Mr. Bill’s used to make fun of Cheektowaga stereotypes, selling a T-shirt emblazoned with pink flamingos. They don’t sell the shirt anymore, but not much else has changed at the corner of Cleveland and Cayuga. The family restaurant by the airport has new owners but still rocks the oldies but goodies format. Let the downtown places enhance their fancy-pants $10 cocktails with hand-harvested Tibetan snowdrop flowers. The dazzle in Mr. Bill’s $7 Cosmo is a floating plastic glow bracelet. But Cheektowagans aren’t fooled by flimflam. The foundations are solid: Mr. Bill’s delivers good food at a fair price. ¶ The big parking lot fills up fast, especially in fish fry season. Step inside and admire the posted specials while you wait to be seated. Prime rib brings the beef-hounds back on Saturday nights, with a $36 prime rib dinner for two. Monday is breaded pork chops, Tuesday is turkey dinner, and only out-of-towners ask what the special is on Wednesday and Friday.
Inside the dining room, the wallpaper, booths and Aunt Millie’s light fixtures could serve as a set for “That ’90s Show,” but I wasn’t there to fill up on decor. When Cat’s Cosmo came in a squiggle-stemmed martini glass, she was surprised to find a purple glowing bracelet in it. The server, who was swift with plates, water and quips all night, offered that wearing it would make it easy to keep track of how many you’ve had.
There were too many classic appetizers on the menu to try as it was, so we ticked off a few: coconut shrimp ($7.75), clams casino ($7.95 for five) and spinach bread ($8.95).
Coconut shrimp should taste like toasted coconut and these did with large butterflied shrimp turned into golden brown crispy dippers. The spinach bread, its mozzarella bubbled brown under a broiler, actually tasted like spinach, garlic and cheese, in that order. I suspect it was made from freshly cooked spinach, which all too often is not the case.
Clams casino can be a gluey slog, but this version, topped with crusty garlic-butter breadcrumbs and bacon, recalled the glories of loaded potato skins with a touch of the sea, Cat noted.
A Mediterranean fish dinner ($17.95) was less successful, a decent filet of white fish topped with a bland sauté of vegetables including bell peppers, tomato, spinach and onion. Accompanying mashed potatoes were as glutinous as my old nemesis, instant potatoes.
Cat’s lasagna was satisfying, though, with not-too-sweet tomato sauce and sausage livening up the mozzarella-topped square. Accompanying wild rice was firm and nutty. My chicken Milanese centered on a chicken cutlet that was half an inch thick, not as delicate as some of the versions I’ve enjoyed. But boy it was tasty, moist inside and crusty-to-crunchy outside, topped with salad mix, chopped tomatoes, balsamic glaze and crumbled blue cheese.
“Classics” is a menu heading for entrees that include steaks, chopped sirloin ($15.45) and liver and onions with bacon ($14.45). Like all the dinners, those come with bread and butter, pasta or potato, and soup or salad. The bread was sesame-seed-topped Italian, fresh and served with butter and margarine pats.
Liver and onions is a classic dish that is reviled by so many people that I expect it to make a comeback any day now. For the time being, you can get a solid version here – thin sliced beef liver quickly sautéed with a touch of pink left inside. The sweetness of caramelized onions and the smoky richness of bacon made the copper-penny organ-meat funk enjoyable.
Soups included a chicken wing soup and navy bean with ham. The latter had lots of tender, white beans and smoky pork with carrots. Chicken wing soup was, well, call it a guilty pleasure. I liked it for its creamy nacho-cheese-like body with chunks of chicken and celery, livened up with Frank’s Red Hot or similar sauce. Then I stole another spoonful from Cat. Then I felt guilty.
Mr. Bill’s doesn’t make its desserts, but it serves some decent ones, including an apple tart ($5.95) that had tender apples and pastry with ice cream, an Italian cream cake ($5.45) with a lemon crème center, and crème brûlée cheesecake ($5.95), sporting beads of caramelized sugar atop a graham cracker-crusted wedge of dairy fudge.
Mr. Bill’s has left the Talkin’ Proud era behind in some ways. There is free Wi-Fi now. Where it matters, though, the menu remains firmly entrenched in the past. That’s a good thing when you’re looking for a dinner to be just as satisfying as you remember.
Mr. Bill’s : 7 plates (Out of 10)
Longtime Cheektowaga family favorite still delivers reliable satisfaction.
WHERE: 1500 Cleveland Drive, Cheektowaga (634-0783, www.mrbillswny.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday; and 12:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $1.95-$16.95; sandwiches, $6.96-$15.95; entrees, $8.95-$23.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.