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Soos, wife find closing restaurant evokes tears Nostalgia reigns as owners change

John F. Kennedy dropped in during his 1960 presidential campaign.
Members of the U.S. hockey team stopped by on their way to their "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

A more recent visitor was Client No. 9.

Soos' Oliver Street Cafe has seen a lot of famous -- and infamous, in former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's case -- people in the half-century since being opened by Alex and Anna Soos.

North Tonawanda Mayor Lawrence V. Soos and his wife, Linda, took over the landmark restaurant from his parents in 1980. They passed the torch -- or at least the keys -- to new owners last week.

"When I gave them the keys I had tears in my eyes," Soos said Friday. "I became overwhelmed when I thought about all the friends we have made there over the years."

The restaurant was bought by Peter and Shelley Witt, of North Tonawanda, and will reopen in two weeks as Witter's Sports Bar and Grill. A grand opening is slated for early November.

Soos' Cafe was severely damaged by a fire in 2005 during Soos' campaign for mayor. It took him six months and $100,000 to get it back in shape.

Longtime regulars at 300 Oliver St. said they will miss the Soos brand of congeniality.

"Everybody had a good time," said Kevin Conlin, a North Tonawanda resident who works for the CSX railroad company. "I've made a lot of friends from going there."

Conlin played softball on some of the many recreational sports teams that were sponsored by Soos' Cafe.

Another recreational athlete who sported a Soos' Cafe jersey is former city resident Kim Kaiser of Amherst. Kaiser, who was a patron for 20 years, played softball and volleyball for Soos.

"It was a wonderful place," said Kaiser, executive assistant to Peace Bridge Authority manager Ron Rienas.

Kaiser remembers former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelley coming into the restaurant. She also remembers Linda Soos' homemade soups.

"The cream of broccoli was awesome," Kaiser said, "as was the seafood chowder. She also made this peanut butter and ice cream tart that was to die for."

Soos acknowledged his wife's "fabulous cooking and homemade soups."

Before Linda Soos took over the kitchen, Soos' mother's cooking "was the talk of the town," Soos said.

Fish-fry Friday nights always drew a crowd, with a 45-minute wait for a table.
St. Patrick's Day was another neighborhood favorite. Soos said he would get in 2,000 pounds of corned beef for the occasion.

In his teenage years, Soos lived in an apartment above the restaurant while working downstairs as everything from dishwasher to bartender.

"One of the great memories I have is when John Kennedy visited our restaurant," Soos said, recalling his high school years.

His mother was active in politics and donated a storefront in the Soos building to the Democrats for their headquarters. Kennedy stopped in after making a speech on the steps of City Hall.

The U.S. hockey team ended up at Soos' Cafe because a nephew of one of the customers, Dollie Mullins, played on the team. Soon after the history making win at Lake Placid, Soos received an autographed photo of Mullins' nephew with the gold medal around his neck.

The photo and various other memorabilia -- most with a sports connection -- filled the walls and shelves of the restaurant and bar. Among the many were a football autographed by Buffalo Bills players after the infamous 1991 trip to the Super Bowl.

When Spitzer gave a stump speech to a boisterous crowd in Soos' Cafe during his run for governor in 2006, one woman was overheard saying to another, "He's a good man." Her friend replied, "Cute, too."

The rest, of course, is history.

And history is what the landmark restaurant now becomes to Larry and Linda Soos.

"For Linda and I," Soos said, "the rest of our lives will be blessed by the thousands of good friends and great times we shared at 300 Oliver Street."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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