When Don Allen Jr. stops in at One Sunset on Delaware Avenue or Cocktails and More on Kensington Avenue, he often spots long-forgotten faces among the patrons, socializing over appetizers or drinks.
“It’s amazing; it’s like a reunion,” said Allen, 35. “I haven’t seen some of these people since high school. I thought they had left the area.”
But they had only left the city’s African-American social scene.
In business for less than a year, both One Sunset and Cocktails and More—though their patrons are not only African-Americans—have been able to bring out local blacks who have long been absent from the city’s night life due to what they consider a dearth of desirable options for professionals.
As the word spreads, Cocktails and Sunset are quickly resuscitating the social lives of African-American professionals who want to mingle with their peers. For many, however, two new restaurants don’t solve a glaring problem in Western New York: A relatively nonexistent upscale night life for African-Americans.
‘Nothing for us’
While Buffalo’s touted Chippewa and Elmwood scenes have thrived, many young, single black professionals, like Franklin and Maclin, claim that the choices they have for socializing are slim to none. They often stay home to avoid awkward situations where they are the only blacks in West Side clubs and bars, which are frequented by mostly whites and offer entertainment not to their taste.
“This is a pretty white social town, with a lack of a black middle class, so everything is geared toward whites,” said Kelli Daniels, 40, a Buffalo Public Schools administrator. “Chippewa is for white people—the genre of music, especially. There’s really nothing for us.”
On the city’s East Side, the bars and clubs tend to have lax dress codes and subpar decor, often attracting undesirable characters, according to several people interviewed for this story.
“We just need options, places we can go and maybe even get dressed up, instead of walking around in hoodies, T-shirts and Timbs,” Maclin said. “You want to see mature, professional people and you want to be safe, without fights and shootings.”
Cechon Stepp, 26, and his buddies often spend half of a Saturday at the Eaton Centre on Yonge Street in Toronto, then hit the dance floor for the rest of the night at one of Toronto’s reggae clubs.
Stepp used to party hard at the Groove and other now- defunct hip-hop clubs in Buffalo, until his cousin got stabbed at one.
“Fight after fight gets kind of old; knife after knife gets kind of old; and bullet after bullet definitely gets kind of old,” said Stepp, who works with Pre-Paid Legal Services. He has given Chippewa a try, sometimes checking out La Luna or Subzero, the two nightclubs that have the most diversity, but still finds his trips to Toronto necessary.
About two years ago, Ellicott District Council Member Brian C. Davis organized a monthly after-work networking event to attract more minority professionals to Chippewa and downtown.
“There’s no place that minorities can call their own downtown; we have no black or minority bar owners,” Davis said. “The networking is done to provide an outlet for people of color.”
The networking event has become very popular. Many black professionals said they only go to the Chippewa district to attend these events, and that it’s the one time a month they mingle with their peers in a social environment.
Annual and seasonal fraternity and sorority events, civic organizations’ soirees, birthday celebrations and poetry slams are usually well- attended by black professionals, but they are not held every weekend.
New places, old friends
Cocktails and More, on Kensington Avenue, was originally a vision for Irene Melson’s peers, people in their 50s and 60s, the owner said. During the jazz concert series in the summer, Melson ran into countless friends she hadn’t seen in years.
“I hadn’t seen them because they stayed in the house; they didn’t go anywhere because there was nowhere to go,” she said. Melson did a survey of the concertgoers and found there was a need for a place like Cocktails. Her daughter, who is in her 30s, quickly pointed out that her generation was also homebound and needed somewhere to go.
“After talking to my daughter, I realized the professionals kids have no place to go either, so that’s why we opened the doors to them too,” Melson said.
One Sunset has generated much excitement and satisfaction, as a dream come true for black professionals. It’s being hailed for it’s modern decor, fine dining and diversity.
Leonard Stokes, the professional basketball player who owns One Sunset, is quick to say that his business isn’t a “black restaurant.” It caters to everybody, and it’s evident in the turnout—on a recent Saturday, it was evenly mixed, which for many seems to be the draw.
“It’s a diverse crowd, and we come here and feel comfortable,” said Shannon Thomas, a 39-year-old hairstylist. “It’s not like going to Chippewa.”