375 Niagara St., Tonawanda, NY 14150
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American Barbecue Desserts Ice Cream Kenmore Sandwiches Seafood Tonawanda
"We passed on dessert here, because Condrell's Candies & Ice Cream had recently spoiled us to the point where the mere mention of a plain custard cone couldn't get us fired up."
As years pass, restaurants disappear - it's just part of life. But some places are so locally beloved that they carry on for decades, even as their original owners tire of the grind. Tonawanda's Old Man River is one of those places, a family-friendly riverfront summer destination that's known as much for its hot dogs as its clams, taken over in 2004 by new but experienced owners. Thanks to their efforts, it looks even better today than we remembered it from fifteen years ago, a contrast with Kenmore's Condrell's Candies & Ice Cream, a sweet shop that looked precisely the same this past week as it did back then, and for years before. Both places are local classics, interesting as much or more for their ambience as for their food, so we're covering them both together. [Note: On July 4, we revisited Old Man River, sampled more extensively from the menu, and added our rating of 2.5 stars, as further explained at the end of the prior article.]
Old Man River is a restaurant in three parts: the miniature ice cream shop, which overlooks the Niagara River and Niawanda Park, a Seafood Shack, which sits out in the back where bands play live music three days a week, and a counter-service sandwich and hot dog restaurant, located indoors between them. A quick glance at the menu posted inside would be enough to scare away health food fanatics: it starts with Sahlen's hot dogs served with everything from chili and cheese to chipotle baked beans and all things spicy, continues with items like a Monster Burger with 2/3 of a pound of meat plus cheese, lettuce, and mayonnaise, and then casually offers all sorts of other things - sausages, hamburgers, fries, and rings - that sound equal parts tasty and, for those on diets, scary.
We went with a couple of local favorites, an order of Sweet Potato Fries ($4) and a Bologna Steak ($4.89), both of which surpassed expectations. As compelling as good Sweet Potato Fries are on their own, and Old Man River's are indeed good, imagine what you'd say when someone at the counter asks if you'd like them covered in honey and butter. More specifically, would you go for both or neither after noticing that the sign above the counter says that you should try the Sweet Potato Fries "smothered" in honey and butter. We did, and probably shouldn't have; it'll be hard to go back to eating fries plain ever again. Seriously. The honey was sweet rather than gooey, and the butter was served as a small scoop that we could have pulled off the fries, but didn't. It's the sort of side dish we'd picture Elvis eating right before his untimely demise.
Then there was the Bologna Steak, which wasn't as bad as such a thing could have been, but wasn't great, either. What's interesting about the concept of this item - a sandwich with a wide, half-inch-thick cooked piece of bologna in the center - is that the cold lunch meat it's based on has a reputation for rubberiness, but Old Man River's offering was like eating a flattened out jumbo hot dog in burger form. "Onions, peppers, hot sauce?" we were asked. "All three," we responded. They work well on a hot dog, and did as much as they could to dress up the Bologna Steak, too. We'd still take a regular char-grilled Sahlen's any day; Old Man River's menu of those was a little pricey, but nonetheless compelling.
We hadn't really come here for the dogs and fries, though. "OMR's Seafood Shack," as the sign says, is also a "BBQ Chicken and Rib Pit," and we wanted to relive some old memories by having some clams by the river. A half-dozen Steamers - steamed clams - were going for $7, with a dozen for $11; in retrospect, we should have just gone for the extra six. Our plate came out and we were entirely pleased by the big, beautiful clams and the cup of dipping butter, save only for the fact that we'd ordered too few. They were all perfectly cooked, tender on the outside and still juicy inside. When we come back, it's going to be for the seafood.
Another item we wanted to sample was the plate of BBQ Ribs, which we ordered as a 1/2 Rack ($13) along with two included sides and a dinner roll. We were intrigued by the ribs because of Old Man River's barbecue sauce, sold by the bottle inside, and ultimately wound up liking the sweet, vinegary sauce even more than the ribs themselves. While the meat was wonderfully grilled, the fat and bone content was so substantial that we felt like we were playing Operation as we tried to use the plastic knife and fork to pull pieces of meat from the platter. If the quality of the rib meat had been higher, we'd have been in heaven; as-was, the clams, those fries, and the corn on the cob side were highlights for us. There may well be no vegetable as satisfying to start or finish eating in the summer as a full cob of sweet corn, each kernel ready to burst as it's chomped away. By comparison, the Salt Potatoes we ordered with the Ribs were good but not special. A second cob would have been a better pick.
Music was the other major highlight at Old Man River. Local bands take turns performing on different week nights, and the Tuesday night band Busted Stuff was legitimately talented, performing everything from The Beatles's gentle Two of Us to powerful Irish music with precision and soul; we were actually enjoying the music enough that we almost stuck around for dessert. But Old Man River's ice cream counter isn't as interesting as its two others, featuring fairly plain hard serve and custard picks alongside supermarket "novelties" such as Toll House Cookie Sandwiches and Nutty Sundae Cones. Thus, we passed on dessert here.
Updated July 4, 2009: On our second visit to Old Man River, we dove deeper into its seafood and barbecue menus, ordering the Coconut Shrimp appetizer, the Scallop Dinner, 1/2 BBQ Chicken dinners, as well as a Bleu Cheese Burger and more of those Sweet Potato Fries from its center counter. Of these items, the BBQ Chicken was probably the best: large portions despite the "1/2 chicken" billing, the breast and drumstick meat was wonderfully cooked and covered in the same nice sauce as the ribs we'd previously sampled. The Bleu Cheese Burger was nothing special, reasonably sized for the price and covered in crumbled cheese, otherwise not memorable in preparation or flavor.
The seafood offerings were above-average. While the Coconut Shrimp tasted as if they'd been sold pre-assembled and frozen, with plenty of coconut but not much depth of flavor, there were enough for two people to share, and both of us liked them. They were accompanied by a thick orange marmalade that was a challenge to actually use on the shrimp. By comparison, the scallops were too few in number - eight - for an entree portion, and on the small side; they were served in a creamy, buttery sauce that wasn't bad or great, along with a plain roll and our choice of two sides. We went with two cobs of corn, which despite its pale yellow color was sweet, fresh, and delicious, arguably better than the scallops had been.
Overall, Old Man River is one of those "is what it is" places; the food isn't spectacular but it has its highlights, while the location combines with the prospect of outdoor seating and entertainment to be as big a draw as anything else. Go in expecting a river view and some nice barbecue, seafood, or burgers and you'll be satisfied; mid-week in the summer, it's one of the best places around to enjoy a fun, affordable Buffalo-style dining experience.
That's because Condrell's Candies & Ice Cream - aka King Condrell's (2805 Delaware Ave., Kenmore, NY 14217, 716.877.4485) - had recently spoiled us to the point where the mere mention of a plain custard cone couldn't get us fired up. Retro in a good, if unforced way, Condrell's is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with a long, chocolate-heavy candy shop on the right side of its single room. It's impossible not to notice the fudge slabs, the bon bons, and the miscellaneous candy jars while waiting in line to place an order, and the posters on the walls are all vintage sweet shop stuff, evoking the real 1960's rather than the neon-saturated faux 1950's style of places like Johnny Rockets.
Here, it's the menu rather than the decor that will blow your mind: for instance, just one of King Condrell's six pages of sweets contained a visually overwhelming grid with 37 different "Deluxe Treats," any and all of which sounded wholly deluxe - how can you choose something from a page where everything sounds good? Then there were the "Super Bowls" and "Extraordinary Specialties," mammoth sundaes that couldn't be eaten alone after a normal meal. Take the Special Strawberry, five scoops of ice cream "topped with strawberries in delicious sweet sauce, plenty of real whipped cream, and fresh roasted, chopped walnuts;" this was the rare occasion where we had to throttle ourselves back rather than ordering what sounded best. We'll just briefly mention the "Maximum Brain Freeze," an $18, ten-scoop bucket that can be had for free if eaten in whole by one person. It's not going to be us.
We had trouble enough just finishing the Peanut Butter Fudge ($5.75), two scoops of vanilla ice cream with one scoop of chocolate, more notable for the wonderfully ground up peanut butter cups and peanut butter sauce they were drenched in. The bowl wasn't much to look at, and the supposed hot fudge tasted a little more like Hershey's syrup to us, but this was otherwise a truly very good sundae.
As much as we enjoyed that dish, we loved the Mighty Mint, customized slightly from its standard presentation with one scoop of Vanilla and one scoop of Chocolate. A special Cannoli-flavored ice cream had won our interest, so we replaced the vanilla to give it a try. Though we really enjoyed both flavors, and the Cannoli did in fact taste like the yielding, lightly cheesy core of one of our favorite desserts, the rest of the bowl's contents were again far more powerful than the ice cream. Condrell's chocolate mint sauce was a winner on its own, green and just strong enough with mint flavor not to be obnoxious, but it was mixed with chunked up Andes mint candies and Oreos; these transformed the bowl into an awesome mix of textures and varied levels of sweet, mint, and chocolate flavors. Bites became mindless and fun in the way that only truly great foods can be, whipped cream disappearing despite our intention to leave it untouched - even we were surprised to find ourselves so pleased.
On the night we visited, Condrell's was understaffed - two teenaged workers trying extremely hard to handle the needs of a growing crowd - and it took us longer to pay the bill than to place our orders. As with Old Man River, we'd been there before, but we didn't feel as if we were ready to issue a rating for the place based on our recent experiences there. We're frankly glad to have an excuse to return to both places.