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On Sycamore Street, the Happy Swallow survives on a wing and a prayer

It is hard to get others to believe him.

They say, "'Nobody works for free,'" Tom Golimowski said.

But it is true.

"Otherwise, we might not be here," Golimonski said.

By "here," he meant the East Side tavern called the Happy Swallow. Owned by his family for several decades, it has roots that go back long before that. Golimowski had to laugh as he recalled trying to explain how his relatives helped out at the tavern simply for the love.

"They've always worked for free," he said as he tended bar on a quiet weekday afternoon.

"My mother ended up helping me in the kitchen. She fried burgers and pierogi, and washed dishes. My aunts were waitresses. My children helped clear tables. My cousins, my Uncle Jim's boys, they helped."

He pointed down the bar, where his uncle Jim laughed.

"My wife's helping me. Our children and grandchildren help. They live upstairs," he said, pointing to the ceiling.

As in "Over the Tavern?"

Golimowski shrugged, affably. He has never seen the play written by Buffalo native Tom Dudzick.

Why should he? For all intents and purposes, he has lived it.

Golimowski is 60, with the kind of youthful look that just might come from doing what you love. The bar is filled with signs of happy memories. A Happy Swallow clock was a gift from a happy customer. A 1920s photo of Carl Meyer Hof is a tribute to Golimowski's old employer.

(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

In the big back room, an antique cabinet holds a kind of micro-museum. There are Simon Pure and Iroquois beer bottles, and ancient Ann Page curry powder.

The dining room's classic vintage linoleum floor includes a shuffleboard, painted on the tiles. A phone book sits on a stand, illuminated by a special light, next to a beautiful phone booth, now minus the phone.

When Tom's father, Dan Golimowski, died in 2015 from an aggressive cancer, the grief over his death was made worse by fears for the tavern's future.

Tom Golimowski thought hard about the situation, and made up his mind.

"Dad would have wanted us to keep it going," he explained, simply, late on a weekday afternoon. The family backed his decision and vowed to continue to pitch in.

A dream is realized

Fifty years ago, Dan Golimowski heard news that made his heart sing. The Happy Swallow, an old Polish tavern on the East Side, was for sale.

He had dreamed of owning a tavern. This one was perfect.

The whimsically named Happy Swallow sat on Sycamore Street, between Titus and Goodyear avenues. Historically, it was more than a tavern. It was a social club. The Happy Swallow Social Club dated to 1941, back in the era when taverns were the center of the neighborhood, celebrating weddings, First Communions, graduations, all of life's milestones.

Times had changed somewhat since 1941, but the bar's future looked bright. It was part of a bustling business strip. Folks stopped in for a beer after work. Another steady stream of customers came in thanks to nearby churches, including the lavish Church of Transfiguration and handsome St. Luke's, across the street.

Why not buy the Happy Swallow? Dan Golimowski found a couple of financial backers and approached his wife.

She nixed the idea.

"She didn't want to bring the kids up in that environment," Tom Golimowski said. "She didn't want to work in the kitchen or wash dishes. She put the kibosh on it."

The bar found another buyer. Almost 20 years passed. In 1987, Dan Golimowski was 51, working for Frontier Lumber, when again he heard the siren song: The Happy Swallow was back on the market.

This time, his wife said yes.

Life was easier. The kids were grown up. Their son Tom, in particular, could prove helpful. He had attended Emerson Vocational High School and was a professional cook, with experience at Carl Meyer's Hof, a famous German restaurant near City Hall, and at the Shebeen on the Elmwood Strip. The dream, suddenly, looked doable.

Dan Golimowski, joined by his son, bought the tavern.

"When we first opened, we'd have bands here -- showers, Communions, weddings," Tom Golimowski said. "In the summer, we'd have parties with a steak dinner. We had parties on New Year's Eve.

"A lot of other taverns were still open. And businesses. And churches, like Transfiguration and St. Luke's."

Tom and Paula Golimowski, owners of the Happy Swallow. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A rare survivor

After just a few New Year's Eve parties, though, change crept in.

The business strip evaporated, leaving empty storefronts. The families who over the decades had celebrated milestones at the Happy Swallow moved away.

(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

In 1993, the tavern was dealt a double blow when the Buffalo diocese instituted a round of church closings. The once affluent Transfiguration closed, and was to devolve into a decayed shell. St. Luke's closed, too. It all but spelled doom for the little tavern across the street.

The Golimowskis stayed put and hoped for the best. Miraculously, the Happy Swallow survived, give or take a broken window or two.

The tavern took on a modest celebrity as a rare survivor. Marty Biniasz and Eddy Dobosiewicz, who run Forgotten Buffalo tours, brought buses there. The Happy Swallow became an official Dyngus Day venue.

Dan Golimowski reveled in his role as the heart and soul of the place.

"He was great. He was a bartender's bartender," Dobosiewicz said. "He gambled. He told off-color jokes. He would remember what you drank."

A tiny urn behind the bar holds a few of Dan Golimowski's ashes.

"He's a lot of fun on Ash Wednesday," Dobosiewicz jived. "Oh, come on," he soothed a horrified listener. "He would have loved that joke."

An album holds vintage photos of the old Happy Swallow Social Club, with sports teams posing in their official Happy Swallow jerseys. As Golimowski leafs through it, a couple of neighborhood women stop in to buy lottery tickets. The lottery machine at the Happy Swallow gets a frequent workout.

Like going back in time

The tavern is open weekdays for happy hour. Friday is the only day the kitchen is open. The Friday fish fry is popular.

On a recent Friday, it was like going back in time.

Longtime regulars bellied up to the bar. Neighborhood folks dropped in for dinner. A couple of nuns, one who appeared to be in her early 20s, were joining friends for a fish fry in the dining room. The nuns wore habits.

The menu is the kind of old-fashioned menu that is hard to find now. Grilled cheese on white or rye for $4.25. Twenty chicken wings, $16.95. With french fries, $18.25.

Mackayla Pearce. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Tyskie and Zywiec are on hand, along with a variety of plebeian beers and generic house wines, including Lambrusco and Red Moscato. Seven bucks will buy your basic pitcher of pop.

Golimowski's uncle Jim was bartending. Paula and Tom were squeezed into the tiny kitchen, laboring over the blackened Vulcan stove. The heat was on. Glimpsing Dobosiewicz, Golimowski looked askance.

"He's not bringing a bus in here right now, is he?" he said. "Tell me he's not bringing a bus in here."

Two granddaughters, Mackayla and Alyssa Pearce, hovered outside the kitchen, ready to carry fish fries to tables. What's it like to live over the Happy Swallow?

"It's cool," Alyssa said.

The old corner tavern

Michelle Matuszewski was at the bar with friends, enjoying a beer.

"I would never go anywhere else for a fish fry," she said. "A friend brought me here for a fish fry 15 years ago. Ever since then I have never had a fish fry anywhere else."

John Saniewski, a few seats down, seconded that view.

"I've been hanging around here 12 years," said Saniewski, who lives five blocks from the tavern. "I just like the old friends I made. I came in as an outsider, and I met these guys."

He introduced his relatives to the bar, and they love it. "My niece and nephew live in Alden, and they still come in for the fish fry."

Could happy days return to the Happy Swallow?

Historic taverns have been known to find a new lease on life. But old corner taverns are disappearing, and the few that are left are on borrowed time.

Jim Golimowski tends bar. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

It is possible -- likely, Dobosiewicz would hazard -- the East Side will share in Buffalo's renaissance, thanks to the growing medical campus. Until that happens, the challenge is to hold onto the neighborhood's treasures -- the homes, the churches, and, yes, the taverns.

Golimowski admits that things continue to be an uphill climb.

"A lot of the old good-timers died. You don't replace them, once they go," he said.

But for now, every day is a victory. His father's dream is alive, and well.

He said, "I try to stay positive and think things will get better."

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