Yesterday I took a bike ride to River Grill along the Niagara River. The tiki bar and restaurant is a nearby waterfront outpost on the border of the city limits. River Grill is one of the best summer destinations that any city could hope for. While the views of the water are far from stunning – there are a couple of boathouses that obscure much of the river – there is no doubt that when you step inside the establishment you have arrived at a true waterfront destination.
What is especially unique (and sad) about the River Grill is that, if it was not for the Niagara Thruway, the stretch of waterfront property from the Peace Bridge to Tonawanda would probably dotted with these types of island-esque establishments. Somehow, some way, River Grill managed to beat the odds by claiming the first chunk of property, at the exact point where the thruway heads inland.
Despite the fact that the 190 literally engulfs most of the remaining waterfront property along the river, if you sit down on the River Grill patio, with a beer in your hand, the sun in your face, and close your eyes, you can almost imagine what could have been if not for Robert Moses type development decisions. After all, the 190 was once the Erie Canal, complete with a Towpath. The following excerpt is from an article in Western New York Heritage press (see entire article):
The Towpath was next. New York State decided to run the Thruway along the Niagara River following the old Erie Canal bed, which would take it right over the old Towpath. The state already owned the land. Frank Mutz (see article) died in 1955, a year before the razing of buildings began, a year before the last good year of blue pike fishing. Towpath residents were ordered to vacate by April 1, 1957. A mock funeral was held by several Towpath residents, including Art Decelle, the last Mayor. A photograph shows pallbearers bearing a casket with these words inscribed on it: “In loving memory of T.O. Path 1825 – 1957, Doublecrossed by Dewey-Harriman, Tallamy.”
Many of the fishing clubs, faced with the loss of their riverfront homes, disbanded. The only one that did not was the George Washington Fishing and Camping Club. An emergency meeting was held for the entire membership, which included three charter members. The club moved a few times before finding its present quarters at 2805 Niagara St., Town of Tonawanda. It has a magnificent view of the wide waters of the river and Strawberry Island, but no waterfront access. Most riverfront neighborhoods were completely cut off from the riverside, and only a few places, like the boat launch at the foot of Ontario Street, allowed access to the river. The late 1950s could be called the end of easy access to the waterfront for the public.
These were the types of things that I thought about last evening, as I watched the sun going down (and contemplating my ride home). As I watched all of the patrons (and there were many), eating their dinners, dancing, drinking at the bar, and listening to the music of Flying Blind (the band plays every Monday), I felt that there was at least one small victory that the Thruway didn’t steal away from Riverside and surrounding neighborhoods. Everyone was enjoying themselves. It was almost as if the partiers, many dressed in Hawaiian-style shirts, sitting underneath the grill’s iconic red palm trees, were blissfully ignorant of the travesty that had befallen this part of Buffalo.
Despite the problematic past that the area suffered, River Grill remains as an absolute “must” for anyone who enjoys good food and drinks in a waterfront setting. I spoke to an 89-year old blues enthusiast by the name of Dottie Mathewson who told me that she comes every Monday to listen to what she considers is one of the best blues bands around. Her daughter Martha concurred. Other bands that play throughout the week include The Buffalo Touch (Polka Night), Electras, A-List, Billy Brite Band, Exit, Alfie Allisandra (on the deck), and the Rod Nickson Project. If you find yourself sitting down to listen to any one of these bands, in the lively (indoor or outdoor) surroundings of the grill, chances are that you will be leaving no time soon.
Fortunately for me, River Grill is situated right along the waterfront bike path that pretty much leads from the Outer Harbor to Tonawanda. Once Niagara Street is outfitted with bike lanes (project underway), the Peace Bridge trail is reopened (from foot of Porter), and Broderick Park is accessible to the public (bridge at foot of Ferry is closed for repair), the ride will be swift, scenic and enjoyable. No matter, don’t wait for the fixes – get yourself to this remarkable Buffalo institution before the end of the summer. You will thank the heavens that you did.