Coles is a lot like the older brother who's a little bit wiser and more distinguished and than his younger brother -- in this case, Brennan's in Clarence.
While this is no knock against Brennan's by any means -- both are run by the Shatzel family, which knows quite a bit about how to run successful pubs and restaurants. You're bound to have a good time at either, but at Coles you hear soft lounge music and dine on an upscale menu of perhaps a lamb burger on a sourdough English muffin, whereas Brennan's offers rock music and a superb Reuben. While one can see the relation and have fun at both, the experience is different with the same award-winning family flavor.
Coles has been around since 1934, and the Shatzel's took the business over in 1973. I took a girl to a lamb dinner there in 2001, and since then, whether I'm downtown on business or gearing up for a book reading or signing, I try to stop in and bask in the historic ambience. Every visit has delivered the same level of diligent service and satisfaction on all counts.
It was the sort of perfect day off that's almost impossible to replicate. My dear friend Gary was in town for the first time from Minneapolis. So after an extended nature walk in Niagara Falls -- it was on Gary's bucket list -- we set a course for Coles. I wanted to give my pal a clear sense of what a good historic Buffalo bar was like and couldn't think of a better example on the Elmwood Strip.
We took a load off on two wooden swivel stools toward the end of an aged varnished horseshoe bar that could write a three-volume story if it could talk. Rob, who's been bartending at Coles for almost 30 years, took care of us post haste. We ordered a pitcher of Sly Fox Lager and a double of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey -- my barometer for how Irish a bar really is in Buffalo. A golf tournament aired on a corner television while my buddy Dave and I mutually complained about the upsurge of traffic in Clarence. Gary ordered a pot roast sandwich ($11) that arrived in record time. He described it as "succulent," while inhaling the sandwich in large bites.
Even though it was early afternoon, the bar was busy enough with syncopated attendees that the small talk was flying in the most hushed and socially acceptable volume I've ever heard in a drinking establishment. A beautiful Gershwin cover played in the background, and Gary and I remarked about how soothing it was indoors. A full patio crowd ate and dished while the Elmwood hustle and bustle carried on just fine without us. A comical framed chart of Irish bathrooms amused me while I visited theirs.
I asked for Rob's opinion when it came time for our second round, and he recommended Rusty Chain, a full bodied amber ale. While the Sly Fox was daring and sharp across my tongue, the Rusty Chain hit the mark where subtlety and a full body were concerned.
Coles is simply a great time with a strong sense of living history. I'll keep going, and I have no doubt in my mind that, in an area where bars and clubs spring up like mushrooms and fold just as quickly, it will keep going, too. I've got a soft spot in my heart for such an swank, old Irish pub.
1104 Elmwood Ave. 886-1449, www.colesbuffalo.com
Scene: Sophisticated drinking and dining in a classy establishment nearing 100 years in business.
Drinks: More selection than you can shake a stick at, including 36 draft and 50 different bottled beers, 20 vodkas, a well-traveled wine list and $4 pints from 3 to 7 p.m.
Dress code: Pressed shirts with an optional tie for men; dresses for women.
Music: Lounge music and old-fashioned crooning over the loudspeakers.