There’s not much that’s recognizable from this 69-year-old view of Delaware Avenue, looking south from Hertel Avenue.
The Esso gas station and Deco restaurant have long been replaced by the buildings that are now home to KeyBank and M&T Bank. In fact, none of the commercial buildings visible remain.
The houses on the left and the train overpass off in the distance are the only landmarks which still stand.
In 1950, there were several car dealers on both sides of Delaware up to the train overpass, including Hunt for Chevrolet. The last car dealer in that stretch was Gary Pontiac, which was torn down to make way for Tim Hortons.
It’s worth adding that this photo came from the “Buffalo History” file of the dean of Buffalo radio talk show hosts, Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Famer John Otto.
In the days before the internet, when Otto had to rely on his memory and his vast collection of files when leading his “conference call of all interested parties” overnight on WGR. Most nights, Otto would take calls from anyone willing to “pull up a piece of airtime, speaking frankly; generally, on any topic at all.”
These days, the answer to most questions are available with the proper search terms in Google. When a point of information came into contention on the Otto program, he would often turn to “your listenership” for an answer, if he didn’t have it at his fingertips.
Aside from the nightly talk show for which he’s remembered, Otto was also a television pioneer, having hosted children’s programs and serving at the Atlantic Weatherman in the early days of Channel 2.
Otto was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1998. He died in 1999.
There’s something about eating in a diner that makes us feel closer to some unique piece of America that exists only in our peripheral vision these days.
While diner car restaurants were popping up in various forms around the country from the 1920s through the 1960s, here in the City of Buffalo, the dining category defined by quick, cheap food served in a sparse, sometimes questionable environment was dominated Deco Restaurants.
In the 1940s, there were more than 50 tiny Deco lunch counter restaurants tucked into every neighborhood in Buffalo, in much the same way that other big cities of the time had diners.
The good news is that the pre-fab diners that dotted America’s landscape were made to be moved, so just because Buffalo didn’t have any diners during the diner heyday doesn’t mean we can’t eat in authentic, decades-old manufactured diner cars today.
And as we learn about the pre-Buffalo history of the city’s two very popular diners, we also see that while the unique American institution of the diner is new to these neighborhoods, the style of service existed in the uniquely Buffalo institution of the Deco Restaurant within a block or two of both places.
Lake Effect Diner
What we know as the Lake Effect Diner today was manufactured in 1952, one of 400 or so built by the Mountain View Diners Co. in Singac, N.J. It began life in Wayne, P.A., as the Main Line Grille.
Elsie D’Ignazio was a cook there, and when the business came up for sale, she bought the place.
The place operated as the Wayne Diner for about 20 years; then it was sold and became Orient House Chinese restaurant. A few years later, the place was renamed China Buddha Restaurant and was an area landmark known as much for its giant red, green and white sign as its cuisine
Lake Effect owner Tucker Curtain bought the diner and went to great lengths to bring it back to its original look, with lots of stainless steel and pink tiles. Today you’ll find the Lake Effect Diner on Main Street in University Heights.
While the people of Wayne, P.A., were eating meatloaf at the Wayne Diner, people at Main and Englewood — a few blocks from where the diner now stands — were eating at Deco Restaurant.
Built as a Deco Restaurant, for decades, the building was home to Chabad House. Currently, the storefront is back to its restaurant roots as the home of Wholly Crepe.
Swan Street Diner
With baked enamel walls and mahogany window trim, the classic Newark Diner opened in 1939.
Only three families operated the restaurant for the more than 70 years it was open in Newark, N.Y.
“It’s not so much fancy stuff as it is plain food, good cooking with flavor,” said John Reynolds, the second owner, in the Finger Lake Times in 1984. “But the most important thing we have isn’t for sale — it’s simply friendship, a place to go. The people who come in here, they have all the virtues you would consider American — a very strong work ethic. They go to work in the morning, stop in for coffee, to see their friends, to talk or complain about work.”
That description of the blue-collar folks shuffling through the diner when it was in the small Steuben County town sounds a lot like what was happening a block away at the Deco on Seneca Street just on the other side of Emslie Street from the diner’s current location.
While slinging quick meals was the understated every day at the Newark, the tiny diner in the tiny town did have one moment in the sun.
In 1993, ABC’s General Hospital descended on the restaurant, changed the sign and made “The Triple L Diner” part of the Luke and Laura story line.
Scenes were shot both inside and outside the Newark for the daytime soap.
Starting in 2013, the Zemsky Family, which runs the Larkin Development Group, had the J.B. Judkins Co. “Sterling-brand” diner moved and renovated.
In 1981, an era ended in Buffalo when the last Deco Restaurant turned off the short-order griddle for the last time.
Buffalo News archives
Deco served its first hot dog and what would become known as “Buffalo’s best cup of coffee” in 1918. Success at that first small stand at the corner of Main and Lisbon saw another small stand open near Seneca and Bailey. By the 1940s, Gregory Deck grew the business into an empire of more than 50 Deco lunch counters around the city. These places were small, cheap, and slam-bang. From your stool bolted in front of a small counter, you could order coffee, burgers, hot dogs, and a limited menu of one or two regularly changing specials. Cherry Cokes and lemonades were the favorites of the younger crowd.
The smell of grease, cigarettes, and coffee hung in the air. Reflective of Buffalo’s then overwhelmingly blue collar factory workforce, Deco was more a place for shift workers to consume sustenance than a place to sit down and enjoy a meal. Depression-era and then war-production-era Buffalo lapped up the no-frills little joints.
In the ’50s, the appeal of Deco’s haggard simplicity was waning. Teenagers still liked the cheap prices and the pinball machines that were squeezed into most locations, but more welcoming places like Your Host and Colonial House were gaining a foothold with bigger menus and a nicer atmosphere. On the cheaper end, places like Henry’s Hamburgers were offering a sack of burgers for a buck. McDonald’s was there, too — faster and cheaper.
Deco Restaurants listing in the 1950 and 1977 City Directories. (Buffalo Stories archives)
When Gregory Deck retired in 1961, he sold out to SportsService and the Jacobs family. Eight units remained in 1977, and the last one — now the parking lot for the Hotel Lafayette — closed in 1981.