Sections of Buffalo's Washington Street can seem desolate in the winter.
Parking garages and transitioning storefronts dot downtown blocks. Blackened snow piles along sidewalks. Lakefront winds numb walkers or deter workers from venturing outside. And after the 5 o'clock whistle wails, the mass exodus of employees can paint the stretch lonely and dark, even as the illuminated Electric Tower hovers overhead.
This makes Washington Street’s Angelica Tea Room all the more important. Vibrant, alluring and accommodating, the craft cocktail refuge is an ideal escape for those looking for shelter from the storm—along with a few exotic beverages not typically attached to the Queen City experience.
“When people come in here, we want them to feel like they’ve been transported to another place,” said Rachel Herman-Gross, bar manager at Angelica. “We’re not after a sense of otherworldliness, but we’d like you to feel like you’ve left downtown Buffalo … at least for a little bit.”
Opened last July in the former Club Diablo space by already successful bar owners Jon Karel (Buffalo Proper) and Harry Zemsky (Hydraulic Hearth), the inventive locale is a unique retreat, whether for its neighborhood, among its fellow cocktail-focused brethren, or for Buffalo as a whole. Floral wallpaper lines walls that stand adjacent to antique chandeliers and shelves made from discarded ladders.
Sitting room furniture stands in for typical leather-lined booths; and bar spots are illuminated with miniature oil lamps, intermingling against ordered shots of spirits and liqueurs served in “Alice in Wonderland”-appropriate teacups.
It’s an intricately constructed ambiance meant to soothe guests from the doldrums of their days, but also to immerse them in Angelica’s overarching concept of introducing early 20th century-era flavors inside a unique atmosphere. Herman-Gross - a West Side native trained inside the Brooklyn cocktail haunts of Post Office and OTB - said Angelica aims to emulate the thrill of a post-Prohibition America.
At that time, career bartenders previously banished from a dry landscape returned home with the inventive cocktail recipes they learned abroad, then infused the stateside landscape with previously unknown nuances and flavors more elaborate than the traditional brown booze, bitters and water fare.
Today, many of these flavors—with such players like absinthe, juniper-flavored genever or Italian liqueur amaro in the mix—are being weaved into Angelica’s cocktails and new menu, due for reveal on Feb. 1. Their predominance will join Tea Room favorites like its cognac-accented Manhattan and gin-based Bramble (both $10) as ample reason for those not typically submerged in the modern cocktail scene to at least take a dip.
The Angelica encourages such nascent exploration. Its current menu is purposely scant on details to encourage conversations between bartenders and patrons about ingredients and personal preferences. Herman-Gross and Co. want to introduce the uninitiated to the plethora of possibilities available in a glass, much like those trailblazing Prohibition-era barkeeps sprung upon the traditional “if it’s brown, drink it down” set.
And with every new drink or experience within their innovative oasis on Washington, Angelica’s staff are providing a delectable diversion from downtown's draft direction and cocktail convention.
“I don’t think we’re the answer to all that ails the city’s drinking culture,” said Herman-Gross, "but I definitely think we’re offering something a little bit different in terms of being a bar. We’re trying our best to do things right—and delicious.”
Address: 517 Washington St.(259-9025)
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Closed on Monday.
Scene: Vibrant and innovative cocktail cavern, hiding in plain sight along a developing section of downtown Buffalo.
Types of Scotch: 140
Ask about: Rare offerings like Four Roses' 50th Anniversary Al Young ($26 a pour), one of only 400 bottles in New York State.
Happy Hour: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, featuring $5 cocktails.
Parking: Street spots on Washington; paid lots and nearby Mohawk Garage.
Don’t forget to: Ask about the bar’s signature gin, made in collaboration with Buffalo’s Lockhouse Distillery.