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Free Street Tavern on Buffalo's West Side is freedom with cocktails, panini

Joshua White paid his dues as a Buffalo bartender for the last 15 years, preparing drinks at Hemingway's, Encore, Thirsty Buffalo and, most recently, Roost.

The bartender profession eventually wore on White, who tired of picking up coworkers' slack while simultaneously lacking the authority to improve his circumstances.

When his friends – former Thirsty Buffalo regulars – purchased and gutted the 8,400-square-foot, four-story building at Niagara Street and Potomac Avenue over the last few years, White was encouraged to open his own bar, Free Street Tavern, in a narrow section of the first floor in early November.

"I own the bar – which feels like a weird thing to say," said White, new to the role. It's very much a one-man enterprise, at least in the early going, but that's fine with White.

A look at the main bar area of Free Street Tavern on one of its first days of business. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

White's bar name hearkens back to the warmth and hospitality from childhood visits to his grandmother's house on Free Street, in Portland, Maine, his early stomping grounds before spontaneously moving to Buffalo after his brother got a job at Tyson in 2003.

Free Street Tavern food menu

The food menu for Free Street Tavern on Niagara Street. Please click to expand. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

"Everybody has that thing that reminds them of a better time, it could be an old movie, it could be a couch pattern, the smell of a Sunday sauce or a certain set of dinnerware," White said, describing how nostalgia might resonate with customers. "I want people to get that feeling when they come into Free Street."

White sees the new tavern – adorned with gorgeous brick walls, five TVs showing mostly sports and a series of throwback Oxford Pennants – as his opportunity to craft his own friendly, low-key neighborhood bar. The music is low, conversation is easy, and the relatively small space, with roughly 20 bar seats, has thus far proved more cozy than cramped.

Given the development of Niagara Street – thanks in part to Resurgence Brewing Co. and White's former employer, Roost – smaller enterprises such as Sports City Pizza Pub and now Free Street are valuable, complementary nightlife options for those moving into the high-end apartments that now dot the thoroughfare.

White's evolving drink list hinges on classic cocktails that touch a range of spirits including bourbon, gin, rum, tequila and vodka. Manhattans, margaritas, old fashioneds, cosmos and mules are among the options, primarily drinks that "have been around at least 100 years," White said.

Although the room isn't conducive to installing taps, the bottled and canned beer choices range between domestic (all around $4) and local, with 42 North, Resurgence and Blackbird Cider represented, plus regional breweries Southern Tier and Genesee. Red and white wine is poured, too.

Crockpot dinner free street tavern macaroni and cheese

The Crockpot Dinner, $10, was macaroni and cheese on a recent Friday at Free Street Tavern. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

There's no space for a kitchen, either, but White has adapted. Free Street offers a range of panini grilled on a press at the far end of the bar, and the new bar owner hasn't taken shortcuts on ingredients.

He sources baguettes from Pastry by Camille on Hertel and rolls from trusty Costanzo's for the foundations of his panini, which include a pulled pork banh mi, hard-to-find muffaletta (ham, salami, capicola, olive tapenade), caprese, Cuban and Buffalo chicken.

There's a rotating "crockpot dinner," too – most recently a macaroni and cheese dish heightened with thick, toothsome noodles and two pieces of toast to ensure no cheese goes homeless. Expect more stick-to-your-bones meals as winter approaches.

While the drink menu and food concept are still being fine-tuned, White is off to a positive start. His affable nature honed from years as a bartender makes the customer feel comfortable, a vital trait for a neighborhood bar.

Free Street Tavern

1469 Niagara St.

Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Soft opened in early November.

Free Street Tavern Niagara Street

The outside of Free Street Tavern, with its newly painted red door. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

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