If you want to go out to watch the Bills, Sabres or any other team play, most corner sports bars usually have two drink options: shot or beer.
The idea that you can’t have a good glass of wine, or a well-made cocktail, while watching a game at your neighborhood bar is nonsense, according to Joshua White, owner-operator of the new Free Street Tavern on Niagara Street in Buffalo.
Bearded, wide-eyed and talkative, White has been a staple for years behind the pine at Thirsty Buffalo and Roost. Given that background, it makes sense that he’d want to open Free Street; a small neighborhood bar that also offers a bit of the good shit you can find at a place like Roost, which happens to be right across Niagara Street.
When some people go out to their corner bar, White told us, “one person wants to have a Coors Light and maybe their partner wants to have a nice glass of wine. There’s no reason why you can’t have both at the same place.”
“And, sometimes I want to go watch a game and get a decent cocktail. It seems like you have to choose one or the other, which drives me nuts. I don’t want to have to hang out at a cocktail bar just to get a cocktail. I want to watch a game and have a nicely made drink at the same time.”
In addition to offering canned beer ($3-8), wine ($7-9 per glass) and cocktails ($6-9), Free Street also offers bar snack food in the form of sandwiches, paninis ($3-9) and various slow cooker specials (around $4-10). Once again, just because you’re at a small neighborhood bar, that doesn’t mean you should expect tasteless, processed food. On our visit, we had a pork banh mi that was bursting with colors and fresh flavors.
“I learned a lot about the food at Roost, a lot,” White said. “They’ve got that open kitchen so (I was) on top of the cooks and chefs all the time. So, you see how everything is prepared. You can really see how much attention to detail they put into every single dish and the fresh ingredients.”
He noted that the food at Roost is pretty labor intensive, and the prices there reflect all the technique and effort that goes into making upscale food. At Free Street, however, opening beers, pouring wine and shaking the occasional cocktail only requires so much time. The rest of the time behind the bar can be spent doing prep work or assembling quick, easy bar bites for customers.
“A lot of the time, a bartender is just here sitting around anyway so it’s not like we have to pay somebody to run a kitchen,” he said. “We can still use fresh ingredients and still make high-quality food in between serving drinks. It’s nice.”
White said a good example of the kind of food you can expect is the simple cajun stew of sausage, bell peppers and rice served during Free Street’s soft opening.
“It’s something you could make at home, but it’s a lot of ingredients and prep work,” White said. “So, maybe it’s easier for somebody to come in and have a nice little bowl of rice, sausage and peppers, for 6 or 7 bucks. I mean you can get out of here for $10, having had a small dinner and a beer.
“We don’t want to charge $12 for a drink and $10 for a sandwich. If you do it like this, you can charge very reasonable prices.”
It’s pretty simple concept: Create a cool, chill bar with all the stuff people want to eat and drink these days. Put sports on the TVs. It’s actually the same type of thing you do when you host a gameday party.
“So, if you’re throwing a party at your house, you’re not just going to get the beer that you like; you get whatever you think everybody else will like,” White said. “And you don’t have to get a ton of different stuff. But options are nice.”
“I love having people over at my house to watch the game,” he added. “I get to cook for them, and we all get to hang out. That’s what this is. We try to have something for everybody.”
Free Street Tavern
1469 Niagara Street, Buffalo NY, 14213
Hours: Monday to Friday, 4 p.m. – 12 a.m., Saturday 11 a.m. – 12 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.