It wasn't so long ago that North Tonawandans seeking upscale fare tended to cross the Erie Canal and head for Buffalo. Remington Tavern's 2012 arrival started to change that, then Webster's Bistro was followed by a spiffed-up Dockside.
While chatting with dinner guests in a window table at Canal Club 62, which opened last year across Webster Street from the Riviera Theater, I marveled at the change I was witnessing.
Entertainment venues like the Riviera, live music at bars and summer outdoor venues, and yes, restaurants, have helped make the neighborhood a more popular destination. People dressed up for an evening out explored the street, ducking into doors to read menus or listen to live music before deciding to sit or stroll.
North Tonawanda has never lacked for cocktail parlors, but now it has a buffet of places to get something nice to eat, no bridges required.
Walk into Canal Club 62 Tap and Eatery, and you might be tempted to call it a chain restaurant. Thick iron links are everywhere, fronting the back bar shelves, dangling in long strands from the ceiling that end in light bulbs, framing pictures.
The rest of the décor is more adult contemporary than heavy metal. The bar and the larger dining room it leads to offer tastefully scuffed blonde wood floors, exposed brick and a grand piano. Dining seats include chairs and black banquettes along the outer wall. There's also umbrella-sheltered tables out front for patio dining in clement weather.
Despite the room's high ceilings, sound came in waves, sometimes drowning out conversation when the tables filled for dinner on a Saturday night.
The menu, expanded from its early versions, now offers a medium-sized array of choices – a dozen small plates, four salads, four sandwiches, nine entrees. There's also a dozen draft beers and a custom cocktail list.
The dish I remembered best from an earlier stop was the Buffalo cauliflower ($10), and a revisit reminded me why. A plentiful supply of cauliflower florets were lightly battered and crumbed then fried to a crisp, and tossed with a piquant medium-mild cayenne wing sauce. Celery, carrots and blue cheese dressing completed the plate.
Sounds simple enough. But after meeting versions elsewhere that shed their coating like a molting snake or turned soft and yielding by the time I reached for a second bite, I appreciated this vegetarian appetizer all the more.
A warm olive salad ($6) was a cup of bracingly vinegary olives marinated with onions and spices, served with grilled fresh baguette. Crab cakes ($10) brought a clutch of field mix with little or no dressing, a schmear of spicy mayonnaise and two well-browned patties a little bigger than a standard yo-yo. The cakes satisfied with a mixture of crab and diced bell pepper.
Calamari ($10), served with marinara sauce, was tossed with rousing banana peppers, but disappointingly pale and chewy. The jumbo meatball ($12) was a rousing success, served in a pool of tomato sauce with a dollop of cool ricotta. Its lightness belied its richness, and the sneaky heat of the sauce brought our garlic-toasted crostini back until we'd wiped the bowl.
Among the big plates, short ribs ($28) won my favor. Two bone-in hunks of beef, braised until velvety, arrived atop a heap of fries. There was all the makings for an outstanding sandwich: a big, soft bun that had been buttered and griddled, zippy barbecue sauce and fruity purple cole slaw.
The fries had been dusted with a salt-and-vinegar powder, contributing to their swift disappearance. A plate of those fries and an order of the cauliflower would make a splendid jumping-off point for an evening of drinks, especially on a cheat day.
Chicken piccata ($16) pleased with pan-sauteed chicken breast filets in lemony butter sauce that popped with briny capers. It could have used more Israeli couscous underneath to soak up sauce, and one small piece of artichoke left me wanting.
Mussels linguine ($18) had plenty of plump bivalves in a white wine cream sauce, but other elements to broaden the flavor – garlic, tomato – were in short supply. The pasta was properly cooked.
Salmon on beet risotto ($22) featured perfectly cooked filet – seared surface, tender insides – but the brilliantly pink beet risotto beneath it needed more seasoning. Orange chive butter promised in the menu description escaped my notice.
Dessert choices on this evening were limited to vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream. That is not a complaint, as ice cream is its own justification, never something for which one must apologize. Besides, our server ended up offering to us gratis.
Canal Club 62 has better food than I expected to find in North Tonawanda, but that's my fault for not keeping up on developments. The crowds descending on Webster Street made it seem like everybody knew but me. If you're hungry for something better at dinnertime, you won't be bored in Lumber City.
Canal Club 62 – 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 62 Webster St., 260-1824
Hours: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Price range: Appetizers, salads $6-$14; sandwiches $8-$16, entrees $16-$30
Parking: Street, lot behind building
Wheelchair access: Yes