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Creative mix; 800 Maple's extensive drink menu is filled with artistic elixirs

Not long ago restaurant bars were used for two things: The place you waited for a table and the place you were politely banished to after tying up that table (with a complimentary drink, of course).

Times have changed and for the better. Many fine restaurants now use this valuable real estate to lure mature customers seeking a night out. And 800 Maple is among them.

There are no 2-for-1s. No "drink specials" to drown out your Sabres sorrows. Quality is key.

It's a sleek space of voluminous ceilings, red walls and black furnishings. Despite its ultra modern vibe, 800 Maple manages to feel cozy, right down to its fireplace. Order a boozy Sicilian Kiss coffee and "poof" -- you're in the Alps.

A curved portion of the bar brings patrons close together for conversation before it stretches the length of the long room. Scattered tables and a marble counter opposite the bar create a multitude of seating combinations. For either a tete-e-tete or group gathering, the sophisticated 800 Maple manages to strike a balance between cosmopolitan and comfy.

On a recent Friday night, the unofficial dress code hovered between "dark jean-khakis-dressy-shirts-sweater" and "expensive-leather-coat." Two brave women showed up in dresses and platform heels.

Bar spotlights illuminate what looks like a temple to liquor. As fancy bottles gleam up front, their frumpy friends, the wine bottles, line a back wall.

The drink menu got us down to serious business. With exotic names and several liquors, 800 Maple's elixirs are about as innocuous as the "Long Island Tea" that broke on the scene decades ago.

Orange Crush, 800 Cosmo, Pom Tini, Bikini Tini, Tropical Candy, Jolly Rancher, Expresso Martini, Rum Runner, top shelf margaritas -- drinks to sip, rather than chugalug.

Yearning for summer, I ordered a Bahama Lemonade from the hardworking bartender, while my friend, recovering from a cold, ordered a sugar-rimmed Lemon Drop martini. Hey, it calmed her cough. The two citrusy drinks set us back about $17. (More reasons to sip and wear trouser jeans.) For a moment we were whisked off to St. Petersburg when the Russian guy behind us ordered a "wodka" martini.

Of the bustling bar crowd, only one group headed to the dining room. The rest socked it in for the evening, many fueling their fun with appetizers, salads and scrumptious looking wood-fired pizzas. Just like table diners, they were dignified with linen napkins, silverware and clean-up service.

Plenty of wine drinkers sipped from big, elegant glasses that 800 Maple isn't shy about filling. The selection of reds and whites by the glass is extensive. We love that 800 Maple offers patrons a "quartino" -- a one and a half glass pour.

The hum of the room never overwhelmed, even as Christopher Joel, a solo guitarist/harmonic player, strummed out classics. Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, America, John Mellencamp -- oh, those were our days.

The quintessential "people-watching moment"? A poor fella trying to squeeze in for a drink next to a woman who promptly turned to him and said, "Hi, you don't remember me do you? We went to high school together."

Ah, maybe times haven't changed that much.

***

800 Maple

800 Maple Road, Williamsville www.800maple.com, 688-5800

Scene: Cozy contemporary.

Dress: "Corporate casual" minus your uptight boss.

Drinks: Fun, fruity cocktails starting at $6.50. Spiked coffees starting at $7. Wine by the glass, "quartino" or bottle glasses start at $6.50 .

Beers: Bottles starting at $3.50. The standbys plus specialty beer like Boddingtons, Great Lakes Brewing selections and the Sam Adams line.

Entertainment: Live music at 9 p.m. Fridays. Flat-screen TVs tuned to ESPN.

Hours: Opens at 4 p.m.