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NCAA crowds hunt for food
Many planned ahead, while others faced some long wait times

The daunting task of finding something to eat and drink in the two-hour window between the afternoon and evening NCAA Tournament games on Friday was no problem for the fan with a plan.

The savviest fans made a reservation ahead of time, went somewhere that offered buffet-style dinners, traveled farther afield or left the last afternoon game early.

This left them a step ahead of the massive crowd that streamed out of HSBC Arena at 5 p.m. in a frantic, 120-minute search for sustenance in downtown Buffalo.

"We have it down now," said Jim Atwood of Getzville, who learned his lesson after running into trouble in 2007. He and his wife, Mary, made a 5:15 p.m. reservation for E.B. Green's Steakhouse and made it back in plenty of time for the late games.

For anyone who hoped to grab a table at Pearl Street Bar & Grill, the Anchor Bar, W.J. Morrissey's Irish Pub and other popular destinations, waits of an hour or two were common during crunch time.

This is the second time Erie, Pa., residents Greg and Mary Ann Osborne came to Buffalo for the tournament, and it's the second time they got shut out in the between-sessions break.

"The last time we walked down the other way [uptown]," Greg Osborne said as he sat hungry on a wooden bench at Morrissey's, anticipating a meal at the arena later in the night.

But for the most part, city restaurants and bars seemed to handle the thousands of hungry and thirsty patrons with relative ease, carrying on the success of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

In interviews, local and out-of-town fans praised the efforts of volunteers, transit employees and wait staff in serving so many people in such a short period of time.

"I love it here," said Bill Brown, a Morgantown, W.Va., resident and West Virginia alumnus, who has been to the last three NCAA tournaments in Buffalo. His group took the Metro Rail to City Grill between the games and finished their dinners with time to spare.

This is the fourth time Buffalo has hosted the opening rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and organizers have learned their lessons from the earlier efforts.

Organizers and tourism officials have made a push to let fans know they have options and to encourage them to take public transportation to restaurants on Elmwood Avenue, West Chippewa Street and elsewhere.

And the restaurants and bars themselves are better prepared for the mid-session crunch, with Pettibones, Pearl Street and others offering quicker buffet service.

Rob Free, the Buffalo Bisons' director of food service operations, characterized the event at Pettibones as "brisk but smooth."

"It's nice to be able to afford people this much room, instead of them having to be packed together," Free said.

Fans started trickling out of the arena as early as halftime of the Missouri-Clemson tilt, the second of four games held on Friday.

Anyone who was smart enough to leave early had a much better chance of getting a table.

A lot of people didn't even try to go to all four games, so they could take their time.

Kevin O'Connell and his wife, Meghan Coughlin, who are Pittsburgh residents and Gonzaga fans, were chatting with fellow fans of the Zags at Pearl Street as they waited for the two evening games to start.

"This is the best spot, right here near the window," O'Connell said.

Coughlin is from Erie, Pa., and went to St. Bonaventure.

"So I forgot the Buffalo accent until the waitress came over," said Coughlin emphasizing the flat "A" in "tab."

That trickle of fans turned into a gusher shortly after 5 p.m., when a swift stream of people determined to find somewhere to eat and drink poured out of the arena.

Steve Boskat and Salim Sarvaiya were among hundreds of hoops fans with a hankering for Anchor Bar chicken wings Friday afternoon.

Alas, by the time a sluggish Metro Rail dropped them and two other friends at the Allen Street station following the Missouri-Clemson tilt, Anchor Bar owner Ivano Toscani already was informing patrons the wait was at least an hour.

Boskat's group, which was on the third Metro Rail train to leave the arena stop following the game, tried Bijou Grill, but the Main Street restaurant also was an hour's wait. They ended up taking the Metro Rail back to HSBC Arena, where they settled on pizza.

It was better than missing the 7:10 p.m. tip of Gonzaga and Florida State, said Boskat, who was traveling from Jamestown.

"We're coming back for Sunday's game, so we'll get a chance to go out then, too," he said. "There's always Sunday. You gotta get some wings."

At 5:45 p.m., customers at Pearl Street Bar & Grill were told it would be a two-hour wait for a first-floor table.

Diane Kozakiwicz and her son, Brian, were on the third floor at Pearl Street finishing up their buffet dinner.

It took "maybe 10 minutes, tops," for them to get their wings and other grub, Brian said.

"And that was mostly climbing up the stairs," said Diane, a First Niagara Bank employee from Rochester.

Rachel Cohen of Manhattan, a Missouri alumna who works in marketing, wanted to eat at Pearl Street but went to City Grill instead because of the crowds.

She was able to eat at the bar and she was checking her NCAA bracket as she waited for the two late games to begin.

"We're excited to go to Niagara Falls tomorrow," said Cohen, who also planned to stop by Buffalo's entertainment district.

"What's the area? Not Chattanooga. It's not Cherokee. It's the bar area," she said, before a reporter told her it was named "Chippewa."

Dr. Gary Verazin and Bob Eisenhauer have been taking in NCAA tournaments for more than a decade. This was their first time in Buffalo. Verazin, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Eisenhauer, of Dayton, Ohio, and their group of eight "met in the middle" for this tournament.

Eisenhauer, Verazin and company carved out a corner at Pettibones near a window facing Washington Street and feasted on a buffet meal and a few beers. Although the restaurant did a heavy business during the intermission, this group still had plenty of elbow room.

"Tell the NCAA to have it [in Buffalo] every year," Verazin said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com, tpignataro@buffnews.com and jtokasz@buffnews.com

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