As clock hands count down to 2018’s closing time, take a moment to give thanks for the people whose literal blood, sweat and tears allows you to eat out.
The longer I study restaurants, the less I understand how any succeed. The combination of business smarts, personnel management, regulatory compliance consulting, and emergency plumbing repair it takes to operate a successful, legal restaurant boggles my brain.
That’s without even mentioning the cooking, cleaning, and tray-balancing that is the bread and butter of the thousands of Western New Yorkers who serve our bread and butter. Through fire, boiling oil, and knives in the kitchen, through blizzards, food-allergy-fakers and caterwauling children out front, restaurant workers make dinner happen daily.
With that in mind, I’d like to take stock of what this year meant to our collective menu. Restaurant openings have slowed from the gold-rush torrent that characterized recent years, but there were significant additions to and subtractions from the dining landscape.
Since southern Italian standout Sinatra’s first opened its doors 37 years ago, you might insist that doesn’t belong on a list of 2018’s notable new restaurants. Step inside Michael Sinatra’s bigger, brighter space, across Kenmore Avenue from its old location, and the argument fizzles. Spot-on cooking from beans to braciole to bananas Foster and deft service made Sinatra’s my only 10-plate can’t-top-this find of the year.
Nine plates signals a restaurant that delivers extraordinary results on the regular. That’s what I found at Prescott’s Provisions, on the Erie Canal in the City of Tonawanda. Live-fire cooking under the direction of Vincent Thompson, distinctive dishes at reasonable prices, made the difference here. Try the aged duck and housemade panettone dessert.
On Seneca Street in Buffalo, my other new 9-plate find was Dobutsu, from Toutant’s James Roberts. It impressed by breathing new life into familiar seafood, while not leaving carnivores behind. Try the lobster ramen and citrus pavlova.
Eight-plate reviews, indicating better-than-average places, came from new places in Amherst, where Oded and Keri Rauvenpoor are offering tastefully authentic Israeli, Lebanese, and Greek dishes at OR by Falafel Bar. In Lewiston, Ed Webster and Ken Scibetta opened a fourth outpost, Griffon House, which continues the Griffon group’s knack for interesting tavern-plus fare.
Other notable openings ranged across the map.
Food truck veterans Frank Gourmet Hot Dogs opened their first brick-and-mortar establishment, on Kenmore Avenue in Tonawanda. In Lackawanna, Stack Burger stepped up from the ranks of takeout joints to open a sit-down Abbott Road room for their in-your-face smashburgers.
On Transit Road, Novel almost tripled in size, luring pasta fans with housemade noodles and classic cocktails. In Niagara Falls, noted pizza and pasta purveyor La Hacienda survived the death of proprietor Aldo Evangelista to return under George Satarian.
On Elmwood Avenue, Root & Bloom Café gave Buffalo its first entirely plant-based restaurant. Its eclectic menu and Instagram-ready décor took the restaurant hidden in the veranda behind Elvish Fantasy Chocolate to the pages of the New York Times in six months. The owners, James Ernst and Sarah Sendlbeck, have planned a vegan "ice cream" scoop shop next door.
In Lockport, gluten-free eaters got to experience the first restaurant and bakery designed for them from the ground up. Opened by Lisa Jermyn and her husband, Tim, who have three children with celiac disease, Kith and Kin Bakeshop and Bistro offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and a broad line of baked goods.
Notable drinks expansions included Community Beer Works, which opened its taproom on 7th Street, a block southwest of Porter Avenue and Niagara Street.
On Hertel Avenue, the Lombardo family opened The Little Club, a wine bar focused on expanding Buffalo’s wine horizons, across the street from Ristorante Lombardo. Eckl’s @ Larkin opened in a vast first-floor space that opens onto Larkin Square. Labatt House opened in the Cobblestone District, calling Sabres fans with house-brewed experimental drafts.
In 2018, two families expanded from West Side Bazaar stalls to standalone restaurants, with Pah Du opening Family Thai on Tonawanda Street in Riverside, and Laotian sisters opening Gourmet Lao Foods.
A block and a half away, La Casa de Sabores gave Buffalo a Dominican spot. Yey’s Café brought Cambodian cuisine to University Heights.
The pace of Buffalo restaurant openings cooled considerably in 2018. Unfortunately the reaper did not slow his scythe.
In October we lost DiTondo’s Tavern, one of the longest-serving restaurants in the city, which served generations of customers through 114 years of family dedication. Kentucky Greg’s Hickory Pit closed its doors after decades as a barbecue mainstay, though its owners still do special order days for its most popular dishes.
Fry Baby Donuts, the Elmwood Avenue source of creatively-flavored vegan doughnuts, passed into history. So did Lait Cru Brasserie and Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile, the French spot and cheese shop in the Horsefeathers building.
Vera Pizza, a forerunner of the craft cocktail movement in Buffalo, ended its food menu and became the cocktail element, barVera, with Sun Cuisines and Newbury Salads, in the PK Eats food hall on Hertel Avenue.
Here’s some plans to whet your appetite for 2019.
In Bowmansville, Vincent Desiderio’s newly built and expanded Linguine’s should be delivering Italian favorites once the parking lot is finished. Over in Clarence, where Bar Bill North is going into the former Red Mill property on Main Street, a new generation of wing cooks will learn the Crook family’s sauce-brushing technique.
Downtown, the Buffalo edition of Hofbrauhaus, the vast German beer hall a few blocks from KeyBank Center, should be offering its schnitzel and house-brewed lager before the Sabres season ends.
On the West Side, here’s hoping the West Side Bazaar finds the site it needs to expand its immigrant-run food court and seating area. Keep another good thought for the reopening of the longtime Bocce’s location on Clinton Street, which has been delayed.
In happier pepperoni-related news, Imperial Pizza is close to opening its new sit-down restaurant. The recently finished addition to its Abbott Road location will offer table service and a menu expanded past wings to lasagna, soup and more.
Another classic Buffalo brand, Charlie the Butcher, will be carving beef on weck and more from its Elmwood Village location soon.
At 272 Hudson St., Sazon Criollo, masters of the Puerto Rican tripleta sandwich, are gone. Last week a page went up on Facebook: something called The Difference Kitchen is coming. And the beat goes on.
It has been a privilege to serve as your restaurant critic for another year. As ever, send dish recommendations, suggestions of places worth reviewing, or corrections and brickbats, to firstname.lastname@example.org, and happy eating in 2019.