We don't need to go to Germany for Oktoberfest. We have Ulrich's.
Ulrich's 1868 Tavern, at 674 Ellicott St., is more than Buffalo's oldest bar. Opened in 1868, it is a reminder of the days when Buffalo was a capital of beer brewing and German culture. The years when Germans -- our area's most populous ethnic group -- were visible.
The late Buffalo News columnist Ray Hill once interviewed an old woman who had grown up on Buffalo's German East Side. She said that when she was a little girl, her mother told her, "If you're ever lost, go to the nearest tavern, and ask to see the owner."
Walking into Ulrich's, you can suddenly see the sense of that advice.
Sun poured through the windows one Monday at noon. The woodwork gleamed. Ulrich's is lucky in that it has had very few owners, considering its age. Michael Ulrich owned it from 1905 to 1946. The Daley family owned it the longest, from 1955 to 2013.
All the proprietors, no matter what their personal ethnicity, have respected the bar's heritage. The current saloon-keeper, who bears the musical Italian name of Salvatore Giovanni Buscaglia, bought the bar in 2013. He has restored it so it shines.
The first thing to catch your eye will be the beautiful black cherry and stained glass back bar. It comes from Buffalo's bygone Iroquois Hotel. Michael Ulrich acquired it, and installed it in 1910.
The popcorn machine sits on an old safe, imprinted with Ulrich's name.
And you have to love a photo of a 1933 bash at Ulrich's called "Funeral For Prohibition." Ulrich's was able to survive those lean Prohibition years thanks in large part to the Hasenpfeffer Club, a German fraternity that met in a speakeasy upstairs. One of the Hasenpfeffers who hoisted a few there was the great German-American baseball player Babe Ruth, who dined there in 1921.
Grover Cleveland was a regular at Ulrich's. Well, you have to figure he was, along with George Urban, Gerhard Lang, and his other influential German-American friends. Ulrich's had a reputation as a watering hole for movers and shakers.
But the common man, too, came here. I like to think my great-great-great-grandfather did. His name was Meinrad Kunz, and I have found him in 1850s city directories, with his occupation listed as peddler. He lived only a few blocks from Ulrich's. I'm sure he hoisted a few there.
Thinking of him, I hoisted one, too.
I mean that literally. Beer, at Ulrich's, is served up with dignity, in a humongous glass. The glass that bartender Rachelle Toledo chose for my Franziskaner Weissbier was easily a foot tall. Hefting it like the St. Pauli Girl, I walked around, admiring things.
The spinet, an old Dulcitone player piano, has been in the bar forever. It can be played, Toledo said, though she added that it needed tuning.
We gazed on a picture of the tavern in 1908, full of smartly tailored gentlemen. "They were professionals," Toledo observed.
She also pointed out an old bell on the dining room wall: "We don't know what that was for."
The burgeoning medical campus nearby has given Ulrich's new life. It also reinforces the tavern's historic role as a safe and nurturing place.
Glenn Stierheim, a Methodist minister, occasionally holds round tables there he calls "office hours."
"Some people prefer it to an institution," he said. "It's less intimidating."
Stierheim -- the name, as he pointed out, is German for "home of the steer" -- added that his grandfather, Leo Riffel, brewed beer for Iroquois Beer. Ulrich's is in his blood.
"It's cool because it's such a unique mix of people," he said. "A diverse group of people, because of the medical campus."
The crowd on this particular day included Patrick Wolcott, getting lunch while his wife had surgery at Roswell Park. With him were their children, son Jim and daughter Chrissy Rombkowski.
"I've heard of this place my whole life, but didn't know where it was. I love it," Patrick Wolcott said. "I love the Iroquois theme. We grew up on Iroquois. My dad drank a lot of the stuff. Growing up in West Seneca, they lived across the street from a brewmaster for Iroquois, a German guy. Fritz somebody."
Debbie and Steve Cudzilo of North Tonawanda were perched at the bar, enjoying Bloody Marys after she had completed some tests at Roswell.
"They're homemade. We come here specifically for this," she said.
She's also sweet on the bar's sauerkraut. "I love it," she beamed. "And the potato pancakes. I love the atmosphere. It's like an old corner bar, gin mill style."
The Cudzilos mentioned that their grandchild's christening party had been held, a year ago, at Ulrich's. And maybe it was that Franziskaner Weissbier, but to me, that raised a question.
Could the glory days of German taverns be returning?
Beer brewing is back, and Western New York brims with microbreweries. Distilleries are returning, making the Funeral for Prohibition complete. The anti-German sentiment fueled by the two world wars has evaporated. German taverns are popping up again.
The world needs more than ever the concept of "Gemuetlichkeit," that warm feeling of warmth and togetherness. That's what you feel at Ulrich's.
Donna and Barry Houck, a Town of Tonawanda couple dining on the patio, were visiting Ulrich's for the first time. He was getting the Reuben sandwich, and she had ordered the turkey panini.
"I love the decor, the stained glass, the wood, the brick," Donna Houck said. "I love to dine in a place that looks like this.
"There's so much history in these buildings."
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