The best foyers create a good first impression, keeping potential customers comfortable while they’re waiting for the chance to start eating and drinking. More important than décor, though, is the host. A place that does robust walk-in traffic needs a staffer who is part traffic cop, to effectively triage the crowd. ¶ When customers have done their part – confirmed a reservation, successfully parked, arrived on time – they don’t want to be met by someone too busy to look at the crowd in front of them. Cat got a manager’s attention, stiff-armed some line cutters and we were seated on a flower pot-lined balcony overlooking the busy street. That’s how my dinner at Mac’s on Hertel started. ¶ The two-story space has been reconstructed inside and out since it was Empire Grill, and it’s much more welcoming.
The second-story balcony reminded me favorably of the French Quarter’s elevated people-watching capabilities, even if we had to find something to wedge under the tippy table’s leg.
The staircase goes up the side now, leaving the interior open above the circular bar and a delightfully detailed two-story photograph of old downtown Buffalo in all its glory. History callbacks continue on the menu, which is printed in a newspaper-ish style, with dish listings interspersed with articles. It’s a distinctive style, but unable to stand up to routine menu traffic. The copy I was handed was smeared with a cheese sauce-like substance or grease-spotted on most pages.
If the food at Mac’s was glorious, I might have overlooked the rough start, but that was not the case. Our meal was not terrible, but I left disappointed.
Mac’s serves dishes you would expect of a family restaurant or tavern, with a few fancier entrees. The former fared better than the latter.
The basics were solid. A creamy feta dip and spinach-artichoke dip combo ($9.25) satisfied, with the latter tasting of both main ingredients, as I prefer, and the accompanying bread properly toasted. Chicken tenders coated in cornflakes ($8.75 single) were crunchy outside and moist inside.
An appetizer of “Now Famous Buffalo Chicken Rolls” ($10.75) deserved the menu spotlight. Two big egg rolls were filled with chopped chicken in hot sauce and cheese. They were rolled in crumbs before frying, for extra crunch, and it worked, helping make them the best bite of the night. Sliced on the bias, that came to four pieces, and my table of teens and adults would have happily dispatched two orders.
Beer-battered pickles and onion rings ($7.50) were decent, with ranch dressing and tequila barbecue sauce that tasted like regular barbecue sauce.
A brie and bacon burger ($13) sported chewy candied bacon, and a burger cooked well as requested.
A bourbon bacon and steak flatbread ($11) had been cooked long enough to cry out the nubs of chopped steak, but not long enough to cook the mushrooms. The Thai noodle bowl ($12) had clumped noodles in a snazzy bowl with lots of vegetables, including carrots, snap peas, broccoli, mushrooms and Napa cabbage. The broth, advertised as miso tamari broth, tasted mostly of cabbage, not the distinct smack of fermented soybean paste.
A watermelon shrimp salad ($12.75) had mixed greens and pearl couscous that arrived topped with five jumbo shrimp and chunks of watermelon. The shrimp were firm, and plenty big, but oversalted, and didn’t get finished off. The melon was oddly unsweet.
Root beer short ribs ($19.75) was one big rib. It was well-crusted and the meat pot-roast tender, satisfying with ungluey mashed potatoes and sautéed fresh yellow and zucchini squash. It was my favorite entrée, despite more of that sweet, sticky barbecue sauce, which seemed out of place on a tender, rich piece of beef.
Desserts included strawberry shortcake made with pound cake, macerated strawberries and whipped topping ($7.50), which wasn’t bad unless you need whipped cream to be happy. An order of banana nut empanadas ($8.95) was tasty once you cracked open the hard shells. It was served on a flat rimless plate and garnished carelessly, so vanilla sauce dripped off the edge even as the server set it down.
Mac’s on Hertel has certainly changed the street’s landscape and added an interesting dining space on what is becoming one of the city’s hottest dining strips. With more staff training and kitchen fine-tuning, perhaps the experience can rise to match the views.
Mac’s on Hertel - 6
Newly added second-story patio tables offer a new view of dining on Hertel Avenue.
WHERE: 1435 Hertel Ave., 833-6227
HOURS: 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $7.50-$15.75; sandwiches and burgers, $11-$15.75; entrees, $12.75-$29.50.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.