If every museum served draft beer and a fish fry, they might be as crowded as the Parkside Meadow on Friday nights.
The tavern across from the Buffalo Zoo reopened last year after being lovingly rehabilitated. Restored isn’t the right word, because in some ways it’s better than ever. Like other neighbors, Leonard Mattie and Nancy Abramo cringed at the besotted teens and short-lived restaurants the building drew.
When they got the chance they bought it, spent three years fixing it up, and adorned it with Mattie’s collection of Buffalo paraphernalia. Not Bills gear, but stuff from the real glory years, when Buffalo, titan of industry, was a Top 10 American city. Surrounded by emblems of Buffalo’s faded might, you can be forgiven for wondering what rebirth would look like, exactly.
The menu’s core is standard Buffalo tavern fare, with a healthy crop of outliers. Appetizers start at wings ($11.95/$18.95), stuffed peppers ($9.95) and poutine ($7.95), but also an artichoke-eggplant empanada ($5.95) and shrimp dumplings ($9.95). Sandwiches include Italian beef ($11.95) topped with giardiniera, and shaved lamb ($14.95).
Entrees feature pastas, meatloaf ($15.95), pot roast ($16.95), salmon ($17.95) and rock lobster macaroni and cheese ($16.95).
Fish fry season has been expanded from its Friday base to include Thursday, with Cajun broiled and caper mayonnaise broiled ($12.95) versions in addition to the Buffalo classic, fried in beer batter ($13.95).
After you order, get up and wander around with your drink, or its full splendor may evade you. The collection of painstakingly assembled Buffalo tchotchkes runs from whiskey jugs to carnival fliers and period photos, with glass-topped tables lined with everyday ephemera like filigreed grocery receipts filled out with fountain pen.
The salt and pepper shakers are made of Visniak’s cherry soda bottles and the like. The bar holds elaborate collections of things like milk bottle tops and restaurant matchbooks (Club 31: “Not Responsible For Your Hat, Coat or Girl”). Beneath an ad for a Larkin Chautauqua desk, there is an actual Larkin Chautauqua desk, complete with a patterned curtain Mattie sewed.
“This is what TGI Friday’s tries to do, but this is real,” a guest said.
Shrimp dumplings made it to the table just after I did. Five deep-fried potstickers stuffed with chopped shrimp and vegetables, with sweet soy dip, were a satisfying Asian snack that stepped outside tavern standards. So did the eggplant-artichoke empanada, which offered a lovely pastry shell but left tasters frowning at a bitter note in the mashed filling.
Chicken wings are “tossed as spicy as you like,” the menu said. We like medium, and ordered them that way, but got wings that were mild by Buffalo standards. They were plenty crispy, though, with proper fresh-cut carrot sticks and celery. Fluffy, warm pretzel rods ($5.95) topped with salt crystals hit the spot, torn apart and dunked in accompanying creamy cheese sauce.
The fish fry was decent, plenty of haddock in a crackly coating, but the coleslaw was bland. I liked the haddock baked with a mayonnaise caper topping better, flaky fish with rich bites punctuated by briny capers.
A farfalle pasta in leek mushroom cream ($11.95) was my favorite dish of the night, firm pasta in a sauce permeated with the onion sweetness of sautéed leeks and aromatic earthiness of shiitake mushrooms.
I did a doubletake when rock lobster mac and cheese ($16.95) arrived, as I was expecting lobster meat in a cheesy pasta matrix. Blame me for not remembering that rock lobster tails can be the size of medium shrimp, though richer in flavor. We got five, and rationed them out, with a helping of the farfalle pasta, which was dressed in cream sauce but less gooey than the “mac and cheese” label led me to expect.
Pot roast was a satisfying plate of medium-tender beef rounds, mashed potatoes, gravy and sautéed fresh spinach. The shaved lamb sandwich piled moist meat topped with Havarti cheese and spearmint-garlic aioli between griddled sourdough bread. The combination was a bit greasy, but I kept eating, for the lamb. The housemade potato chips were terrific.
Dessert was cannoli ($4.95) with a properly crunchy shell, but filling that tasted mostly of confectioner’s sugar, and a puck-shaped round of peanut butter mousse sandwiched between chocolate layers ($3.95), whose nutty-sweet character had spoons scrabbling until it was gone.
I wish the food moved me as much as the surroundings. On the bright side, the restaurant’s owners already have done the hardest part. They have assembled a deep and diverse collection that evokes Buffalo’s past, and proven their commitment by building the right kind of venue to display it properly. Fine-tuning the menu is relatively simple. Surrounded by remnants of the past, I could not resist looking forward to Parkside Meadow’s future.
Parkside Meadow - 7 plates (out of 10)
Neighborhood restaurant combines enjoyable features of museum, old-school Buffalo tavern.
WHERE: 2 Russell St. (834-8348)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday brunch. Closed Tuesday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads, $4.95-$18.95; sandwiches, $9.95-$14.95; entrees, $8.95-$17.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.