Elmwood, I: From Burchfield Penney to Towne Restaurant

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Towne Restaurant
186 Allen St., Buffalo, NY 14201
Web: Towne Restaurant
Phone: 716.884.5128
Rating:    [learn more]
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Three and a half miles separate the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the end of Elmwood Avenue. We know this because what started as a Saturday morning mission to dine at the Center's Orion Cafe unexpectedly became our weekend quest to understand the current state of Elmwood, a street full of locally-owned restaurants and shops that has seen more change - and agitation for change - than most in the City of Buffalo. So what follows in two parts is not an attempt to document every pizza joint, Chinese take-out, or Wilson Farms on Elmwood, but rather a look at seven interesting places we've recently visited here, and why they may or may not be worth your time as well.

1. The Burchfield Penney Art Center: We could go on and on about all the compelling art found within these walls, such as Anthony Sisti's heroic 1947 rendition of The Boxer, Ani Hoover's gigantic, colorful 2007 pop piece Unhinged, and Jackie Pancari's Reflecting on Japan, but we'll leave those links for you to explore and say only this: the Burchfield isn't just a good or okay gallery, some small place that you can walk through, leave non-plussed, and carry about your day as if you'd never seen anything at all. Rather, it's great by local standards, with something for everyone: tasked with assembling a Western New York-focused gallery, the curators have outdone themselves by selecting a mix of artists with varying ties to Buffalo, as well as art that ranges from completely abstract and bursting with color to subdued renditions of early 19th Century local street and river scenes, sculptures, and more. Then, in a gesture that can't help but catch one by surprise, there are the photographs of children - sponsored by Wegmans - that are transformed by accompanying words into something more. The Art Center is a place that deserves to be experienced; we haven't spent a better $7 on a ticket anywhere in recent memory.

The only exception to this is the Orion Cafe, the single part of the building that we weren't wowed by. There's nothing wrong with Orion's look; this little coffee shop is as elegantly designed as the rest of the Center, appointed with modern British furniture and all the right metal, wood, and glass to match the Burchfield Penney's spacious, bright interiors. But it's stocked substantially with pre-packaged snack foods, old-looking baked goods, and bottles of soda - nothing worth filling up on. The most noteworthy fresh food we could discern was the coffee, made to order, so we went with a simple, "small" cup of cafe au lait. It was plenty good and larger than we'd expected, abandoned part way through only because the main gallery doesn't allow food or drinks inside.

At least, nothing you can actually consume. Immediately before we walked into the main gallery, we came across Julie York's Beauty Distilled, a glass display case containing ceramic casts of girls' heads and cupcakes, the latter floating in water. We didn't realize as much at the time, but it foreshadowed one of our later destinations on Elmwood Avenue.

Orion Cafe on Urbanspoon

2. Delish: Found at 802 Elmwood (716.881.2022), Delish is both a pastry shop and cooking school, its own cupcake-filled glass display cases so initially compelling that we actually cared to look over its calendar of upcoming classes. One case was stuffed to its ends with beautiful, colorful $5 cupcakes ("Fairy Cakes"), various types of $4 whoopie pies, and a collection of bon bons, while another offered "Great Big Cookies" for $1.50 each, and a third contained $26-$40 cakes, $4.50 cake slices, and a mix of $3.50 brownies and bars. Everything looked great, and though our eyes ran through each item with interest, we settled on two items: an oversized macaroon cookie with chocolate topping, and a red velvet cupcake with vanilla icing. The macaroon wasn't beautiful, but it was big, and tasted very good: soft, moist coconut yielded with every bite or tug, and just enough chocolate to balance against the light but certainly unhealthy cookie. By comparison, the cupcake was gorgeous but awful, its buttercream icing and dyed red body hardened to the point of near inedibility, like the blue malted milk robin egg candy on top - the only part that tasted right. We were left wondering how much else in the attractive display cases was primarily there as art.

3. Can Can Candy & Gifts: We'd had snack foods on the brain ever since looking around the Orion Cafe, and the thought was only accentuated when we saw A.J. Fries's Crush, a nearly photorealistic painting of a package of Twinkies, completed 70 years after the original product was unveiled. Clearly, certain sweet treats linger forever in people's minds, and that's part of why Can Can Candy & Gifts (822 Elmwood, 716.883.3489) exists: it bills itself as a store with a "complete line of vintage candies," and caught our attention with a sign outside: there were Aero bars here! And Coffee Crisp! Soon after walking in, we discovered not only these favorites but also genuine Cadbury's bars on its well-stocked shelves - Canadian chocolates that are typically only available at Duty Free or further beyond the border, though some have recently shown up at Wegmans, as well. Noting the presence of classic candies such as Ferrara Pan's Lemonheads and the newer Orangeheads, we happily snapped up a Mint Aero and some lemon drop hard candies, which have become harder to find around here in recent months. We were thrilled to find a place to buy some of our long-time favorites, and with genuinely nice counter service, besides.

4. Towne Restaurant: Of all the places discussed in this two-part series, the Towne Restaurant has been around the longest: located on the corner of Elmwood and Allen (186 Allen St., Buffalo, NY 14201, 716.884.5128) at the beginning of Allentown, it was founded in 1971, and is described on its web site as having "no pretentions, just good food." The description is fair, though the Towne is a nice-enough looking, large space with tables and foods that tend to feel just a little too oily, and a deserved reputation for being a decent place to have a meal - underscore decent.

Our most recent meal was fairly typical of ones we've had there before: a $4 plate of Spanikopita arrived at least as impressive visually as the one we'd had the day before at Pano's: more generously sized, golden, and even thicker with spinach and cheese, all sort of amazing for the lower price. But one bite made clear why Pano's was more expensive: the Towne's version was heavy and low on flavor where Pano's was light and tasty, and by the time we finished the plate, we wished we hadn't. It was only worthwhile in the sense that it tasted fine and didn't cost much. Another item, the Open Lamb Souvlaki ($8), was also ordered as a direct comparison to Pano's version, and was similarly a step down: from pita to Greek salad to lamb, the ingredients were the same, but the Towne's meat was chewy and lacking in lamb flavor, most likely because it was radically overcooked - well done when ordered medium rare - while the feta was too soft and melted itself into a light goo on the bottom of the lamb. The Towne's worthy of two stars overall; it's not a bad restaurant, but not so good as to merit our repeat business given how many other Greek options there are on this street alone.

Towne on Urbanspoon

The second part of our look at Elmwood includes Sweet Tooth, the Globe Market, and Village Beer Merchant. Our earlier review of Pano's at 1081 Elmwood is here.

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