Since my 16-year-old self started visiting Buffalo bars, Coles has always been there, looming in the background of my eating and drinking life. Especially the drinking. That could lead to eating, but not usually, as I rarely believed I had enough money for both, relying instead on the nutritional content of barley and hops.
Coming through that battered front door and seeing the college banners, the boat in the rafters, and those chandeliers made me dread the claustrophobic men's room, and I hadn't even had a drink yet. The room is dressed in a patina of genuine history and shared memories that chain restaurants try, but fail, to ape.
It made me miss Anacone's Inn, my most formative bar, long closed, more than I have in a long time. Reviewing Coles feels like describing the foliage on Mount Marcy. It may change from season to season, but the mountain will always be there.
The beer is better than ever. The influence of third-generation saloon keeper and craft evangelist Mike Shatzel, whose father David bought Coles in 1973, shows in a draft beer selection 36 taps deep. Labatt and Guinness aren't the only international choices anymore, and the menu scrolls by on a flat-screen television over the mahogany bar.
The food menu has evolved as well. After going from wings and burgers to ambitiously include dishes like shrimp skewers with mango dipping sauce in the mid-2000s, the menu has settled firmly into the upgraded tavern zone.
The lineup is far from cliché, though. Seated in the side room, with a floor-to-ceiling view of the construction site across Elmwood Avenue, I had a look at the latest menu. Sesame-crusted tuna on a field greens salad with crispy wonton strips and ginger-soy vinaigrette ($15) joins Caesar ($12-$15 depending on chicken, salmon or steak toppings) and Buffalo-chicken-topped wedge ($11) salads.
Mahi mahi fish tacos ($15) come with roasted corn salsa and avocado cream.
The menu lists 15 sandwiches, including some off-speed pitches. A Korean-sauced chicken thigh with kimchi ($13, featured image) is as far afield as Coles goes these days.
There's 10 burgers, not limited to beef. One of the best bites of the night was a burger of Colorado lamb ($14), topped with tzatziki, feta, arugula, red onion and olive salad. The briny, garlicky side players elevated its lamb foundation into a classic Greek chorus.
Reuben bites ($9) was another creative dish. Bronzed fritters the size of tater tots, filled with corned beef and sauerkraut, delivered the taste of the time-honored sandwich in a single bite, especially when dipped in the provided Thousand Island dressing.
A hair, spotted before eating, spoiled a plate of buttermilk calamari ($11), but our observant server saved the day by whisking it away with apologies, removing it from the bill, and providing a swift replacement. It was excellent, even though it was all rings, a light, golden crust around tender cephalopod, with an array of dips, including lime or garlic aioli and Korean sweet chili sauce.
That sauce was used to devastating effect on Korean chicken wings, which the kitchen sent out by way of apology. Authentic Korean fried chicken isn't just a kicky chile-garlic-sesame sauce, it's extraordinarily crunchy from double-frying. These crackly-skinned wings measured up, providing a compulsively snacky spin on the classic wing.
Coles thoughtfully offers a wing side (five for $6.50) with burgers, so I also tried Sicilian wings. The sauce is described as Italian and Caesar dressing, Parmesan cheese and lemon, all things I dig, but it reminded me most of creamy Italian dressing.
A Jiffy burger ($16) with peanut butter, cheddar and bacon was a nutty burger bite, but could have used a hit of habanero jelly or something to break through the tastebud-coating peanut butter. Burgers come with decent fries, but the fat onion rings are worth the $2 upcharge.
An Eichel burger ($15) was loaded with maple candied bacon, Canadian bacon, American and cheddar cheeses, a worthy sweet-salty-smoky combination, albeit dry from an overcooked patty. The fries came with poutine, whose lumpy gravy was not warm enough to melt the cheese curds.
A pot roast sandwich ($13) scored, though. Heaps of spoon-tender braised beef on a toasted roll, topped with caramelized onions, cheddar and kicky horseradish mayonnaise, was hand-held comfort.
An entrée of pan-seared salmon ($19) was well-crusted, moist and lifted by a mustard sauce. The asparagus needed to be trimmed of their woody ends, and the rice was mushy.
Coles' desserts are better than tavern standards. Maple pecan cheesecake ($6) was fluffy instead of the usual cream-cheese consistency, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Peanut butter pie ($6) soared with nutty mousse crowned with chocolate ganache.
At our table in the side room, noise threatened conversation until the crowd thinned out. But that's to be expected for a popular tavern, which is what Coles is – albeit one with a wider-than-usual range of good food. Solid enough to be a dinner stop, not just a drinking destination. Coles' best feature may be its sense of history, but its measured evolution heralds a bright future.
Coles – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 1104 Elmwood Ave. (886-1449)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday with brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: appetizers, $8-$15; sandwiches and burgers, $10.50-$15; and entrees, $14-$24.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: sandwich rolls available.