Starr Gazing

Dr. Dan Starr
Retired Director of Athletics and Professor Emeritus of American History at Canisius College.


Greeks in Buffalo: Where are they?

The other night, my family and I ate at Kostas Family Restaurant, the very popular Greek restaurant on Hertel Ave. The place was packed. Most Greek restaurants do well in the area; some like Pano’s do very well. Greek restaurants are scattered throughout WNY rather purposefully. A few are diners while most are casual eating places featuring what many would call Greek comfort food. While our broad Greek knowledge may be limited, most of us have heard of baklava, souvlaki and moussaki even if we do not know the ingredients of each. However, my friend Adonis Voyer even knows that dolmadakia is stuffed grape leaves. Most have also heard of the famous Greeks of antiquity: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and Alexander the Great, as well as the Greek gods Zeus and Aphrodite.

But where are the Greeks among us today? Where is or where was the Greek community in Buffalo? We all know that a hundred years ago, Buffalo, like most booming industrial cities, had large populations of immigrants that settled in ethnic conclaves. These included Italians, Poles, African Americans (coming up from the South), Hungarians, Jews, Irish, and Germans. More recently we see increasing numbers of Burmese in Riverside/Black Rock, Vietnamese in the Lovejoy area, Somalians, and small numbers of other newcomers. Didn’t some school authority, perhaps Warren Kruse, note that at least 36 languages were spoken at Grover Cleveland High School? In fact, the Internet, from the period of 2000-2015, lists our recent immigrant populations as Burmese: 12,379; Bhutanese: 6,770; Somali: 4740; and Iraqi: 3,493. Most are living on the West Side of Buffalo.

Did we ever have a real colony of Greeks, like a Greekville, a Hellenic neighborhood, or a Little Greece? I checked the census; it shows that more people of Greek heritage live in North Buffalo or Amherst than elsewhere in WNY, but still the numbers are small.

I had to reminisce and investigate.

Back in 1946, right after World War II, the Alcobar restaurant opened on Delaware Avenue in the middle of Kenmore. It was opened by Greeks, the Watson brothers, Lou and John, and their wives, Mary and Ellen. Essentially, it was a luncheonette/soda bar; it was a great place for teenagers to hang out and to enjoy chocolate phosphates (yuck) and Cokes. The Watsons also began to make chocolate figurines, especially gigantic rabbits at Easter time. Today, there is no more Alcobar but the Watson candy business prospered and has spread throughout Western New York.

Big Lou Watson was a tough, proud Greek who tolerated no nonsense in his soda bar. Once when Lou was carrying a four-foot chocolate Easter egg for a display, Shoes Bewick whispered that “Lou looked like he hatched it himself.” Lou heard and bodily moved Shoes out the front door telling him to go down the street to Tremos’ Texas Red Hot joint (a kind of greasy spoon) run by another Greek.

Yes, the Watsons were the first Greeks I encountered. Over the years, After50 types have encountered many other Greek eating places. The Towne Restaurant on Allen where Joanne Callahan and the CTG employees enjoyed rice pudding and Greek salads for lunch was very popular with downtown workers, as is Mythos on Elmwood Ave. Pano’s, of course, has achieved a well-deserved reputation. Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda has a few well patronized Greek restaurants. The Family Tree and Milo’s in Amherst, as well as Zoe’s on Transit are all popular. Everyone has heard of Ted’s Hot Dogs. Theodore Liaros opened the first Ted’s back in the 1920s. Old Ted is credited with helping to spread the Greek restaurant business throughout WNY.

However, there has been no big concentration of Greeks, no “Little Greece.” I checked Google and found that fair numbers of Greek immigrants did arrive in New York City and Boston, but again not in the huge numbers of other immigrant groups.

Percentage-wise, the largest concentration of Greeks in the United States is found in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Greeks, many of them sponge divers, arrived in Florida over a century ago; hence, Tarpon Springs being acknowledged as the sponge capital of the U.S. Back in the Aegean Sea, Greek divers were noted for the sponge business. Two of my old friends have residences in Tarpon Springs; Jack Duggan, a sponge fisherman himself, and Walt Sweeney, a legal advisor to Greeks in that area. My visits there always held the promise of a dose of Greek culture and fine dining at the many popular Greek restaurants.

The largest community of Greeks in the world outside of Greece itself is very close to Buffalo; in fact, it’s at our doorstep. I refer to the Danforth area in Toronto. Spurred on by the political turmoil in their homeland, Greeks arrived in prodigious numbers in the 1960-70s. In 1950, fewer than 5,000 Greeks lived in Toronto; by the late 1970s, the estimate was more than 65,000. Danforth Avenue became the center of Greek Town. Some called it “Little Athens.” It was said that, at times, you only heard Greek spoken up and down the avenue. Danforth is the center of the very large annual Greek festival in August.

What about Buffalo? I consulted local ethnic authority, Frank Eberl. Sure enough, he noted a location in downtown Buffalo, actually at the intersection of Main and Division streets where a sign is headed: “First Greek Settlers of Buffalo.” It further states that in 1893, Paraskevas Niarchos, Spyros Niarchos and Theodore Macheras resided nearby and operated a confectionary store.

Fast forward to 1977 and Buffalo witnessed its first annual Greek Fest. Like so many ethnic festivals in the Queen City, it has become a major event. The 40th annual Greek Festival will be celebrated in early June 2017, as usual at the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation at the corner of Delaware and Utica. Annunciation Church is the focal point for Greeks in WNY, kind of like St. Stan’s for Polonia or St Anthony’s for the Italians.

Yes, it was some years ago at the annual Buffalo Greek Fest that Zuke’s pal, Terk Studzel, asked, “Did Socrates really eat souvlaki?” Zuke answered, “Probably, but Socrates should have avoided Hemlock and stuck to souvlaki.” Wise words.

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