4401 Transit Road, Clarence NY
Web: Brennan's Bowery Bar
Rating: [learn more]
Some of the area's best wings, beef on weck, and drink options can be enjoyed here simultaneously, alongside a very wide variety of other interesting entrees and appetizers.
Salads are weak; service is unpredictable in part because of demands on the kitchen and in part because of apparent oversights by the staff. Table waits can be long.
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Bars Beef on Weck Chicken Wings Clarence Irish
"Other than small issues with certain of the best menu items, which occasionally take them out of 'great' and into 'good' territory, we generally love the food here."
Bold and imperfect as the comparison may be, we'll draw the following analogy: Brennan's Bowery Bar is to Clarence what Duffs is to Amherst. A respite. A local favorite. One part flawed on experience, but four parts great on food. And a place where you are guaranteed to have a good meal, even if you have to wait for a bit to be seated, and for your meal to be delivered. We've been visiting Brennan's for more than 20 years, and if anything, it has gotten better with age - the rare local restaurant that hadn't suffered a least a little when we returned from living out of town. View it as a bar with a surprisingly strong menu - one that's not fully available online - and you'll be better able to accept it for its flaws in service.
The Story: As the story goes, Brennan's was established in 1888 in Manhattan, and subsequently relocated on a mission to bring the "old Irish New York City tradition to Buffalo." Yet other than a well-stocked bar and small smattering of Dublin-esque menu items, this restaurant isn't so much "Irish" as it is "everything else." It has all the ambience of a typical tavern, with wooden benches in dark booths, small tables, a few arcade machines, and some televisions for whatever games might be on. There's also an outdoor patio seating area that's open whenever the weather's cooperating. But the games, televisions, and seating all feel a bit outdated; we come more despite them than for them. Similarly, the drinks are always good, but really it's the food that's the draw here.
The Duffs analogy only breaks down for one reason: whereas Duffs is a specialist, Brennan's is a jack of all trades. It's the place we go if one person wants chicken wings, another wants Beef on Weck, and still others want a "real meal" or a salad. Thanks to a large menu, packed with seafood, meats of all sorts, and specials, there's literally something for everyone here, with many dishes done to local near-connoisseur levels. As compromise venues go, it's never disappointing.
Highs: A fairly common meal combination at Brennan's consists of three items: 10 chicken wings, one Beef on Weck sandwich, and a bowl of French Onion Soup. To start with the chicken wings, which can also be ordered in double quantities - and sometimes are, putting aside the Beef on Weck - Brennan's rendition of this classic local dish is consistently great enough to satisfy all but the most spice- and sauce-obsessed wing fans. Rather than falsely claiming to use jumbo wings as the base for these, a problem with some other restaurants, Brennan's actually does pick large, meaty wings that do a superb job of absorbing flavor. offset only by using a quantity of sauce that isn't miserly, but also isn't enough to bring the "suicide" wings into even slightly dangerous territory. Brennan's hottest wings are a Duffs medium, which is enough to tide a spice fan over, but not to blow him away. Others will be completely and totally satisfied by both the size and flavor. Those looking for something different can try other types of grilled wings, one Barbecued, another Cajun Barbecued with more spice, and another chipotle grilled.
Similarly, the Beef on Weck sandwich - another local favorite - is done well here, but not perfectly. On some occasions, Brennan's kummelweck buns come loaded with too much salt, and on other times seem to have next to none, the only major inconsistency in this classic sandwich. The roast beef, by comparison, is always very good; you can request it medium rare, medium, or medium well, though we still think that it's best served medium rare, where the tenderness of the meat wonderfully balances the slight crunchiness of the bun, its caraway seeds, and salt. Served with a pickle slice and chips, it's almost enough for a lunch meal without additional accompaniment, but benefits from a soup or other side.
A continued favorite is the French Onion Soup, served precisely as it should be at a time when too many slight alternate recipes have botched the formula. Only available in a bowl size, and delivered in a traditional crock that has been loaded with a top layer of provolone cheese, a hearty, salty onion and beef broth, then generous pieces of soaked crouton-like bread, Brennan's version hasn't once disappointed us over the years. The cheese can always be found covering the edges of the bowl, just waiting to be peeled off and eaten in a demonstration of less than proper manners. Those seeking other soup options can consider the Irish Potato, always on the menu, and at least one soup of the day.
The other menu choices are, in three words, numerous and diverse. On recommendation from a friend, we recently tried a pound of the Mussels, served steamed in a tomato, wine, butter, and garlic sauce with a dusting of parmesan cheese. Though we wouldn't pick these mussels over the best we've had in Brussels or Paris, they were rich in flavor, numerous in quantity, and left enough sauce at the end to let us soak part of the included sliced baguette. Clams are sold as an alternative, as are award-winning skewered shrimp, bacon-wrapped shrimp, and even shrimp with wing sauce. Those looking for heavy options can get ribs, stuffed hot banana peppers, or oversized half-pound hamburgers; lighter fare includes salads, sandwiches, and wraps.
Lows: Other than small issues with certain of the best menu items, which occasionally take them out of "great" and into "good" territory, we generally love the food here. One notable exception is the Mularkey Steak Salad, which places sliced sirloin and crumbled bleu cheese on top of a garden salad with french fries and warm dressing; it just didn't taste wonderful on a recent visit. Somehow, coming to Brennan's for a salad seems like a mistake anyway; consider yourself warned that this mightn't be the place's forte.
A bigger issue is that the service is consistently questionable. There never seems to be a shortage of attractive young women working here, but whether it's the kitchen or the server - sometimes, both - it's hard to predict from meal to meal whether items will arrive just a little later than you'd hope, a bunch later, or with some small issue that requires the item to go back to the kitchen. Thankfully, the latter is far less common than the former. Additionally, as noted above, waits can stretch 30-45 minutes on a busy weeknight, and the wait area seating isn't super-comfortable. In any case, we wouldn't pick Brennan's if you're in a rush; it's a safer dinner restaurant in our experience than it is for a weekday, time-pressured lunch.
The Verdict: Though Brennan's Bowery Bar is one of our long-time favorites, and one of the first places we recommend to out-of-town guests for an excellent local meal, small inconsistencies and a tavern-like ambience can detract from the overall dining experience. It may not be the best place in Western New York to try some of its most familiar menu items, but it does well enough to be a great compromise destination for larger groups. We consider it especially worthy of a visit if wings and weck are on your agenda and Duffs isn't as conveniently located relative to where you are.