Usually, when walking into a new business, I pretty much know what to anticipate. With High Violet, I was caught off-guard.
Last week, I paid a visit to this hidden-away cocktail lounge, which is located down a freshly-laid cobblestone alleyway situated along Elmwood Avenue. Even the idea that a mysterious new alleyway had appeared next to Bureau (made to measure men’s clothing) was enough to intrigue me per the possibilities that lay ahead. But once inside, any preconceived notions that I might have had were quickly washed away, as I found myself standing in what looked to be a completely foreign, decadent European setting that was unlike anything that I had ever come across in Buffalo. Where the heck did this come from?
It came from the minds of lounge co-owners Barry Heneghan, Robert Clerici, Jon Eisenberg, Joe Stocker, and David Mitchell, who brought onboard additional investors to tackle the project. The creative direction of High Violet fell in the lap of David Mitchell (Klub Weimar), who also built much of the finishings that people will see (and sit on) in the space, according to Heneghan. Eisenberg also helped with interior styling work.
Together, this team has outdone themselves. They’ve also raised the bar for what Buffalo is able to bring to the table when it comes to swank cocktail settings. The place is cozy, tantalizing, sumptuous, mysterious… everything is so well-formulated and perfectly executed. It’s also the perfect fit with up-front neighbor Bureau, owned by Stocker and Eisenberg, who initially set the bar for impeccable fashion and design sense on the block.
“It’s an obsessive pursuit that is long overdue,” said Mitchell, who orchestrated the design-forward cocktail lounge. “We need to be more inventive in Buffalo. This could be a place in Mexico City, or Bangkok. If they can do it in Paris, then we can do it too.”
To think that this old Victorian-house setting, tucked away in back of a bespoke men’s clothing shop, even existed was plenty to wrap my mind around.
It was Clerici who ended up giving me a tour throughout the intimate cocktail lounge setting. On one end was a dining area that looked to seat around 25 people. The seating arrangement reminded me of The Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange.
In fact, a lot of films/books come to mind here, including Heart of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo, Performance (with Mick Jagger), Chinatown… anything noir actually.
Then there’s the bar that can accommodate about a dozen people comfortably.
A number of romantic nook seating arrangements can be found throughout High Violet. The one below was designed to look like a train car.
And towards the back is a separate dining/cocktail seating area for another ten people or so.
The lighting is dramatic, the colors are lavish, and the bathrooms are to die for – I love the shimmering-deco, opulent-green, vertical subway tile walls. Every aesthetic aspect of High Violet has been thoroughly addressed, thanks to the impassioned eye of Mitchell.
As if that wasn’t enough, a garage in the backyard (now a courtyard) is being transitioned into a multipurpose setting where crêpes will be served. The owners are hoping to have it open by end of May. Clerici told me that the heated brick walkway leading to “P.S.” (possibly the name) is upcycled from an old cobblestone road in Jamestown, NY… of course.
“This entire property will have been redeveloped without a single building coming down,” said Heneghan. “We transitioned the driveway and parking to a walkway and courtyard as we wanted this to be for humans and not cars.”
John Wingfelder Architect was also part of the project team, by helping to bring the unique and rich vision of David Mitchell and the owners into a buildable reality. As the architect of record, Wingfelder and team worked out the construction and structural scheme that transformed the conventional original house and made these new spaces possible.
“The building code compliance might have been one of the more complicated and successful contributions made by the architect, including making something beautiful and useful out of the required accessible entrance in the courtyard,” noted architect team member, Charlie Wingfelder.
Between the chill music and the Eurostar travel (sleeper car) vibe, with servers wearing burgundy coats and ties (carrying round bar trays), and the food, there’s a lot to be excited about.
Ah yes, the shared plates and cocktails – I’m a fan of the Vibrant Plumage: rum, mezcal, lemon, lime, golden beets, and lapsang souchong (black tea). Next time I want to try A Bird Of Bad Moral Character: tequila, mezcal, roasted tomatillo, black pepper, amargo-vallet, lemon, lime, dried chile tincture. The popular shared plate of the evening was the Berkshire Pork Belly, with maple glaze and carrot-apple slaw. The sole dessert was an Almond Honey Semifreddo. You get the drift.
Buffalo has plenty of awesome burger joints, Italian restaurants, sports bars, beer, spirits, and cocktail establishments, but there is only one High Violet… for now. Hopefully that will change, as we are starting to see glimmers of hope when it comes to bringing back a few of the luxuriant cocktail lounges that once proliferated the city in and around the 1930’s.
As for the name High Violet, Heneghan told me that it’s the title of one of his favorite albums by The National. And it just so happens that the band’s horn player lives right around the corner from the cocktail lounge. Now that’s something to think about…
Why? Because it’s a new day in Buffalo, where anything is possible, and even probable.