Scharf’s Schiller Park restaurant

3 Oct

It’s like an endangered species. There aren’t very many left. It feels like hiking through deep woods and seeing something you thought had died long ago: the neighborhood bar and restaurant.

All of which is reason enough to spend an evening during Octoberfest at Scharf’s Schiller Park German Restaurant.

Under incredible circumstances, the place continues to stay in business. The first is location. The restaurant is located in a neighborhood a few turns off a main road at the very end of a dead end street abutting Schiller Park in Buffalo.

If there were a terrible location for a business, this would be it. No passing traffic. Everyone who walks into the restaurant are people who somehow know it’s there. There’s neither the curious passerby nor stream of visiting suburbanites sweeping past.

You’re driving through a neighborhood, and then, to your amazement, just when you think you’re lost and should re-check the directions, it appears next to a house at the end of a dead end street. It’s an anomaly. A zoning mishap. An oxymoron. An advertising nightmare. And at one time, the “norm.”

Before Olive Garden and Applebees, there were only the neighborhood bars, places where men would gather after work, stuffing into a warm room to enjoy a cold beer or hot drink, where families would congregate in one large living room where they learned everyone else’s business and bought good food cheap.

Most of all, they sold the kind of food you liked: your food, your family’s food, your heritage food. And it was prepared right.

They were small, warm places scattered on street corners or in someone’s converted house. You scooted in to escape the snow for a half hour and chat with the bartender before entering the blistering cold again.

They were run by families. Mom cooked; dad tended bar; and children served. People happily ate.

To visit Scharf’s is to witness this once again. I mistakenly thought these places had all vanished a half century ago. Many did. The world around them changed as malls sprang from the pavement and McDonalds sprouted on Niagara Falls Boulevard and every Main Street across America.

Yet here it was, and here I was with my parents on a drizzly Saturday evening in October, led to this curious place by the indomitable MapQuest and the recommendation of someone who had patronized it the week before, returning to tell about it with bewildered astonishment and intense pleasure to anyone who would listen, like a field scientist who discovers a rare species lives. He saw it, and now I did too.

Inside, an 82-year-old accordion player from Cheektowaga named Henry Chimes creates music from the instrument on his lap, and as his right hand runs up and down the keys and his left brings the bellows back and forth, back and forth, the music slips in and around laughter and fills the room.

Dressed in gray lederhosen and a hat with a feather in it, he raises a beer glass, and everyone in the room does the same. They toast. Candles flicker on tables, and people sway with the music. Chimes leads the singing. A few people wave small German flags.

The waitress arrives with our entrees. They include the most delicious potato pancakes I’ve ever tasted—thick and crispy with onion flavor—and two meaty dumplings.

The singing continues: “In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here.” People file in. People leave. Stamping. Clapping. Swaying. Then, the song “Eelweiss.”

Outside, the darkened houses are silent and still, except for a few children playing in the rainy street.

Against all odds, the greatest of which being the magnificent, crushing force of the chain restaurant, Scharf’s is gloriously alive at the end of a dead end street, and its very existence pays homage to an earlier era. We should too.

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