Craft cocktail bars are popping up faster than potholes in Western New York, and with that, standards for what constitutes a good one are rising. As little as a year ago, a bar could plop down a bottle of Angostura bitters, list a Manhattan on the menu and call it a day. Not anymore.
BillyBar opened in Williamsville last August, under the same ownership as French standard Tabree. The Main Street spot is Tabree’s casual cousin, with a brazen red rail and the industrial fixtures we have come to expect on the Buffalo bar scene. There are comfy couches in the back, high top tables and a long bar, which was full of beer drinkers when we arrived.
There was a lot of buzz about BillyBar [read Andrew Galarneau's review] when it opened. Its eye-popping menu hosts the charcuterie Tabree became known for, as well as oysters, tacos and bar snacks, but its promise of “stellar cocktails” was a tall one to fill.
Topping off a decent-sized list is the “Billionaire,” a blend of Bulleit bourbon, sugar cane syrup, lemon juice, absinthe and house-made grenadine. The menu also boasts such standards as a Pimms Cup, Gibson, Last Word and Boulevardier, with a few house specials that piqued our interest.
There was nothing exactly wrong with the Billionaire: The absinthe shone through with its signature licorice bite, backed up by a strong citrus flavor. The grenadine was sweet without turning syrupy, and the bourbon gave it just enough spice to keep it from tipping over into dessert-drink territory. But stellar? I’d call it middle class.
The Billionaire came in a gold-rimmed glass befitting its name, but the hunk of drying lemon hanging off the side threatened to topple the ship. The bar fruit looked as tired as the patrons hunched over their beer bottles, limp and wrinkled like it was closing time instead of 7 o’clock. At just past dinner hour, the bar ran out of ingredients to make the drink after the first round; not a good sign so early in the evening.
Nevertheless, the bartenders were friendly and attentive, striking up conversation and checking back often. They asked for favorite flavors and were eager to offer recommendations on both drinks and the food menu, which far outshone its liquid counterparts. If only the product stood alongside the service.
In 2012, decent cocktails could have made a splash on the Buffalo cocktail scene. Today, we want better than OK. If BillyBar freshens up its offerings with flavors as bold as its food menu’s design, it can make a splash in the increasingly competitive drinking town we’re becoming.
Billionaire, $10; BillyBar, 5590 Main St, Williamsville; 634-2572.
Lizz Schumer is a Buffalo writer and editor who covers cocktails, food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She is the author of "Buffalo Steel" and can be found @eschumer or www.facebook.com/authorlizzschumer.