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Winters are routinely bad for arthritic knees, the front hall carpet and waterfront restaurants.

While it doesn't offer a cure for the common cold, The Dockside Inn in North Tonawanda is making a go at its first winter season by offering free munchies on Buffalo Bills game days, all-you-can-eat spaghetti Wednesdays and live music from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday.

When we entered the bar and restaurant -- located on the Niagara County side of Tonawanda Creek in a former warehouse -- we were greeted by zealous sports fans engrossed in a Bills game and by a waitress wearing a sailor's cap.

"Do you think she wants to wear that hat?" asked my friend.

It did seem out of place, with the canal outside empty and Bills-related signs hanging from the rafters, instead of old sailing ropes or other predictable nautical decorations.

We decided she was made to wear it, but since she looked cute anyway and it was October, the month for getting away with wearing silly looking hats, that was OK.

To start, we dug into a deep-fried vegetable basket ($5.95), which came with crunchy golden mushrooms, cauliflower and zucchini, with ranch dressing for dipping. The veggies were tasty and breaded, and fried cauliflower was a first for us, although we thought it could have come with a little something more to justify its price.

We also ordered two homemade meatballs in homemade sauce ($2.95) to share, because we had arrived a little too early for the more substantial meals, some of which boasted "sauce you will return for." We had to try it.

The meatballs were quite large and probably made of the same mix used for the meatloaf entree, which may be ordered after 4 p.m.

The sauce was a source of contention for one of my companions and myself, though. He loved the substantial red stuff, and, for the same reasons, I did not. I thought it was too sugary, needed some garlic and spice and was a bit too thick. You'll either love it or hate it.

He also enjoyed his "Carver" Philly cheese steak ($5.95), served with melted Swiss, sauteed red peppers and onions on an Italian roll.

It was a bit messy, with the meat and other ingredients dripping all over his fingers, but oh so tasty and filling, he declared.

The "Bayliner" was a chicken finger sub ($6.95) made to order -- hot, medium or mild -- and didn't lack the proper kick for another companion. Cheese might have made the chicken a little less dry, though, she said.

We also approved of the chili ($3.75), which was full of ground beef, red beans, onions and spice. It came topped with cheddar cheese in a crock surrounded by tortilla chips for dipping.

Served September through March only, it's a meal in itself, although we wished there was the option to order just a cup.

The "Four Winns" Rib Eye Steak sandwich ($8.95), served on a roll with sauteed onions, was flavorful.

The menu promised it would blow us away," and although the meat -- which had been grilled over an open flame -- was satisfying, for the prices of our sandwiches we thought they should have been served with fries and a salad instead of potato chips and a pickle wedge.

We just didn't feel right about lunch until we ordered the steak-cut fries ($2.95), of which there were enough for the whole table.

Although we found one renegade frozen fry, most were delicious; the kind with a bit of skin left on. They were so thick I'd say they resembled what the English call chips.

Too bad we couldn't have tried some fish with our chips.

The one drawback to local fish fries is that so many restaurants only serve them one day out of the week.

Some of Dockside's seafood offerings, available only on Fridays, include breaded and fried haddock, Italian-crusted baked white fish, sauteed scallops in butter sauce and New England clam chowder.

The meal took a slight downturn when we noticed a large steaming crock of soup surrounded by all the fixings on a table under the large overhead television.

"When did they sneak that out?" I thought, looking down into my own $4 bowl.

Then a woman holding a steaming pizza box made a dramatic entrance, carrying the takeout box high above her head, as if she was delivering much-needed medicine to an outback tribe.

After paying full price for our meals, we were dismayed to watch clusters of people who had since just been drinking from pitchers of beer or eating off plates of nachos help themselves to the food.

Upon asking our kind waitress about the matter, she told us the Dockside serves free pizza and snacks each Bills game day.

Don't get me wrong. It's a great gimmick, something besides the usual Thursday karaoke nights to draw in a rowdy crowd on a windy, overcast afternoon.

Only good, though, if you know about it before you order your full-priced meal.

But hey, there's always another game day.

The Dockside Inn ** 1/2

153 Sweeney St., North Tonawanda, (693-3100


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