Dining after dark: Old Pink
There’s no printed menu at the Old Pink, but just as everyone knows that the Allen Street Bar and Grill, as it’s formally known, should be referred to on the street as “the Old Pink” or just “the Pink,” everyone who goes there also knows that they serve food. Really good food, in fact, presented in such an unfussy way (everything is served in a plastic basket) that the uninitiated might dismiss any of the bar’s beloved sandwiches as the usual stomach-tumbling bar grub. While it’s true that the Pink’s sandwiches, including the legendary steak sandwich, have been put to work over these last forty years in helping to sober up even the weariest of the wee-morning barhoppers, a recent visit to the Pink has assured me that the sandwiches also deserve a spot in the pantheon of Buffalo’s best late-night eats.
My recent visit begins the way all visits to the Pink begin: with drinks at another bar. A friend and I meet at Mother’s for martinis before making our way up Allen. In our younger days, we might have hit every bar along the way—K. Gallagher’s, Gabriel’s Gate, Frizzy’s, Brick Bar—downshifting at each stop into cheaper well drinks and then into cheaper beer before arriving at the Pink for cans of PBR and a shot of cheap whiskey. Those days—and their stamina—are gone, so we skip the way stations and head straight for the Pink, where we settle into our stools with our bottles of Canadian. I am craving the steak sandwich.
It’s a weekday, and for the scene here it’s early—2 a.m.—meaning the bar is virtually empty, save for some band geeks and a couple of guys playing darts at the back wall. I order the sandwich, medium rare, with peppers and onions and provolone cheese. The bartender (and cook), a giant with a goatee and tattoos, looks like the kind of man who knows his way around a steak sandwich, and the sight of this guy only heightens my expectations. The giant man takes a hefty slab of pink meat from the cooler, seasons it, and drops it onto the grill. Preceding the sandwich’s arrival, he sets before me a squeeze bottle of steak sauce, a salt shaker, a pepper shaker, and an entire roll of paper towels. The sandwich arrives quickly. Underneath the red lights, it doesn’t look like much, but I take a bite, and I am happy. The steak, twelve ounces of Choice New York strip, is cooked perfectly, no small feat for such a thick cut. The peppers and onions, which have been stewing in Guinness all night, melt away into pure bittersweetness. The whole thing comes on a fresh Costanzo’s roll.
Hard to believe that this sandwich costs only ten bucks—at any other bar, it would be pushing twenty. A steakhouse could charge $40 for the same cut. In fact, the bar makes more money off of their grilled bologna sandwich, even though that sandwich costs a down-market $5. Legend has it that the bologna sandwich (which is topped with peppers and onions, of course) became a hit among the college kids who at the end of the night would stumble into the Pink without enough cash for the steak sandwich but with just enough for the bologna. Many regulars even prefer the bologna by choice.
Nursing my cheap beer, Elvis staring back at me, I realize I don’t want to separate the experience of eating this food from the experience of inhabiting this place. Can this sandwich really be this good? Or am I being persuaded by the martinis, the music, the Elvis portraits, the terrible pool table, the black and white checkered floor, and collection of experiences I’ve had at this grimy dive bar? Is any part of that equation inseparable from the rest?
No. The food is better because of the place, and the place is even more charming because you can eat such good food here.
So next time you find yourself on Allen at night, come a little earlier than 4 a.m., sit down, have a bite, and you may just realize that you’re at the best damn dive bar in the entire country.