Previously, the crowd was good. Restaurants paid premiums for setting up in busy areas. The more popular spots didn’t have to offer reservations or parking plans to just fish from the shore as the salmon invaded the stream. (Exhibit 1: Kuni’s.)
Now, with the dominant business model shifted to take-out, places without parking or windows of passage have a capacity problem. When each customer is in an automobile, the waiting rooms must be much larger.
Hamburg has adapted to the new standard as everywhere. During meal times, the edges of its downtown blocks are reserved for restaurant customers who rush to take out. From blue collar to black tie, dinner is served safely.
On a recent Saturday, a masked face Jimmy Butera paced the main street lined with cars like a soccer sideline, using his phone to connect stormy totem poles to order numbers displayed in the automatic windows. With occasional double parking and a frustrated detour, the couriers kept their heads on a pivot.
[Guide: See Buffalo-area restaurants and bars open for takeout]
Butera (32 Main Street, 648-5017), pizza and sandwiches with personality are accompanied by craft beer. The pies that come out of his well-seasoned brick oven are of robust structure and flavor, with heavy corniciones and landscapes of creative flavors like a steak pizza ($ 18.99) built on a base of garlic butter , layered with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, shaved beef and a swirl of pesto and nut mayonnaise. A stuffed banana pepper pizza ($ 17.99) offered lots of spicy chili rings on a seasoned ricotta mat sprinkled with marinara.
The pound for pound flavor champion is Butera’s BBQ Bacon Meatloaf Sandwich ($ 12.99), served with seasoned potato wedges. When the meatloaf strewn with bacon and cheese turns around the coals of cherry and apple trees, it absorbs smoke like a sponge.
A thick board is seared with sauce, then topped with pepper cheese, crisp coleslaw and bacon on a homemade roll enriched with Cajun mayonnaise. This is the kind of sandwich that you stop halfway through so you can have it twice. A beer thief sprang from a leak before I noticed it and decanted it. I’m sure Butera would have replaced him if asked.
[Related: Butera’s helps drive #HamburgCurbside initiative]
Juicy Burger Bar (1 rue Buffalo, 648-3200) had a scrambled telephone system which led me to the door. A staff member opened the door, asked for my name, and put my luggage on the sidewalk for me to catch it.
The Chuck Norris Roundhouse burger (black and blue patty, red onion jam, blue cheese, bacon, $ 13.50) managed to get the daylight out of my hunger. As its natural and commendable juiciness reduced the lower bread to stick by the time it reached my table, next time, I would put it on my park and snarf list.
The fries remained crisp despite the delay, and the chicken and waffle sandwich ($ 14) was remarkably well suited for the transition, the peppery jacket of the tenders was still properly steep.
[Look back at takeout from another neighborhood — the University District]
Barn Community Kitchen (22 rue Main, 648-0022) was buzzing with activity, its doors opening only for squads of bag slappers. Three days of food arrived in my trunk, packaged and labeled, with instructions. One liter of chili ($ 18) with jalapeños and sour cream, to thaw as desired. A pan of cinnamon rolls ready to bake ($ 12) with frosting and instructions, was waiting impatiently for a change, see you tomorrow.
Today my attention was on a Grange original: an Austin-by-way-of-Jerusalem chest sandwich ($ 18). Featuring lush smoked beef in nuts, tart herb tahini sauce and homemade pickles, stuffed in made-to-order laffa bread, the excitement of Texas barbecue cavemen supported by an invigorating lemon profile garlic from the Middle East made the word sandwich insufficient. Call it a double handful of edible genius, the kind of dish that makes you wonder what chef-owner Brad Rowell and his team can imagine.
It may be on the menu. Maybe not. So if you see crispy pork ribs ($ 12) on the menu, order them. Who knows when you will have another chance to enjoy baby backs preserved in their own fat, fried to be crunchy, then tossed in a caramel fish sauce, coated with polenta and garnished with crushed peanuts, pickled peppers and coriander.
[Read more: 2017 dining review of the Grange]
At Grange, you must always order a dessert. The pistachio pie ($ 8) with Concord raisin buttercream and a topped with homemade grape jam inked would be a dead coda for any meal.
Lucia on the lake (4151 Lakeshore Road, 627-9752) offers a menu going up to the wagyu strip steak (Australian, classified MS9, $ 69). I asked the woman taking my order to tell the chef that I had a 45-minute drive before dinner, so prepare the steak for it to warm up at the destination.
After enjoying the view of the shore of Lake Erie during a smooth transaction, I returned with a specialty of Alaskan halibut and lobster ($ 36). The luxurious abbondanza of fresh sweet shellfish, subtly underlined with garlic, white wine and basil, then a lot of Romano cheese, was both a cause and a means of celebration.
[Related: 2015 dining review of Lucia’s on the Lake]
The halibut was successful, skillfully blackened without overwhelming the fish, which withstood gentle reheating, with delicious potato pancakes spotted with fine herbs of grated spuds. The white butter accompanying the apple was a bland disappointment.
This steak, seared in a hot pan before I received it, went back into the oven when I wanted to share it. It was memorable for both its quality and its setting. Finally, something under my total control.