A neighborhood tavern can’t construct history. It either exists in the walls, floorboards and foundation, or it doesn’t.
This is not some revelation. It’s been noted in this space on maybe too many occasions, but seems applicable for reiteration as Buffalo’s bar scene continues to be enhanced by new and renewed locales.
For the latter, the trick seems to be to update the expanse for the modern drinker and diner, but not at the expense of the charm and authenticity that’s embraced patrons for decades.
For example of an expert transition, see Adolf’s Old First Ward Tavern. With its ongoing expansion of indoor and outdoor customer comforts—while staying true to the feel and function of its nearly 85-year-old environs—it’s established itself as the neighborhood nook its evolving First Ward stretch needs.
Opened by Adolf Baron in 1934 and taken over by South Buffalo native Mike Burns in 2014, the locale checks all the boxes for a bar in a traditionally Irish stretch known to outsiders for its Shamrock Run, raucous St. Patrick’s Day parade, and proximity to the grain elevators along the Buffalo River.
Celtic regalia and green are strewn throughout a working-class bar and walk-up dining room; old leprechaun-emblazoned football jerseys hang above weathered wood paneling; and its upper trim is lined with generations of old beer cans, a nod to the city’s prolific drinking past.
When Burns came onto the scene, he removed drop panels to reveal an original tin ceiling and refinished the bar’s classic wooden bar top. As major an aesthetic improvement as this was, it was just the start of his plan to create a new Adolf’s, one that stayed trued to its historic vibe while embracing a new future for its address and surrounding neighborhood.
Today, that plan has advanced significantly. More than 40 bottled beers now join the tavern’s properly poured pints of Guinness.
Nightly games are featured on its collection of large televisions placed throughout the locale; live music appears on occasion in its barroom corner or the back of its dining room; and an updated kitchen is now churning out orders of its secret-recipe wings (10 for $12), the smashed-potato perfection of its Tavern Colcannon ($4), and the Old School Sandwich ($8), featuring thickly cut slices of Wardynski’s liverwurst, Weber’s mustard and onion—perfect for those who don’t care about their health or halitosis.
Of all the changes to Adolf’s, the biggest may be the continuing development of its rear patio area. Initially established when Burns and Co. tore down a dilapidated 800-square-foot home behind its address, it’s now a clandestine, fenced-in space for casual dining, epic games of cornhole (on personalized tri-colored Adolf’s targets), or a day’s worth of backyard lounging under a canopy of shading trees.
It’s still a work in progress, but its allure is in the surprise of it all, that such an outdoor space could be concealed behind such a nondescript locale that’s initially impresses with its old school charm.
But once again, it’s all part of the plan to build on Adolf’s time-tested tavern charm and connection to the First Ward. Burns wants the place to be that bastion for the neighborhood, a place for singles, families and dogs (albeit outside in the back) to enjoy as a piece of a resurgent Buffalo landscape.
It already is. And building off its own history as an understated city-set beacon, it’s getting even better.
555 South Park Ave. (248-2968)
Hours: noon to 2 a.m. daily
Scene: Classic neighborhood tavern updated to accommodate outdoor drinking and dining, family gatherings and post-Shamrock Run pints.
Evolving outdoor enclave: Rear and loose stone-surfaced patio space provides surprise spot for meals and beers, and is being added onto annually by ownership.
Happy Hour: 5 to 8 p.m. Fridays, with spontaneous list of house-determined shot and craft beer specials.
Parking: Spots on South Park and surrounding streets.
Don’t forget to: Admire the tavern’s vast array of classic beer cans and trays, displayed above the barroom.