3165 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14214
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American Beef on Weck Buffalo Sandwiches Seafood Wings
"The Lake Effect Diner is quite possibly one of the most interesting restaurants in Buffalo - a beautiful, classic art deco example of a diner, with so-so service but strong options."
When you're sitting in the middle of something that looks like a diner - more specifically, a restaurant that calls itself a diner - the question, "what exactly is a diner?" doesn't normally come to mind. But as we closed out our meal at the Lake Effect Diner on Main Street in Buffalo, this was the topic of conversation, and so we found ourselves discussing diners as a concept while referencing Wikipedia entries. "Diners aren't generally this clean," one of us said, noting the classic 'greasy spoon' synonym; "the food's just not this nice." No, said the other, "the diner name refers mostly to the architectural structure - Wikipedia says diners are prefabricated restaurants." As we read and talked, it was increasingly obvious that there were many answers to the question, and that diners varied considerably by geography, appearance, and cuisine. There was no doubt, however, that the Lake Effect Diner was cosmetically a beautiful example of its breed, and that it seemed to aspire to a higher calling than the diners of old, though its success was a matter of some dispute.
One of us made the case for the Lake Effect as an ambitious uber-diner, a place with the trappings of a diner but the soul of a middle class restaurant. There's the building itself, a classic prefabricated 1952 Mountain View Diner reclaimed from Pennsylvania and rehabilitated completely out of place in the middle of Main Street - a part of the street that hadn't seen anything as aesthetically interesting for decades. Purely retro and heavily art deco in influence, the substantially metal and glass exterior glimmers in the light like an old-fashioned Apple Store, calling the eye to its blue and red neon sign and long yellow stripes before introducing diners to an interior filled with pastel panels, cushioned seating, glimmering tiles, and a wide variety of silver metals. Then there's the name, a cute tip of the hat to Buffalo's famous lake-fueled, powerful snowstorms, and the fact that the brand new menu, the food, and the look of the place are all more than a step above the stereotypical diner norm. Paging through the options, all priced under $10 save for a handful of dinner entrees priced from $11 to $14, you see diner standards - a big breakfast menu, club sandwiches, milkshakes and a little fried junk food - but it's impossible to ignore the fresh-sounding seafood choices, the wraps, or the better than diner-class desserts; this isn't a place with a rotating three-story pie rack or a low-class dive. It's better than that, he says, noting that the restaurant processes many of its meats in house, and recently committed to locally sourcing virtually everything it serves. What diner cares about such things?
Then there's the other side of the story - the Lake Effect as a seemingly incomplete project, a place that talks a good game but doesn't totally deliver on its promise. It is, she says, a venue where multiple yellow jackets could and did fly in through a street-side door left open all through the meal, because there was seemingly no air conditioning on this semi-humid, 80-degree day; a dining experience where the service was prompt but seemingly a little confused; a restaurant where some of the items delivered flirted with impressiveness while others fell considerably short. This was the fair enough voice of warning, the one that looks past the stainless steel facade and the neat menu and the nice plates and says, "I may have liked the food, but I felt uncomfortable here. And I don't know that I'd want to spend another meal worrying about yellow jackets." Is something short of totally comfortable dining supposed to be expected at a diner? Should the name have put us on notice? Or is it, as she insisted, easily correctable with proper air conditioning, smarter service, and a bug zapper?
One thing we agreed on was the quality of the food from item to item. Coached by the menu and the vintage napkin dispenser on the table, we started our meal by ordering a Coke and a Hand-Dipped Milkshake ($4), noting the 22 shake flavor options and requesting our server's opinions as to what was popular or best. She recommended any variant on chocolate, and we went with Chocolate Cherry, which came out in a classic Coke glass filled with something thicker than chocolate milk but thinner than the typical hand-mixed ice cream shake - a nice base of chocolate and a lightly artificial dose of cherry. It wasn't great - thicker would have been better - but it wasn't bad, either, and lived up to its billing.
We chose two appetizers from a half-page list, sampling the fresh seafood in an appetizer portion of the Crab Cakes ($8), and ordering some Chicken Wings ($8) as spicy as Lake Effect could make them. Someone in the windowless kitchen - visible from the dining room - called out for the "Suicide Sauce," and the plate of wings that arrived was a study in red, an actually almost frightening display of how chili can be made to intimidate in color and uneven texture. Yet we finished the plate without even requiring drinks or bleu cheese; they were, by local standards, somewhere in the "medium" range - tasty enough, saucy enough, but not special.
The Crab Cakes, on the other hand, were really good - not the largest or thickest we've ever seen, but almost completely made from crab rather than breading or other filler, and drizzled with a creamy white chipotle mayonnaise. Other than a lettuce leaf and a lemon slice, which we didn't need thanks to the amply rich taste of the tender, lightly seared crabmeat pieces, there wasn't anything else on the plate, or needed. We ripped through the two cakes in the sort of hurried bites that lead all-you-can-eat buffets to serve their crabs in shells, lest diners eat their weight in meat before feeling sated; by the end of the plate, we were pleased and ready for more. Since there isn't a larger entree version, it might well be worth ordering a couple of portions and treating it as a full meal.
One of us chose an entree that sounded like an atypically upgraded version of a diner classic: Lake Effect's Smoked Turkey Savory Stuffed Potato Pancakes ($11), billed as accompanied by mashed potatoes, grilled veggies, cranberry sauce and a gravy made from scratch. The potato pancake portion wasn't all that impressive, in part due to a plain gravy that seemed only to muddle the fried brown disc of fresh, thin-sliced potatoes, blending its flavor with the similarly forgettable mash below. However, the plate's vegetables - less the zucchini or squash, more the copious sliced mushrooms - added fresh flavor and different textures to the plate, while the turkey was attractively garnished with parsley and spice, but tasted a little dry. The plate sounded deluxe and looked great for what it was, but didn't thrill on flavor.
We were more impressed by Lake Effect's take on the Buffalo classic Beef on Weck ($6), which was actually one of the most memorable we've ever had: the kummelweck roll was either improvised using a kaiser roll with coarse salt and caraway seeds precariously placed on top with a light glaze, or the result of a toasting process that melted the kummelweck's typical salt and seed binding. In any case, picking up the sandwich led to a sloppy but interesting shifting of the salt and caraway, then mostly delicious bites of hot, ever so slightly browned bread with pretty good sliced meat. It was actually fun to handle, and included a French Dip-style bowl of jus, a fresh pickle slice, and some horseradish. The price didn't include french fries or potato chips.
Though we didn't want to skip dessert due to the interesting menu choices - homemade cheese cake, peanut butter pie, and carrot cake, a chocolate layer cake brought in from elsewhere, and a couple of other items of unknown origin, plus ice creams - we didn't have enough room to sample more than one. We went with something homemade, the atypically inexpensive Carrot Cake ($4), in order to see how the kitchen did with its own creations. What emerged was a surprisingly shaped cylinder of obviously fresh cake, topped with a shabby chic layer of cream cheese, reminding us of a cupcake. We cut into it excitedly but found the flavor to be only decent; the topping was almost as sweet as a sugar icing, and the bottom was surely carrot-filled, but lacking in any sort of spice or depth of flavor. It was fine, not better, though with slightly adjusted ingredients, it so easily could have been more.
Ultimately, the Lake Effect Diner is quite possibly one of the most interesting restaurants in the City of Buffalo - a beautiful, classic example of a diner in looks, a more traditionally so-so diner in service, and something better than a diner in terms of its options, ingredients, and preparations, despite reasonable, diner-like prices. Judged solely on the quality of its food, we both agreed that Lake Effect would merit a 2.75-star rating, but when the totality of the dining experience was taken into account - service and comfort - the rating dips, substantially from one viewpoint, less so in the other's. Taken as a whole, we'd call it a 2.25-star restaurant overall with highs and lows that might well justify different ratings for different people; some would say it's as worthy of a visit for a view of the venue as it is for the meals served inside. In either case, we consider it to be a place that's certainly worth seeing and trying at least once, with return visits open to some discussion.