As I stood, taking in the excitement surrounding the cars sharing 500 Main Street block ribbon cutting, I couldn’t help but notice a stretch of new windows at the corner of Genesee Street. The windows belong to Raclettes, a casual French restaurant owned by Sandra and Paul Wilkens. The couple bought the building four years ago, at around the same time Canalside was just getting underway (talk about visionaries).
It all started when Sandra’s expat sister talked her into opening a restaurant. To Sandra, it sounded like a viable proposition and business adventure. Sandra, an Italian who originally hails from Niagara Falls (and also lived in Wheatfield), and Paul, who is from England, began to scope out buildings in Downtown Buffalo. The first building that they went after turned out to be a nightmare right off the bat. So the two decided to build their dream house in Grand Island since they were planning on living above the restaurant building (that fell through).
During that time they still poked around, but it wasn’t until they came across 537 Main Street that they rekindled their desire to move forward with a French eatery/living accommodations. So they sold their dream house in Grand Island (and a little sports car), and began to build their corner enclave in the city. “By that time my sister, who has a culinary background, had already pulled out of the project – it was just taking too long for her,” Sandra told me. “We knew that we needed someone with a lot of restaurant experience, so we began to form a culinary team.”
The build-out of the structure began with the couple’s two-storey dream loft (above the restaurant), and let me tell you, there is no place in Buffalo like it. The place is drop dead gorgeous… but that is a story for another day. While they were waiting for their loft to be completed, the couple lived at the Sidway and then at The Hyatt. “We loved every minute of it,” Sandra exclaimed. “When we travel we always stay in cities because we like to walk to destinations. We never had that living here in Grand Island. Immediately we began to walk to coffee shops, restaurants, and even the Abright-Knox. The walk was half the fun. We never had to worry about parking and we got to know the city.”
If there was ever a poster child for living in Buffalo, it would have to be Sandra. The woman is a pro-Buffalo dynamo. Listening to her talk, I couldn’t help but get excited for her, her husband, her friends, her customers, and everyone else that she will have an impact on for years to come. She lives and breathes the city. And she is going to bring a business to Main Street that might as well be considered a giant living room. “I’m going to learn all of the bus routes,” she said [laughing]. ” So that I can tell everyone how to get here using public transportation. Or the Metro Rail. It’s so easy and it’s so much fun. My husband and I spent our lives as IT professionals. Now we’re going to be opening our doors to people who want to experience a world of French food. My brother-in-law is a Le Cordon Bleu chef – we will have some of his recipes on the menu. We will have grab and go Parisian-inspired sandwiches on baguettes. We will also be serving raclette – a French/Swiss dish where you heat the cheese on a grill and scrape off the melted part. Then you add various ingredients and serve it up. It’s delicious and we have so many different types of cheeses and ingredients to add. It’s like a yummy French taco. Then there will be specialty crepes.”
Just listening to Sandra rattle of the food options, my mouth began to water. She told me about the salad ingredients, that could be transformed into a baguette sandwich, or even a crepe. Then she talked about the salade niçoise, and the croque-monsieur and madame, the beef bourguignon, the open face tartnines, the coq au vin, and the cassoulet. She described all of these dishes in a brilliant manner, like they should be a part in the lives of all Buffalonians moving forward. And they soon will be, if anyone has any smarts about them. Customers will be able to come in for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. And then in spring they will open up for breakfast. “Living down here, we realized quickly that there needs to be some restaurant offerings on the weekends, and in the morning,” Sandra told me. “You’re not going to find wings and burgers though – we will send people looking for those types of offerings to the places that serve that type of food – and there are many in the city. We will have something here that is truly unique, serving food that is meant to inspire.”
I’m not sure what Sandra is most excited about – the loft, the restaurant, the walkability, the opening of Main Street, or the amenities that are springing up. “We sit by out fireplace and watch the skaters at Rotary Rink,” she shared. “Look! There… you can see the steeple of St. Louis Church. It’s magnificent. This city is so beautiful, and it’s coming alive. See for yourself – Buffalo is rising all around us.”
Raclettes will open sometime shortly after the first of the year (fingers crossed). Everything in the place is new except the floors. They are keeping with the traditions of the building, with an old world look and European prints, paintings and murals. This high profile building has seen a lot of ups and downs in the past. Fortunately, the future looks very bright thanks to Sandra and Paul who are building out the spaces (including back patio – see inset photo) in ways that pay tribute to the historic nature of this blossoming business district.