Coles on Elmwood Avenue – with its 28-foot mahogany bar, seven-foot chandeliers, legendary bartenders and an ageless popularity – has played a role in the lives of thousands of adults for eight decades.
The owner for more than half of those 80 years is David Shatzel Sr., a Lackawanna-born son of a bar owner who will use almost any excuse to throw a party at Coles. After a burglar made off with $25,000 back in 1978, he threw a Cops and Robbers party offering free drinks to the thief. Patrons dressed as prisoners and Keystone Cops for the event..
The appeal of the fun-loving Shatzel, who is 81, is just one of the reasons that generations of patrons from across the country have formed an allegiance to this Elmwood Avenue landmark that brings them back year after year at holiday time.
Later today, when Shatzel gathers with family and friends to mark the restaurant’s 80th birthday, many tales will be told over the storied bar. Some will be recorded for release in an anniversary compilation DVD.
The party takes place from 5 to 10 p.m. at Coles, 1104 Elmwood Ave.
Located in a former Pierce-Arrow showroom, Coles opened in 1934, after Prohibition ended. A black-and-white checked tile floor looks up to a raftered ceiling festooned with college memorabilia and one life-size cutout of Shatzel running the Subaru Chase. The pub became a runners’ stronghold, in part, because of Shatzel’s involvement in running.
The addition of a second room in 1987 came with a surprise after a pharmacy next door was torn down, recalled Dave Shatzel Jr. An original King Cole sign painted on an outside brick wall was covered with ivy.
“We restored King Cole and it’s the picture you see in that room now. We still call it the new room, though we should stop,” said Dave Shatzel Jr., who in recent years headed operations at Brennan’s Bowery Bar at 4401 Transit Road in Amherst.
In the ’70s, when tank tops and cutoffs were prohibited, Coles sold more vodka than anything else, according to restaurant reviews from that era. Today, draft beer is becoming the heavy-hitter, thanks to youngest son, Mike, 42. He’s also busy making his own name with Liberty Hound at Canalside, Blue Monk on Elmwood and a recently purchased package of properties on Allen Street.
Daughters Susan Burke, Sara Fitzpatrick and Stacey Shatzel have all worked at Coles in the office or restaurant. Mike was in fourth grade when he started busing tables at Sunday brunch, where everyone seemed to know his father.
“I remember watching people almost wait in line to talk to him, and I thought that was pretty cool,” Mike said. “Walking into Coles is like walking into a museum with years of memories.”
Weekdays and after work, Coles patrons are a mix of urban professionals and skilled tradesmen. House painter Agan D. “Big John” DePalma was a fixture at one end of the bar, Mike said.
“We named a cheeseburger after him even though I never saw him eat one. He was here every day. He ordered two Miller Lites at a time,” said Mike, a former Coles cook.
Today, Mike is married and the father of Nola, 3, and Cole, 2. On his way home from picking up Nola from the hospital, he stopped at Coles.
“It’s the first place she went,” he said. “I took a picture of her on the bar in the baby seat. She was a day old.”
Coles’ parties are a big reason the business has withstood the resurgence of other entertainment districts on Chippewa and Allen streets and Hertel Avenue. From surf parties, where prizes were awarded for the smallest swimsuit, to post-St. Patrick’s Day Parade parties with lamb stew and soda bread, almost nothing compared with the sheer excitement of a Saturday night suitcase party, said Dave Shatzel Jr.
With the doorman dressed as an airline pilot and suitcases hanging on the restaurant’s walls, patrons were invited to buy tickets for prizes raffled every 15 minutes. The grand prize would be a trip to wherever the Buffalo Bills were playing the next day.
“Winners would have to get in a limousine out front that would take them directly to the airport where they would board a plane to the opposing team’s city. They would go out on the town and enjoy themselves, have a nice room,” said Dave Shatzel Jr. “Everyone would be walking around the place with a toothbrush in their pocket.”
Today’s post 9/11 airport security cloak put an end to suitcase parties, he explained. “To book things at the last second like that is very difficult now,” he said. “In the past, we would have blank tickets. Today, they want to know exactly who is traveling.”
Former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello was part of the Coles corner long before he became mayor, recalled Dave Shatzel Jr. He was a big hit when it came to Halloween, dressing like Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and a gorilla. Masiello, who remains a close friend of the Shatzel family, recalled fielding a surprise call from President Bill Clinton during the Blizzard of 2000 that struck the city on Thanksgiving week.
“It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the place is packed,” Masiello said. “I get a call on the Coles phone from Bill Clinton offering help. Apparently he tried to call my cell and I could not hear it, so he called my wife, who gave him the number at Coles.”
The first saloon Shatzel Sr. recalled his father, Elmer Shatzel, owning was near Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna. Two more would follow, one on Ridge Road and the last one on Electric Avenue off Ridge. All were named Shatzel’s Grill.
Dave Shatzel Sr. was 18 years old, a graduate of Our Lady of Victory High School, when he and nine friends enlisted in the U.S. Navy to fight in the Korean War. Upon return, the decorated war veteran worked in Miami as a lifeguard before returning to Buffalo, where he served as a Buffalo firefighter for seven years at the old Engine 8 on Chicago Street.
“After being away for four years, I wanted to be away a little longer, so I went to Florida, and that was fun, but being a firefighter was the best job I ever had,” he said. “I worked with a bunch of good guys. It was fun going to work.”
When Shatzel Sr. purchased Coles in 1973, it was already legendary, he said. “I always considered it to be a top bar,” he said. “An awful lot of people have come through the door in 50 years. A lot of them I want to remember, and there’s a few I don’t.”