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Closing of Eckl’s in Orchard Park end of an era

Dale Eckl Jr. was standing at the carving station Thursday, slicing through juicy rounds of beef at whip speed and piling it onto fresh kimmelweck. It was the same station where his father, Dale Sr., had stood seven days a week for nearly 50 years, running their namesake restaurant and making sure there was an Eckl behind every beef on weck.

The wood-paneled room in Orchard Park was packed. Every seat at the half-circle bar was taken. Two women sipped drinks in chairs wedged under the coat rack as they waited for a table.

This was where Dale Jr., now 46, grew up, learning to help in the kitchen and perfecting his carving skills. It’s where his sister, Denise Heinen, tended bar for years, serving up Cokes and Labatt Blues and raspberry sours to a steady flow of regulars.

It was where their parents, Shirley and Dale Eckl Sr., wove a tavern that dates to the 19th century into the heart of Orchard Park.

And it was where, on Saturday, the family served up their final roast beef. Customers, some with tales of marriage proposals and Christmas Eve traditions, arrived before the doors opened in the final weeks as word got out that Eckl’s Restaurant would close.

“We’ve all come back to say goodbye,” said Judy Schueler, who sat at a corner table Thursday with her husband, Bruce “Ziggy” Schueler, and their neighbors, Jim and Brenda Larivey. The Lariveys had their first date there and, Brenda said, have “been inseparable ever since.”

Eckl’s was a Southtowns staple, but there have been a lot of these goodbyes lately. The Nortel Grill on Hertel Avenue will close this week. The 162-year-old Marilla Grill was set to close Sunday. Milano’s, Sterling Place Tavern, Earl’s – the list goes on.

The decisions do not come easily for the families behind these restaurants. For Dale and Shirley Eckl, who are nearing their 80s, it was time to retire. The family has worked year-round for decades, closing only on Christmas and Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday. They closed only once during the Blizzard of ’77 and would have stayed open during last year’s November storms if it hadn’t been for the driving ban.

Now closed for good, Eckl’s is up for sale. The news rippled far from Western New York. “Sad news,” read the subject line of an email Carolyn Curley got from her oldest daughter a few weeks ago. The daughter lives in the Potomac area and had just heard the restaurant planned to close. “What are we going to do now?” the email read. Another daughter had 250 wings from Eckl’s brought to her rehearsal dinner in Alexandria Bay a few years ago.

Part of the charm was that it managed to feel the same all these years. The staples – prime rib, fish fry, wings – stayed. Signed portraits of Bill Polian, Marv Levy and Jim Kelly greeted customers. For many in town, it was still a regular stop. For ex-pats, it was a place that still felt like home.

“Truth be told, I’m getting letters from people all over the United States who moved away from Orchard Park,” said Shirley Eckl, who wanted to be sure to thank all the customers and staff. “It’s unbelievable.”

Many who showed up before the restaurant opened Thursday to get a table seemed not ready to believe it was done. As the line trickled in, one woman said to her friends, “I don’t know where we’re all going to go after this closes.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com

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