It took a lot of guts to open a business during the pandemic. But some of this year’s best restaurants and bars went beyond “guts”. They were downright daring.
Yes, The Cure is a popular band, but an entire bar dedicated to all things goth? On Hertel Avenue? Classical singing is transcendent at Sheas, but how would you like to hear it in a small hotel lounge?
A lot of the best openings this year either brought something original, or gave Western New York something it desperately needed. A lot of good places that opened in 2021 were left out of this list. Not because the food or drinks weren’t as good, but because a BOTY place is about more than that.
These bars and restaurants were things we needed, or didn’t know we needed but were lucky to get anyway. Confused? Read on.
If any new restaurant exemplified 2021, it was D.A. Taste. What started as a possibly-illicit pandemic Instagram business based on the birria taco trend is now a pop-up takeout stand in the back of a South Buffalo convenience store. D.A. Taste was so popular this year, lines stretched out the door, despite not having any signage out front.
The tacos may be as greasy and grimy as the business model (in a good way), but owners Azrael Laia and Dominick Buster have pristine hearts of gold.
UPDATE: D.A. Taste has moved to a new location at 141 Abbott Rd, Buffalo 14220 as of 12/15/21.
At the total opposite end of the spectrum, the deep-pocketed owner behind Harvest is ostensibly shooting for a Michelin Star with this new restaurant. Head chef Lionel Haydel is focused on using expert techniques to see out a distinct culinary vision based on local ingredients.
Perhaps one of the most eye-opening parts of our conversation with Haydel was his insistence that Michelin-level ingredients are available right here in Western New York.
“You might be surprised how local farming is changing and how farmers have been doing their homework,” he said.
Heydel also said he puts in long hours to ensure his guests leave with a memorable experience. Whether or not Harvest wins international recognition, there’s no denying that this is the most ambitious WNY restaurant to open in a long time.
Food isn’t a big focus at this new lounge in the Hotel Lafayette. It doesn’t need to be. Bittersweet Piano Lounge is a revolutionary concept from Gino Drake. You might pop in for a cocktail and charcuterie, stay for classic versions of Beatles songs and end up drunkenly singing around the piano late into the night. There isn’t anything else like it. Not in Buffalo and probably not anywhere.
More often than not, a bar or restaurant is great because it does a few, classic things right: good drinks, good food, good conversation and maybe some ways to pass the time.
Right out of the box, Jack Rabbit was firing on all of these cylinders. It’s a classic Buffalo bar and live music venue done right, with darts and a pool table to boot. What more do you need on a Friday or Saturday night?
Goth-friendly bars aren’t new to Buffalo, but ever since Club Diablo closed its doors on Washington Street, there’s been a Morrisey-shaped hole in Buffalo’s nightlife scene.
That changed earlier this year with the opening of The Merry Shelly. Housed in what used to be a corner bar on Hertel Avenue, this little pocket of darkness is actually quite welcoming and the drinks tend to be on the strong side. It’s the perfect place to pop during a night out in North Buffalo.
Between the high-brow thrill of Harvest and the low-brow chill of D.A. Taste was the middle-brow appeal of Mister Sizzles.
This modern take on a mid-century burger joint quickly won over a legion of fans with its smash burgers, hefty milk shakes and craft cocktails. Mister Sizzles isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, but sometimes, instead of an occasional home run, you just need single after single after single after single.
Located next to the historic Roycroft Campus and serving elevated ice creams, Rosies is one of those “only in East Aurora” places that have people visiting the sleepy village from all across Western New York.
Rosie’s isn’t the first local place to offer outside-the-box flavors like cuttlefish ink ice cream, and novelty isn’t exactly the focus of owners Deacon and Cassie Tasker. The couple told us they’re more interested in nailing the classics: chocolate, vanilla, mint chip and cookies ‘n’ cream.
“We’re pretty excited about being able to bring what we think is probably the best product, both in terms of flavor selection and ingredient quality, into Western New York,” Deacon Tasker told us.
When the owners of an iconic local restaurant announce they’re going to retire, it can mean the sad end of a long story, or it can mean new owners buy up a proven formula and keep things rolling.
At DiTondo, the story went a bit differently. Former owners Al and Rosemary Rohloff passed off the business to the next generation in their family. New owners Rita DiTondo and husband Fabio Consonni not only kept the restaurant going, they also brought the 100-plus-year-old business into the 21st century.
While fans of the old DiTondo’s can still get Italian-American favorites like lasagna and eggplant parmigiana, people with a taste for more authentic Italian food can get fennel salad or handmade agnolotti filled with sausage.
No new restaurant in 2021 did a better job of bridging the old and the new than DiTondo.
Many of us have this romantic vision of European life. People in Europe take their time to enjoy the company of others. They appreciate good food. Europeans don’t sweat the small stuff. They chain smoke cigarettes, without consequence.
Regardless of whether or not this matches reality, the new Moriarty Cafe Bar offers an impressionist view of The Old Country. The front-and-center tapas case greets customers as they walk in the door. The small menu is driven by Old World, whole-animal butchery and classic techniques. Wine is a popular drink at the lunch-only spot.
It’s a great place to take things slow, and the restaurant’s suggested ‘no device’ policy is designed to keep customers’ brains out of the metaverse, and locked into the ‘meatspace’.