Let your imagination take wing. In other words, picture yourself in the Anchor Bar, at the corner of Main and North streets.
Where in the time-honored tavern would you find the following oddments?
A phone booth.
An autographed picture of former Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director Michael Tilson Thomas.
A scull, and the oars to go with it.
An antique baby carriage.
A Coca-Cola car.
The Statue of Liberty holding up a platter of wings.
A poster hyping World War II savings stamps.
Can’t picture these things? Don’t know where they are? If this scavenger hunt stumps you, there’s a reason.
The Anchor Bar, like the aroma of deep fat that surrounds it, is part of the air that we breathe. We have all heard the story of how its erstwhile owners, Frank and Teressa Bellissimo, invented the chicken wing here in the early 1960s. We love how that innovation has earned us a place on the world’s culinary stage.
But to appreciate the Anchor Bar’s subtleties, we have to see it through newcomers’ eyes.
It feels like a destination, this rambling old restaurant. Chains try in vain to match its gritty, picturesque clutter. The hundreds of license plates, the countless photos of jazz musicians, the nine motorcycles we counted overhead – this collection can only have grown organically, over the decades.
Opened around 1940, the Anchor Bar has a World War II-era look that is rare. The grand piano sits on a ship-shaped bandstand. It gets tuned every three weeks, and played on the weekends. Nautical artifacts, culled from who knows what Great Lakes freighters, are so big that you don’t notice them.
Then there’s the gift shop. It sells hot sauce by the gallon. Or you can buy a key chain adorned with a disturbingly realistic plastic chicken wing.
And here is the best thing about the Anchor Bar: Travelers love finding places where locals go. They find that here. Blacks and whites come here. So do Canadians. On one evening, the BPO played at a nearby church. After the concert, audience and musicians gathered at the Anchor Bar. The corners were full of instrument cases. It was all completely unplanned.
My father came here, decades before I did. He and my Uncle James would listen to the jazz. I did, too. I loved Dodo Greene, who had sung with Cab Calloway and been featured in Jet magazine. As she sang her raucous last set, the chef would emerge in his chef’s hat, and dance with the hostess and the waitresses.
The Anchor Bar is more than the birthplace of the chicken wing. It is the soul of Buffalo.
One recent weekday, not quite lunch and not quite dinner, Buffalo guys bellied up to the vintage, wooden bar, eating wings. Tourists showed up too.
Two out-of-town couples – Dan and Susan Sufak of Pittsburgh, and Tony and Pam Sufak of Colorado Springs, Colo., explained that this was their second visit. Their first had been two days earlier.
On that initial occasion, they were puzzling over the extensive menu when a local at the next table got involved.
He told them, “Get a beef on weck and two orders of wings.”
They asked: “Are you sure?”
To their shock, the Buffalonian banged on the table.
“Of course I’m sure!” he bellowed.
They took his advice, with a wing and a prayer. And they were glad they did.
“We came back,” they said, “because it was so good.”