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Best-kept secret downtown: Where to get lunch deals like steak, 2 sides for $12

School food doesn’t usually get rave reviews.

But there are two places to eat weekday lunch in downtown Buffalo where students do the cooking – and customers share the best-kept lunch secrets in town.

At Emerson Commons, 70 W. Chippewa St., and the Statler dining rooms at Erie Community College’s City and North campuses, the classroom and the cafeteria are the same place.

That’s why you can find a restaurant in downtown Buffalo serving up a 12-ounce grilled New York strip steak, crunchy frizzle-fried onions and two sides for $11.95.

To be sure, the Monday hot special at Emerson Commons was waiting for customers in a steam table pan, not grilled to order, and had to be eaten with plastic cutlery.

But it had a decent char from the grill, while still blushing pink inside, tender enough that steel wasn’t needed. And it was a budget meal, costing as much as a submarine sandwich.

High school students, attending Buffalo Public School 32, also known as Emerson School of Hospitality, staff the cafeteria-style restaurant under the watchful eyes of adult faculty members. The school, created more than 50 years ago, was backed by Board of Education members, including Peter Gust Economou, the famed Park Lane host and owner.

There’s about 400 students in the program, and it’s been considered successful enough that Buffalo Schools opened a second Emerson culinary program, expected to move into its new building at 75 W. Huron St. next year.

The Chippewa Street location draws a steady crowd of regulars for piping-hot soups like an Italian Wedding loaded with greens, Romano cheese and quarter-sized meatballs, for $3.67 a pint. Cheddar broccoli quiche in a sturdy, buttery crust was one cent more.

The deals start at breakfast, with a Canadian bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin going for $2.76, or an egg and cheese breakfast burrito with peppers and onions for $4.14.

Besides steak on Monday the week I visited, Tuesday brought seafood manicotti with two sides ($10.95), Wednesday brought roast leg of lamb with two sides ($10.95), or crab cakes with two sides ($11.95) on Friday.

Perhaps you are in the mood for something snazzier. Eight blocks away, at the Erie Community College City Campus, students can make lunch a fine affair.

Hidden inside the grand towers of the former Post Office, the E.M. Statler Dining Room offers white-tablecloth dining in a serene wood-lined room. With full place settings and attentive student servers, it serves up a reasonable facsimile of the restaurant experience, except for the absence of alcohol.

Erie Community College culinary student Alicia Barker-Smith creates a dish as associate professor Dorothy Johnston watches in the kitchen of the E.M. Statler Dining Room on the Erie Community College City Campus. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

The menu changes week to week as students take turns donning the chef’s mantle. A recent week saw Mexican fare take over the menu. Dishes included guacamole prepared tableside to diners’ precise specification. That’s a move we haven’t seen in this town since Sole, and it cost all of $3.25.

Chicken Monterey ($8.25), grilled breast adorned with melted cheese and crispy bacon, and sides of roasted heirloom carrots and fresh-cut black bean pico de gallo, arrived decorated with scarlet nasturtium blossoms, for a beautiful peppery accent.

Dish after dish clocked in at a dollar or two less than you can find it elsewhere in town. Truth be told, even a restaurant critic couldn’t tell you why it’s cheaper based on the food and service offered by the Statler Room students, who are in their second year of the culinary associate’s degree.

Other weeks during the semester have featured Caribbean, Californian and New England cuisine. Regulars know to get on the email list to see the weekly menus, and call for reservations.

There’s a similar room at the North Campus called the Statler Erie Room, which also has rotating weekly theme menus. It also offers dinner Wednesday nights.

In November, when Savor, the restaurant at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute gets back into serving customers while training students, culinary deal-seekers will have even more opportunities to change their ideas of what a school lunch can mean.

Erie Community College culinary student Shakilah Gordon takes a reservation while managing the front-of-the-house at the E.M. Statler Dining Room on the Erie Community College City Campus. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Where students do the cooking

Emerson Commons: 70 W. Chippewa St. Open 7 to 10:20 a.m., 11:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

E.M. Statler Dining Room, Erie Community College City Campus: 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Private parties, up to 45 guests, can be accommodated during regular hours. No credit cards accepted. For reservations, call 851-1092.

Statler Erie Room, Spring Student Center, Erie Community College North Campus: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for fine dining; 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday for dinner. For reservations, call 851-1381.

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