You need more than lamppost banners and 50 nights of business a year to start a bar district.
The establishment of such requires investment, vision and blind ambition, all focused on generating interest in an area of the city known more for its parking lots than for its pulsating Saturday nights. It involves patience while waiting for familiarity and word-of-mouth to eventually lure regular crowds to the neighborhood. But most of all, it requires a vibrant locale shining bright at its center.
For downtown’s emerging Cobblestone District, that beacon is Buffalo Iron Works, an unvarnished live venue now catering to the needs of music, sports and industrial history enthusiasts alike.
Since opening in the fall of 2013, the Roger Trettel- and Sam Savarino-owned venture has slowly earned loyalty from those looking for draft beers and cover bands on First Niagara Center game and event nights. Inside an exposed-brick and timber-laden venue, Cobblestone crowds can hoist plastic pints of Hamburg IPA while sampling a loving tribute to Pink Floyd or Phish. This certainly has diversified the pre- and postgame scene around the arena, but it’s not enough to buttress the needs of a developing district.
There needs to be more, and Iron Works delivers its necessary share with regular scheduling of both local and nationally known touring acts inside surroundings that both pay homage to nearby concert performances and celebrate Buffalo’s past manufacturing fortitude. Leon Russell – architect of Joe Cocker’s legendary “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” album and tour – has manned the house stage. Local acts like Dirty Smile and Ten Cent Howl have made multiple appearances. They’ve all performed in the shadows of the venue’s Memorial Auditorium concert placards and photography of Republic Steel-era ironworkers. It’s a gritty vibe at the renovated, repurposed address, and it’s one that can be appreciated on any evening, regardless of neighboring events.
On a recent Friday night, I stopped into the Illinois Street setting for its Cobblestone Happy Hour, featuring 30-cent wings, $3 Rolling Rock drafts and well drinks, and the local five-piece band Folkfaces, there to churn out its eclectic brand of rockabilly, bluegrass and ragtime.
“We are Eastern boys in Western shirts, playing Southern music,” said vocalist and lead guitarist Tyler Westcott, before busting into another one of the band’s acoustic-led originals.
With a Saranac Caramel Porter ($6) and $3 worth of wings, I perched at a high-top for the band’s multi-instrumental stomp through its catalog, as well as reimagined Steve Earle, Hank Williams and Stevie Wonder favorites. Set up in the bar’s back corner – and in front of a stage that would later host Buffalo-based Dave Matthews Band tribute act Dreaming Tree – the scrappy quintet collaborated on genre-bending tunes that seemed right at home against the dusty mortar and exposed ceiling slats of Iron Works. And with each of its songs, the band drew more attendees away from the taps and televisions of the main bar and into its freewheeling performance.
Patrons moving closer to the stage could see photos of Rod Stewart and Elvis before they played the Aud; posters of Frank Zappa and Janis Joplin on their respective gender’s bathroom door became more visible; and an advertisement for Jimi Hendrix revealed he also booked the Aud. (Tickets to his show cost less than my night’s double-order of happy hour wings.)
But as Folkfaces worked toward its finale of “We’re On The Move Now” and customers found cobblestone streets on a night without sports or songs inside the adjacent arena, the evening was evidence of potential off Buffalo’s riverfront. And with every new band, fan or curious patron, downtown’s aspiring district takes another step toward assemblage.
Buffalo Iron Works
Where: 49 Illinois St. (200-1893, www.buffaloironworks.com).
Hours: 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday to Saturday. Closed on Sunday and Monday when no events are scheduled.
When to go: During the bar’s regularly scheduled live performances from both local and nationally touring acts; before or after Sabres, Bandits or concert action at First Niagara Center; and as part of a visit to the new developments of Canalside and the Cobblestone District.
On Tap: Big Ditch Low Bridge, Blue Moon, Flying Bison Rusty Chain, Hamburg IPA, Labatt Blue Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Saranac Caramel Porter, and Southern Tier Live.
Price range: Draft and bottled beers, $4 to $6; cocktails, $4.50 to $7; wine, $5.
How to pay: Cash or card.
Parking: Free lot next to building; paid lots and garages nearby. Also accessible via a two-block walk from Metro Rail’s Erie Canal stop.