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Remembrances of a Buffalo past evoke deep nostalgia

They’re dropping like flies in my neighborhood, which is now called “The Elmwood Village.” It’s where I’ve lived all my adult life. It’s happening in North Buffalo too, which is where I spent my youth. All kinds of landmark bars and restaurants are being either closed or sold or both. Earlier this week came the announcement that the venerable J.P. Bullfeathers would join them: The Place, Ambrosia/Nektar (the latter, an authentic gem on Elmwood, I always thought.)

Add to the list Vizzi’s on Kenmore, still blissfully selling beloved burgers but for sale. And The Old Red Mill in Clarence, a favorite for decades.

The euphemism here is that this is “a transitional period.” What I realized with the Bullfeathers’ announcement is that this is an era where everyone over 20 can’t help but be an orgiastic nostalgist, even if they’re still in training to be on nostalgia’s varsity. I know this is an incredible period for the Elmwood, Hertel, downtown and Cobblestone areas, with unbelievable developments happening, including remarkable bars and restaurants.

But we’re losing landmarks too, to which many have become a good deal more than fond.

We jazz lovers of any vintage at all in Buffalo exist in a state of permanent nostalgia for places where we heard some of the most extraordinary music of our entire lives – the great Royal Arms on West Utica, of course, but almost as much the lesser-known Revilot Club of Bemo Crockett on East Ferry near Jefferson (The sign on the door now says “Gigi’s.”), W.D. Hassett’s Downtown Room in the Statler Hilton, the Lawson Brothers’ original Tralfamadore on Main and Fillmore, Mark Goldman’s Calumet Cafe on Chippewa Street, Joe Rico’s all-too-short-lived Milestones; more than a half-century of amazing places.

But nostalgia is a very personal thing. You can miss the daylights out of things and places while having few reasons to explain it well.

When I was in my late teens (drinking age back then), we spent a lot of time hanging out at a friend’s father’s bar and nightclub called the Lucky Clover on William and Michigan. The music was local R&B – Coasters cover groups and the like – and the club was shabby, to put it mildly. Ladies of the evening huddled in the glassed-in coffee shop next door in full view of the police station across the street.

I could never explain my eerie attraction to the place. It was only two decades later that I realized the Lucky Clover had decades before been one of the more legendary clubs in Buffalo history, the Moonglow. It was one of the glories of “The Michigan Strip,” where the houseband might include the likes of jazz greats Cozy Cole and Stuff Smith and those sitting in with them might include Basie or Ellington bandsmen staying at Montgomery’s a half block away, because, as a matter of custom, Buffalo hotels weren’t entirely integrated zones yet.

We knew nothing of that when my friends and I hung out at our friend’s father’s joint in the mid-’60s but, so help me, I sensed back then there had once been something fabulous and wonderful about the place.

When I heard about Bullfeathers – a fine establishment by any reckoning – I realized that I’ll miss it, but not a hundredth as much as the place that preceded it in the same location.

It was a bar called the Parkway, whose distinction was that it possessed almost no superficial distinction whatsoever. It was, in its booths and formica tables, a place of no atmosphere whatsoever, a neighborhood bar in which no one had ever even uttered the word “gentrification.” But looking back on it now, I realized that its TOTAL lack of atmosphere and distinction was, in itself, its attraction. It was one of Elmwood’s all-time great student and boho bars. You’d go for the cheap beer and truly great personalities and talk. One of its frequenters was, for instance, then-WUFO disc jockey Frankie Crocker, who went on to become a legendary DJ in New York.

For those like Diane English, of “Murphy Brown” fame, who have noted that Buffalo has always been a “great bar town,” the Parkway was an exhibit under glass of how a truly great bar can be created out of nothing – a neighborhood joint just with an avuncular bartender/proprietor named Phil and some canny employees.

Phil – whose last name, sadly, I still can’t nail down – was the kind of watchful older man who made us feel safe and welcome. His most delightful bartender on staff when it got busy was named Lionel (no idea of his last name either). He was the fellow who, one night in 1964, saw a friend and I saunter in and hit us with this proposition: “How would you like to hear the filthiest and most disgusting joke in the world?” He’d sized up his young customers perfectly and we practically shouted “Yes!” in chorus, whereupon he told us all those years ago, “The Aristocrats” joke which would become famous half a century later when half the comics in America told it on camera in the movie “The Aristocrats.”

Three blocks down, there was the era’s other great student/boho bar, Brink’s. Merlin’s, and then Blue Monk, would later take its place. That was a small, vaguely ostentatious step up from the Parkway. You’d see semi-famous actors in town for Studio Arena productions there, Buffalo Philharmonic conductor Lukas Foss delightedly meeting young folks and UB professors trying to impress unimpressed young women with the fact that they were UB professors.

My acute nostalgia for the hot dogs at the incomparable Pat’s on Sheridan Drive and Parker Boulevard – Ted’s only competition in the affections and memories of Buffalonians – has never waned for a second. But I realize now that I never had an equivalent feeling for the once-fabled vinegary french fries of the long-vanished Brinson’s a few blocks away on Sheridan Drive. Even if I could feel nostalgic about the first slice of pizza I ever tasted, it would be impossible now, because the building that housed that Santora’s on Main Street has, for decades now, been a women’s clinic picketed by lonely anti-abortion protesters.

Because my feelings of nostalgia are so often inexplicable, I thought I’d reach out to one of my favorite guest nostalgists to finish this column off in truly grand style – former News Food Editor Janice Okun, who was this newspaper’s first restaurant critic (and, open disclosure, is also my cousin).

Her response: “I miss Pat’s too, and I miss Howard Johnson’s on North Street (and Delaware) not only for the ice cream but for their hot dogs, which they grilled in butter. And I miss the old Mastman’s on Hertel and Colvin and even before that Zarin’s in the same place. I miss (already!) The Place for Thinny Flynnies, and I miss the old Cafe Rouge at the Statler where they used to serve delicate thin pancakes with strawberry sauce. And the french fry stands at Crystal Beach, which were served in a paper cone which always had sand in it, so that added to the flavor. And I miss the old Hour Glass on Kenmore Avenue where the fish was always spectacular, especially the Copper River Salmon in season.

“And now I am going to cry myself to sleep.”