When you go to see The Falls (yes, Niagara Falls), you inevitably look across the river to a glittering Clifton Hill area, pulsating with carnival energy. What you think next will depend on your perspective.
You might think: Why can’t our side of The Falls have nice things?
Or, you may think: Thank god our side isn’t cringey as hell.
Regardless of what you think of the Canadian side, you probably wish Niagara Falls, N.Y. was a bit more built up, and to that end, the new Judas Tree on Pine Avenue is precisely what the city needs more of.
Opened in the spring by the sister-brother duo of Beckah and Josh Carey, Judas Tree is a new cocktail bar that speaks to the area’s Italian-American history. It’s the kind of place that’s meant to appeal to locals first, tourists second (paradoxically, the same kind of place that authenticity seekers see as a destination).
The Careys grew up just off Pine Avenue and Josh has lived in Niagara Falls his whole life. He told me some areas of The Falls have bounced back from the dark days of the 1980s and 90s. But, he added that Pine Avenue hasn’t had the kind of resurgence seen in other areas.
“Seeing a lot of the hospitality industry in Niagara Falls bounce back has been good,” he said. “Unfortunately, Pine Avenue hasn’t seen as much growth as downtown, where the tourist industry is, or over by the outlet mall.”
Like Hertel Avenue in years past, Pine Avenue is known for sit-down “red sauce joints” serving Italian-American classics. There are also a smattering of shot-and-a-beer bars mixed in with a few pizza places.
The Careys said they saw an opportunity to build off that existing reputation by offering something a bit more modern. Signature drinks at the cocktail bar are rooted in the classics: martini, daiquiri, paloma, Manhattan. There’s also a selection of spritzes made with amaro, a dry herbal liqueur emblematic of Italian cocktail culture. On top of that, there are beers, wines and seltzers that have been sourced from either New York State or Italy.
The food menu hews closely to the Mediterranean theme by being entirely made up of small plates (what they’d call tapas in Spain). Made from family recipes, cured meats are the highlight of the food menu. Cheeses, topped crostinis, focaccia and cured or pickled bar snacks round out the rest of the food options.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with respect to drinks or food,” said Josh Carey. “We’re just trying to add something that isn’t really in The Falls, but it’s recognizable from Buffalo and other places.”
Of course, there’s more to a bar or restaurant than just the food. If you’ve ever had the proprietor of an Italian-style restaurant ask about your meal, you know those places give off familial vibes like steam rising off a plate of manigot.
To that end, Beckah Carey said interactions with her customers are what make Judas Tree truly blossom.
“Customers make it come alive, and it’s been awesome,” she said. “We’ve seen grandparents with their grandchildren and parents with their children. We’ve also seen a lot of family and family friends. We’ve also seen a wide demographic. All kinds of people are coming through the door.
“People who grew up in The Falls often have mutual friends or family members in common. When we’re behind the bar or peeking out from the kitchen, it’s nice to see everyone interacting, whether they’re older, younger or from different backgrounds. It’s nice to see that in our city, which is so multicultural.”
Compared to the 4K-definition thrills in Clifton Hill, a local-first joint that appeals to sentimental fools may not impress a lot of people. But for some, when the cocktails are flowing like the conversation, a place like Judas Tree is the model of Niagara Falls hospitality.
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 4 p.m. – 12 a.m., Monday and Tuesday CLOSED
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