The lost art of the downhome diner experience has been rekindled on Niagara Street, thanks to partners Herb Mendolera and Melissa Smith. The duo has opened Beulah’s Diner at 1239 Niagara Street in one of Bill Breeser‘s buildings. It’s interesting to note that this is the former location of Sugar City, and Compton’s After Dark before that.
While Beulah’s was dreamt up by Herb, it’s Melissa who runs the show. It all started when Herb talked to his daughter, Mallory Mendolera, who owns and operates Dipped & Designed by Mallory at 73 Glenwood Avenue, about opening a second location. Before long, Melissa was onboard. While the new storefront for the hand-dipped shop was being built out (by Herb, who works on a lot of Breeser’s buildings), the decision was made to get the ball rolling by opening a clam stand in the driveway. The Clam Dive opened this past July. At the same time, Herb and Melissa decided that it would behoove them to open a diner in the back of the building, which has a large amount of space. Soon-after, they learned that Mallory was not going to open a shop in the front of the building, which is when the diner concept took precedence.
Today, Beulah’s Diner is fully operational in the front of the building, as is an offshoot retail section featuring products by Dipped & Designed. I ran into Herb yesterday, as he was packing things into his truck, and we struck up a conversation about the business suite. I asked him where the name Beulah came from, and he mentioned that it’s the name of the witch from the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show, which aired circa 1950 (see YouTube video). It turns out that Beulah is the endearing pet name that Herb has for Melissa, which is why there’s a cute witch on the sign on the exterior of the building. In turn, Melissa’s pet name for Herb is Herbalicious. There’s even a menu item by that name – the Herb-O-Licious sandwich (ham, salami, capocolla, Pepper Jack cheese). Nothing on the menu is names “Herbert,” because you’ll only hear that name uttered when Herb is in the doghouse.
Once I had the backstory clear, it was time to try some food. I stopped in earlier today, as the diner is currently open Tuesday through Saturday, from 7am to 2pm. While fairly nondescript on the inside (on the diner side), the emphasis is on the hot coffee and simple, hearty, delicious food. Beulah’s is everything that a diner should be. It’s very diner-ish, from the look and appeal to the food. The menu is as simple as the surroundings. I ordered the Beulah (of course), with two eggs over easy, two slices of French toast, two sausage patties, homefries (crisp), and rye toast (for $10.95). I could not have asked for anything more, period. The food was tremendous. I can’t remember the last time that I had diner food that made me so happy.
Part of the reason that I’m such a newfound fan of Beulah’s is that they have taken the lost art of diner-ing, and brought it back front and center. There are no pretensions about this place – what you see is what you get. And when I saw my plate of food come out (two plates actually), I knew that I was in for a treat.
Melissa, who grew up on the West Side, has managed to bring something to that part of the city that is relatively non-existent these days – a tried and true diner experience. Maybe it’s because she’s also a bartender at Barry’s on Amherst Street, where she has worked behind the pine for 15 years. Or maybe it’s because she grew up understanding the simplicities and nuances of the diner experience, which she embraced early on, during the early days of Pano’s (when it was a tiny hole in the wall).
As for Herb, “He builds it, and I run it,” said Melissa. That’s what happened with the clam stand, and that’s what’s happening with Beulah’s. “I’ve got Patty cooking in the back, and Michael (head cook) is currently out, but he’s coming back soon. I cook along with them when they need me, and operate the front of the house. At some point, the diner will expand into the back, but I love this front diner experience, so I think we’re going to keep it as well, with limited seating. We will do food service in the back during the day (7 days a week), and at night we will rent it out for birthdays, and other neighborhood events. It all started with the clam stand – I still have devoted customers call me to place special orders for the clams casino. Next year, we’re going to probably add beer and wine to The Clam Dive menu… it’s where I learned a lot of the things that helped me to run the diner, from shucking clams to using Ganci’s Famous Bar-B-Que Sauce, which is a West Side tradition.”
For years. I have been searching for this exact type of diner experience on the West Side. I can’t believe that I finally found it, thanks to a couple that was looking for something different to try, while sharing their love of exploring new concepts with the community. To be honest, a lot of times this trial-by-fire doesn’t always translate to successful business endeavors, but in this case, it did. Oh, did I mention that they also have a kettle corn business called Papa’s? Now that’s another story for another day.
Beulah’s Diner | 1239 Niagara Street | Buffalo NY 14213 | 716-322-5097