I grew up in a working class neighborhood on Buffalo's East Side. It was a largely Polish neighborhood, filled with families supported by men who worked in factories that made steel or cars or other commodities. My father worked at Westinghouse. It was the kind of neighborhood where at 5PM you could see the men coming home from work swinging there black lunch boxes. Many took the bus or car pooled so their wives might have the use of the family car during the day.
The houses were for the most part built in the early part of the twentieth century on small lots with small patches of grass in the front and small gardens and garages in the back. They were well maintained, and the neighbors were friendly. We were not Polish, but many thought we were because my Dad had played baseball on the Polish International Team, in his youth, before playing professionally with the Bisons and other minor league teams followed with the House of David traveling team.My old neighborhood has been decimated by unemployment, poverty, dysfunction, drugs. My old house must have burned down, as the last time I visited my block the lot was leveled.
So some of my visit to Niagara Falls was to drive through similar neighborhoods that have suffered the same sort of terrible decay or threat of decay. In an odd way, I am comfortable in those neighborhoods.
I read about two places in an old Polish neighborhood where I could get a Polish meal. The first place is an old restaurant called Gadawski's. I visited this spot a couple times. It is in a section that may have lost much of its houses and still has some boarded up, next to a closed Polish Catholic church and school that is now preserved as a landmark and could have easily been built in my old neighborhood in Buffalo.
So I went up the street a mile or so to Koban's because on Sundays they served a Polish platter special. The neighborhood improved dramatically in just this short ride.
I wandered around to the rear of the restaurant. Here, one of those very narrow roads gave the locals access to their tiny garages and in the one directly behind Koban's some young men were working on bits of motors spread out in disarray. They told me that they thought the restaurant would open twnety minutes later at 4 PM and by the time I got back around to the front, a waitress, Mary, was there at the door and she let me in to use the bathroom.
It was a hot day and I asked if I could wait at the bar and drink a beer until the cooking began. And I was treated like family.
What followed was a long interview with the waitress who like to talk about the history of Koban's and who let me wander in the still deserted restaurant and take some photographs. It was really a stoke of luck to arrive when I did.
The restaurant had been in the family for 33 years. Ron Koban had established it. He worked as a Social Studies teacher and played the organ in the I visited when it was open and thriving. Now his daughter and other family members ran the place. Mary, who talked to me, had worked there for 32 years. She had been friends with one of the daughters since she was 16 and she felt like the restaurant was in her family as well.
She told me there had been a fine wedding there and the couple from Pennsylvania had written it up in praising tones.
Just as it was odd to a reviewer of Gadawski's to find it decorated with fighting Irish memorabilia, it was a surprise to me to see this place decorated with boats. Ron had a couple sailboats and customers and family started to give him paintings and wall hangings as gifts until the entire restaurant was decorated with them.
Finally my meal came, a huge platter with one breaded veal cutlet, one link of kielbasa, one large meatball with cabbage (what they called inside out glomki) ,sauerkraut and a few good chunks of boiled potato. It was all good. Salad and a nice slice of rye bread came with it. All for about $15.
While I ate at the bar, I talked to Ron's grandaughter Christy who was just finishing her studies to become a special education teacher. We talked about how hard it is now to find a teaching job, of how much being a substitute might set her up in a school, and about whether she was willing to travel for work or needed to stay home and be around the family.
Once the Bill's game was over, folks started to come in for Sunday dinner. I talked to a fellow poker player at the bar for a while. And then it was time for me to head back to the casino.
I guess this is the best tavern experience I have had this year. I'll certainly return if I get the chance to make that trip again.