WASHINGTON – For the last 28 years, there has been an enduring mantra for a crowd of Buffalo expatriates living in and around the nation’s capital: If it’s Sunday, it’s Grevey’s.
That line, of course, comes from the late Tim Russert, a South Buffalo native who, as the host of NBC’s Sunday morning show, would end each broadcast by signing off, “If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.”
But for dozens of Buffalo transplants who now call the Greater Washington area their home, watching the Buffalo Bills each Sunday at Grevey’s Restaurant and Sports Bar has become a tradition woven into the fabric of their lives.
On Dec. 11, Grevey’s had its last full day of operation, which happened to coincide with a Bills game. “I’ve been coming to watch the Bills here for every game for more than 20 years,” Edward Pozarny, 61, said. “It’s been like going to church on Sundays. It’s that kind of an observance.”
Pozarny is one of many who are expressing similar lamentations.
“Losing Grevey’s is like losing a part of my family,” Christine Skroback, a 43-year-old from Olean, said. “I think you can probably count on both hands how many Bills games in the years since we started coming here that we have not watched here,” said Barbara Privitera, 74, who sits in the same seats every week with her longtime partner, Sandy Seim, 72.
Since 1988, the Merrifield, Va., establishment has been a home for hundreds of D.C.-based Bills fans. But after it’s owner, Kevin Grevey, a former NBA star for the Washington Bullets, was unable to “renegotiate a favorable lease” with his landlord, the bar closed down after a 37-year run – an increasing rarity for small, independent restaurants. Grevey’s landlord told him he intends to turn the space into two separate units to host national chains inside the shopping center.
“I may never have made this finish line of 37 years if it wasn’t for the Buffalo Bills and our fans who have come here for all these years,” Grevey, 63, said. “It’s fitting that it’s all ending on a Bills game.”
Grevey’s Sunday patrons were a disparate group who have shared the games together for years – and all the exultation and heartbreak that comes with that – and now maintain fervent emotional relationships.
One of the regulars, Joseph Sorce, who goes by the nickname “The Don,” parked himself at the same table every week with the same same group of guys. They referred to themselves – and were recognized by the others there – as “The Brotherhood.”
A 59-year-old real estate agent, Sorce began coming to Grevey’s alone, shortly after moving from Kenmore, in 1991. But he quickly made some lasting bonds after Charles Castellana, 66, a retired communications executive, underwent a vertigo attack during a home opener against the New England Patriots; it was Sorce who noticed he was sick and rushed him to the hospital.
Sorce, Castellana and Pozarny sat together and were part of the core Bills fans who kept the place rollicking on Sundays.
Pozarny is a preternaturally exuberant Buffalo native who, when he’s not watching Bills games, specializes in the human foot. It surprised Sorce and Castellana to discover years ago that this fist-bumping Bills fan who they hardly knew was an esteemed podiatrist.
“After the Bills would make a play or score a touchdown, this guy was jumping up and down and dancing and singing the Bills Shout Song and screaming in people’s faces,” said Sorce, who now considers Pozarny one of his closest friends. “Then I learned, it turns out he’s a doctor.”
Indeed, going to Grevey’s was seeing what it’s like to watch grown men and women lose themselves like children to the thrills of the game. When the Bills scored, the energy could be felt throughout the restaurant’s walls; when the opposing team scored, as the Steelers did more times than the Bills managed to on Sunday, there were moans and groans and then a quiet whisper that radiated.
Together they may simply have watched Bills games, but in a deeper way, they embarked on a shared journey that forced them to remain defiant in the midst of a cruel fate. Despite the Bills suffering the longest current playoff drought in professional sports, these same fans kept showing up every week.
But it’s not just a special communion that developed amid these Buffalo expats. Generations of Bills fans have been raised here.
Bruce Markowitz, 62, grew up off of Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo. But after graduating law school and settling down in the Maryland suburbs, he raised his two children to follow the Bills by taking them to Grevey’s.
“My oldest son was 3 years old when I started taking him here, and my youngest son Eric started with he was 6 months old,” Markowitz said. “Both of them came here for every game until they left for college.”
Eric Markowitz, 25, came down from New York City where he works as a data analyst to bid farewell to his childhood hangout, the experience he credits for solidifying the fandom that runs deep inside him. He now has season tickets and treks up to Buffalo for a number of games every year.
“I’ve been coming here since I was in diapers,” he said. “This is the first place I saw the Bills break my heart. This is the first place where I saw the Bills win a football game. For me, this is my first of everything that has to do with the Bills, which for a kid from D.C., is rare.”
Looking back on his times at Grevey’s, the younger Markowitz recalls why he became so enamored with the place. “It’s easy to fall in love with the big production of all of this when you’re a kid,” he said. “If you were standing in Lot 3 outside The Ralph, or outside The Cap as it’s called now, and you took five or eight of them and you stuck them in a room here, that’s basically what you’re dealing with.”
How Grevey’s became a Bills bar
Kevin Grevey has no past affiliation with Buffalo: He was born in Cincinnati in 1953; he played college basketball for the University of Kentucky; and he played professional basketball for the Washington Bullets, for which he won a championship in 1978. But eight years after opening his restaurant, he hired a manager who was from Western New York.
In 1987, Dunkirk-native Roger Clark convinced Grevey on a business idea.
“All of these sports bars everywhere here were catering to the Redskins fans,” he said. “So I told Kevin we should concentrate on another team, and the natural choice for me was the Buffalo Bills.”
Clark, 66, promised Grevey they would see more than 50 fans show up the first day they showed a Bills game for the 1988 season. They surpassed that figure substantially, as Grevey remembers.
“We must have had 100 people,” he said. “Soon after that, we kept building and building until the whole restaurant was filled with upstate New Yorkers every Sunday.”
During the “Glory Days” years of the early 1990s, when the Bills made it to four straight Super Bowls, people frequently had to be kicked out because the place was filled beyond capacity and in violation of the fire code.
Beyond just showing the Bills games, Clark sought to entice Buffalo expats to come by bringing staples of the Queen City to them: They handed out Fowler’s sponge candy, sold Genesee Cream Ale and played polka music. Grevey’s soon became known around town as “The Buffalo Bar.”
‘The end of an era’
On Grevey’s last day, the fans had a cake made with pictures of them throughout the years and text that read, “Forever our Bills bar,” despite their collective effort to find a new place that will host them on Sundays. “We have to find a new Bills bar,” the elder Markowitz said, after the team fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-20. “It’s really the end of an era for us.”
Grevey himself hopes to reopen in a new location, somewhere in Northern Virginia, but while waiting to see if and when that happens, his regulars are coming to terms with their loss.
For those who find temporary solace when they can escape their lives for a few hours to watch a Bills game, Grevey’s had been their way to maintain a connection to Western New York, even as they have moved on geographically.
“Every time I come in here, I am reunited, in a sense, with Buffalo, with my childhood, with the values that made me who I am today,” Castellana said after the Bills loss on Sunday. “Not only do we watch the Buffalo Bills games together, but we just sort of all understand what it means to have the kind of grit and resilience that makes Buffalo what it is and that has made us who we are.”
His friend Sorce then chimed in: “That’s exactly right. Hey, it takes a certain kind of person to keep showing up here like this after 16 – and now it looks like 17 – years without making the playoffs.”
But Sorce will admit that it’s more than just football, or their devotion to the team, that kept this tradition ongoing. If it was just about seeing the Bills play, he could subscribe to the NFL Sunday Ticket and watch every game from home. It was about an environment and certain kind of community that comes from people who share a love for something distinctive.
“There is something about watching a place like this thrive for all these years,” he said. “It shows you the kind of impact Buffalo has made on our lives. We’ll spend decades coming to a shopping center bar to remain connected.”