As Chefs & Times Change, So Do Oliver's Focus & Flavors

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2095 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14216
Web: Oliver's
Phone: 716.877.9662
Rating:    [learn more]

One of Buffalo's oldest and best-known fine dining establishments, featuring a short but accessible menu of entrees that currently range from affordable to pricey, with appetizers and desserts that alternate between appealing and poor. Great service, nice interior decor.


Though somewhat forgivable given the venue's age, its reputation for menu and chef changes makes dining somewhat less predictable; a number of the items we ordered were only fair or disappointing.

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"Oliver's may still be occupying the same space it was in 73 years ago, but it's not really the same restaurant; three months or years from now, it may well have changed again."

"Your grandfather ate here when he was her age," said Dad, reflecting on both our young daughter's image in the semi-mirrored walls of Oliver's Restaurant, and the 73-year-old venue's debut on the Buffalo fine dining scene; "my brothers and I used to have hamburgers here when we were kids." "Perhaps," one of us joked, noting the generally more pretentious menu, "you'll be ordering a burger here tonight?" Within earshot, our server interjected: "we actually do offer a Kobe Beef Burger," a reference to Oliver's $14, American-produced "Kobe" - actually a cross between Japan's Wagyu cattle and an Idaho farm's Black Angus. Dad ultimately passed, but the exchange was telling: having first made a local name for itself in 1936, and persisted as a high-class restaurant since then, some things have stayed pretty much the same at Oliver's. The interior is still dark, yet inviting, a large bar still confronts you as you enter, and C-shaped booths let patrons focus as much on the people they're dining with as the room they're dining in.

Yet a lot has changed. Once divided into separate rooms, the seating area has been opened up to create more of a contiguous dining space, and redecorated with more modern elements. A new owner took over 26 years ago, and today operates the similarly upscale Amherst restaurant Siena, and slightly more downscale Williamsville venue 800 Maple as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, the kitchen has also changed hands numerous times over the years. Key chefs have famously left to start their own noteworthy restaurants, such as Tempo, Hutch's, SeaBar, and only months ago, Encore; the menu has been in a state of flux, as well. In other words, Oliver's may still be occupying the same physical space it was in 73 years ago, but it's not really the same restaurant; it now gives $13-$24 "small plates" - affordable entrees - roughly equal billing on the one-page menu with more expensive $28-$42 "specialties," and three months or three years from now, it may well have changed again.

Our group placed orders that were a mix of Oliver's standard dishes and specials taken from its Local Restaurant Week menu, in an effort to get a sense for how the place was doing these days with both classics and modern fare. The meal started interestingly, with an offering from the kitchen that changes every day: on this night, it happened to be classy if not universally appealing, thin slices of cucumber with avocado paste and quarters of shrimp on top. Between the one shellfish-allergic member of our group who liked cucumbers and avocados, and the two people who aren't big fans of cucumbers, only two of us wound up eating all four of the pieces, and didn't enjoy them; the pasty avocado made the fresh cucumber seem soggy, and the cooked but unseasoned shrimp seemed to be there more for concept than for flavor. We would have been better off with bread.

Thankfully, Oliver's delivered on that in spades. Given the choice between the house's standard bread or Oliver's Original Spinach Loaf ($4.75), we went with the latter, which arrived as an oversized silver basket with a knife and a large, napkin-wrapped loaf inside. Essentially a spinach-packed garlic bread with multiple cheeses holding everything together, there were more than enough of the delicious pieces to go around, though the knife did a poor job of cutting the extremely hot bread into individual slices. Had we been dining out this night with friends - formal ones - rather than family, we might have been more concerned, but the Loaf made up for in taste whatever it lacked in pliability.

One of our appetizers was thrilling. The Asian Pulled Pork, taken from the $20.09 Restaurant Week specials menu, was a right-sized pile of decidedly non-Asian pork with a truly awesome grilled scallop on top, and a mix of daikon radish, greens, and apple bits underneath. A sweet, oily barbecue sauce coated the soft, warm, matchstick-styled pieces of pork; comparatively less seasoning adorned the hot scallop, letting the meats contrast wonderfully with each other and the cool salad. This was a fantastic pick on plating, taste, and temperature.

Two of our group ordered the Garbage Salad (normally $14), an intriguing but semi-accurate name for what arrived on their medium-sized plates. The base of the salad was a mix of iceberg and romaine lettuce, with variously complete and chopped pieces of cucumber, cherry tomato, olives, artichoke hearts, cici beans, and sopressata sausage inside; gorgonzola cheese and a white balsamic vinaigrette were mixed in as dressings, and the whole plate was topped by two plain shrimp. Neither of the Salad's recipients actually liked it, describing the mix of ingredients as too scattered and unappealing - deserving of the Garbage name - though one noted that it might have worked better had the vinaigrette been replaced with something stronger or more sophisticated.

Entrees were generally, but not universally good. We were very pleasantly surprised by the size of the Toscano Pizza (normally $13.75), a large pizza with plenty of arugula on top, hiding pieces of prosciutto and fig, plenty of cheese, and a truffle honey seasoning. Anything but a dieter's dream, the Toscano was a fine example of a thin crust pizza that could impress without being even slightly Buffalonian in ingredients.

Chicken Milanese, normally billed as a $13 "sandwich" on Oliver's main menu, was served more like a salad this evening: the large, flat chicken cutlet was completely covered over with arugula, lettuce, cucumber, onion, and cherry tomato pieces, then served alongside a cloth-wrapped lemon and a bowl of lime aioli. This item sparked the only culinary debate of the meal, specifically whether the flat, fried cutlet was any good. As noted in our recent review of Tempo, we're fans of this dish and its variants, and will occasionally go out of our way to order it as a test item. Oliver's version was similar enough in concept, but less impressive in execution, with a less delicate bread crust, a more mediocre salad topping, and a relatively bland flavor that begged for the lemon and suffered when dipped into the lime aioli. The debate: was the cutlet actually bad given its considerably lower-than-Tempo price, or merely unimpressive by fine dining standards? Our table's opinions varied, but the dish was left unfinished, and the person who ordered it was disappointed, noting that unimpressive food isn't made any better by a lower price tag. Some might disagree.

We were okay with the $37 Filet Mignon, an eight-ounce cut of beef that Oliver's serves with a dry rub, which helped to create a slightly crisp salt and pepper crust. Like some of the other "fine dining establishments" - note: not hard-core "steakhouses" - we've visited recently, the Filet here had the look and the prep we'd expect, arriving properly sized to description and cooked to our medium rare order, but the meat quality wasn't anything special. Inside, the Filet didn't have quite the characteristic softness we'd normally expect from such a choice cut of beef, whatever fat should have been marbled seemed to have been absent. Underneath the steak was a bed of broccolini and buttery fried potato cubes, neither especially worth finishing, and the latter a weak choice of accompaniment given both the restaurant and the steak. On flavor, the whole plate was somewhere between fine and good; on value and texture, it was fair at best.

More thoroughly disappointing was Oliver's Prime Strip Sandwich (normally $16, not shown), a plate that had obviously been designed more for looks than for taste. A sliced, grilled baguette was stuffed with a piece of seemingly low quality, chewy beef, and surrounded by greens, mushrooms, and provolone cheese, none able to take our minds off of the poor steak; neither did the accompanying basket of visually interesting "truffled frites," some oily but substantially undercooked french fried potatoes that just weren't good from bite one. This plate should have been easy for Oliver's to knock out of the park, but it fell so short of expectations that it was hard to forget.

Then there were the desserts, which Oliver's normally serves for $8.25 each. One, the Chocolate Raspberry Crunch Cake, was entirely enjoyable and sophisticated - a reasonably sized, almost jet black piece of largely dark chocolate cake with lighter layers of chocolate mousse and just enough raspberry flavor to leave an aftertaste; the chocolate and berry syrups on the plate, plus a sliced, sugar-powdered strawberry, did more than the cake to add fruit flavor. Three of us excitedly dug in to the plate, and we would have easily finished another piece.

On the other hand, the Frozen Pineapple Souffle - picked from the menu because it sounded so interesting - turned out to be mostly confusing; "pineapple sorbet" would have been a better description. The large plate contained a measuring cup-sized clump of pineapple-flavored ice cream, plus three small pieces of roasted pineapple, a scattering of raspberries and blueberries, and a collection of wavy syrup traces. It all tasted okay, but wasn't really what was ordered or implied by "souffle."

To Oliver's credit, the service throughout our meal was quite good - attentive, friendly, and accommodating to a level beyond either Siena or 800 Maple - and our meal ended with a modern spin on an old tradition: our server delivered both the check and a plate of small, seemingly handmade mint chocolates, reminding us of the days when foil-wrapped Andes candies used to conclude nice meals. It was a nice touch, but served only to underscore how much has changed with fine dining - and this place - over the years. Yes, the venue is still the same, but from the menu to the execution of the dishes, Oliver's feels different and frankly less impressive than it did in decades past. It's not the neighborhood, not the decor, and not the service, but the food, which is good but not great at prices that would typically demand something special. That said, Oliver's has both longevity and a talent for reinvention in its favor; should it evolve once again into a real standout, we'll be excited to pay it another visit.

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