It’s been said before but it bears repeating: Buffalo is the perfect size city for people who want to grab the nation’s attention; whether it’s the modern art of Cindy Sherman, the pop music of the Goo Goo Dolls or the community organizing of India Walton.
We have vibrant grassroot communities and platforms that support them here. One of those emerging platforms that demands your attention is the new Bittersweet Piano Lounge.
There are pianos in bars and restaurants around WNY, but there isn’t a room dedicated to the piano like Bittersweet Piano Lounge. Inside the Hotel Lafayette, lounge owner Gino Drake has created an intimate setting in which grand music is allowed to flourish.
Some piano bars are dedicated to jazz or Billy Joel-style sing-a-longs, but Bittersweet Piano Lounge is focused on classic romanticism. Walk in one night and you might hear classical arrangements of Beatles songs. Walk in the next night and you might hear someone singing traditional jazz.
The lounge has seven resident vocalists, each with their own style, but everything revolves around and comes back to the piano. Drake told me it’s important for the lounge not to be locked into a rigid format.
“Although, our population here in Buffalo is very well-versed in music and the arts,” he said, “if we have a younger group in here, we may dial it back on the classical music and throw in a few standards or something they can better relate to.”
A major key to this innovative platform is artistic director and resident pianist Richie English. Based on his background as a composer and classical musician, English has collected a community of accomplished singers with a strong command of their voice. But what English and the singers do with their instruments goes far outside the stodgy box that classical music can sometimes find itself in.
For instance, the opening week of the lounge featured classical takes on Beatles songs.
“We took Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and turned it into this impressionist lullaby,” he said. “People know these songs and to present them in a new context is very illuminating for us as performers and illuminating for the audience.
“It also challenges the singers to perform in new ways they may not be used to doing,” he added. “Although, you may not know what watching them perform because they still command the stage. It’s very exciting for me as a musician, and for all the other musicians. This place has already inspired fierce loyalty in the house performers.”
In addition to being a performance space, the lounge also has a full bar. The cocktails, like the music, are updates on classics. There’s also a very approachable wine list. Currently, the only food option is a charcuterie board. Drake said four different boards will soon be available, as well as a decadent dessert called The Gatsby.
The art deco bar and decor from previous concepts in this space have largely been kept intact. A few design flourishes are meant to give the piano lounge “a living room feel,” Drake said.
While scheduled performances are the main draw, they aren’t the only reason to stop in. Lounge music plays while singers aren’t on stage, and impromptu sing-a-longs have started cropping up late into the evenings.
Drake and English say they want Bittersweet Piano Lounge to be a dynamic grassroots institution, and a big part of that will be the interactions between the artists and their audience.
“We want to learn with our audience,” English said.
Opening Hours (subject to change): Thursday to Saturday 5 p.m. – 12 a.m., Sunday 2 p.m. – 7 p.m.