often by eye-popping visual art from newcomers and established artists.
Now on view: “C through April 30.
Pairs well with: A glass of Spanish Tempranillo ($8 to $9).
100 Elmwood Ave.
Next time you’re speeding down Elmwood Avenue toward downtown, you won’t regret stopping off at this closet-sized space a few paces north of Allen Street.
In addition to one of the more addictive and strongest brews you can buy in Buffalo for two bucks, Taza is home to a tight-knit community of artists and creative types, and that community spirit is reflected on the shop’s walls.
The Taza exhibits, which switch on a roughly monthly basis, have ranged from highly involved video installations by the likes of the former Buffalo collective Flatsitter, to the graphic prints and illustrations of Taza regular and proponent Julian Montague.
And that’s to say nothing of the regular clientele, each of whom is a walking work of art worthy of at least a conversation or two.
Like Merge, Taza is one of the Buffalo Infringement Festival’s unofficial headquarters, hosting musical events on its patio and eclectic art shows on its limited wall space. But there’s no need to wait until July to check out the space – any visit will feed your curiosity about the local art scene and then some.
Up next: To be determined.
Pairs well with: Large coffee, nothing fancy ($2).
716 Swan St. (248-2216)
While the lure of brick-oven pizza might get people through the door at this Larkinville hot spot, it’s a pint-sized 1950s-era phone booth near the bar that adds some much-needed quirk to the venue’s resolutely hipsteresque aura. That booth, called the (716)GAL-LERY, bills itself as the smallest gallery in Buffalo, but it punches far beyond its weight.
Curated by Larkinville Director of Fun Leslie Zemsky, an artist with an especially keen eye for gifted painters, the space has boasted exhibitions by many of the area’s most accomplished and recognizable artists, from A.J. Fries to Mickey Harmon. The booth also has hosted interactive pieces produced by Torn Space Theater and a collection of flip books based on early experiments in photography.
Now on view: New miniature work by Sarah Zak, featuring a series of tiny, meticulous and addictive paintings of telephones and telephone-related ephemera from throughout history.
Next: “Erin Morris: Silo City Photographs,” May 1 to July 30.
Pairs well with: Margherita pizza ($12).
3234 Main St. (832-6666)
If you can get a seat at this popular weekend breakfast spot, you’re in luck for reasons that go far beyond the kitchen staff’s seemingly magical abilities to transform ordinary lentils into craveable delicacies.
The venue’s art program, curated by Mary Ouimette-Kinney of the University Heights Art Association, is equally transformative if not at all showy: It often features work by neighborhood artists, with more of an eye toward helping those artists make their first forays into the art world than with the slickness or polish you might find in a commercial gallery.
A case in point is April’s show, a series of colored-pencil drawings of celebrities by Natalie Golubski that show a capable style and technique on its way toward greater refinement.
After that, the restaurant will feature drawings by Starlight Studio and Gallery client Chase Lobley, who is known for his dinosaur sculptures as well as drawings and paintings inspired by those sculptures.
Now on view: “Old Hollywood,” drawings by Natalie Golubski, through April 4. Next: “Chase Lobley: Drawings from Sculpture.”
Pairs well with: Lentils with broccoli, home fries and toast ($5.50).
Elm Street Bakery
72 Elm St., East Aurora (652-4720)
Much like Betty’s, the owners of the Elm Street Bakery want visitors to feel a world away from their daily lives when they enter the space.
“We sort of want you to have a 30-minute vacation when you come here so you feel like you’re transported,” said Kim DePerno, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Jay DePerno. “You feel almost as if you forget you’re in Buffalo.”
The DePerno’s vibe-curation extends not only to the airy vibe they’ve achieved through their design scheme, but to the art they’ve chosen for the walls. The work they feature has to have a handcrafted look to dovetail with the handmade quality of the food.
While the space has no set exhibition schedule, the art rotates at least every two months, with some work – such as Alan Larson’s impressionist and often highly textured oil landscapes – on view on a semipermanent basis.
For the art that switches out, the only requirement is that the hand of the artist is visible and that the artist hails from the area. “Because our focus is on local meat and local food,” Kim DePerno said, “it just makes sense that the art on the walls be from a local artist.”
Now on view: Arts and Crafts-style prints by Marjorie Bennett, through summer; oil paintings by Alan Larson.
Pairs well with: Chicken pot pie ($19).