Walk into the bar on a Saturday night at John's Flaming Hearth and you might feel like you just came off a Vegas casino floor. You might rub your eyes, shake the kinks out of your shoulders from a long run hunched over the roulette table.
Maybe you order a flavored martini or margarita ($5.50) from the special menu placed along the black kidney-shaped bar. You sink back into a red leather stool or a banquette. Actually, everything is red, except the rich wood paneling and the paisley carpet.
Still caught up in the allure of gambling, you might instinctively pick up a Quick Draw card from a dispenser along the bar. Fill it out with the stubby pencil, also provided. You hand it to the hostess, and gaze up at the numbers board along with other happy couples quickly filling up the bar. They might have that gambling glaze in their eyes, as well.
The energy starts to shift, and muted excitement builds as the four members of Isis, a popular lounge act, begin to set up for the 8:30 set. Now it's not just about the gambling, it's about the scene itself. Tables and booths become hot property; people are literally pouring in. The lounge and the music are a destination in their own right.
The mature crowd is now there to cut a rug. Dance the night away. Whatever you want to call it, the small landing strip of a dance floor will be put to the test. The gentlemen are in attire ranging from casual sweater to full suit and tie. The ladies show their excitement, too. A trip to the beauty parlor appears to have been de rigeur. No hairspray was spared in the evening's preparations.
Right on time, Isis bass player and one of their lead singers Ron Doebler opens the set by wrapping his sweet vibrato around a swinging version of "Beyond the Sea." Every seat in the bar is full. Jeannie Kerl -- the band's "girl singer," clad in a sparkly dress -- picks up the lead and launches into "Crazy." Next, she and Doebler duet on their version of Nat/Natalie's "Unforgettable."
Behind the bar, drink slinger Cliff Smith tends to his flock of regulars. He knows most of them, says they are there every Saturday. These folks are the greyhounds of the night, old enough to know better, but young enough to want more. No Geritol and "Murder She Wrote" for them.
In the large booth in the corner, a group of sixtysomethings laugh it up. After dining in the main room, they now settle in to the lounge for drinks and entertainment. They've found the perfect spot, and they know it. Some of them have been coming here for 40 years or so and travel from as far as Lockport to find the fun.
"I met my wife here," a Lewiston dentist says, pointing to his lovely bride. "She fell off a barstool and hurt her tooth." The rest, as they say, is history.
The name of the place refers to its steak-cooking method. There used to be an actual open hearth in the restaurant, says Smith. "They still flame-broil the steaks in the kitchen," he adds, "but the big one was taken out years ago for safety reasons." The building itself resembles a hearth, with the light-colored stone and glass exterior evoking a classic 1950s fireplace.
Above the bar, a miniature grotto is set back in an archway rimmed with little white lights. Instead of a fountain cascading down the middle of the lifelike sculpture, there is a blue neon martini glass. And instead of beer on tap, the bar offers wine on tap (Paul Masson, Inglenook).
When the hour gets later, Smith says, Isis may break into some rock and roll. They play till 12:30. That's well past my bedtime. So, filled with admiration for our elders, not to mention an appletini or two, we scoot back home.
John's Flaming Hearth
1965 Military Road, Niagara Falls
Dress: Nice Saturday night out, old school
Music: Live lounge act Saturday night only
Drinks: Cocktails and beer, specialty martinis, margaritas, wine on tap
Scene: Classic lounge, dancing
Best time to go: Saturday night, absolutely
Next week: Desiderio's