WNY's All Time Greatest Restaurant: The Cloister
"It doesn't matter where I go, people want to talk about the Cloister." —former Cloister chef Joe Randall.
Photos courtesy of WNY Heritage Magazine, permissions granted by Peter J. Fiorella, Jr.
Victor Hugo’s, the Round Table, the Park Lane, Rue Franklin, and Oliver’s are all restaurants worthy of consideration for the title of “All Time Greatest Restaurant of WNY.” But it is with a clear conscience that we declare our region’s best dining experience to have been found only at the Cloister.
Located at the intersection of Virginia and Delaware, on the land where Mark Twain’s Buffalo residence once stood, this well-loved restaurant welcomed guests for dinner from 1964 to 1988. According to Buffalo restaurant historian George Schaeffer, guests were sent to the bar to wait for their table (whether it was ready or not). There they would sip Hurricanes while Jackie Jocko tickled the ivories and crooned, accompanied by Joey Peters on drums. Behind the bar hung a Tiffany chandelier that measured five feet in length. It was overshadowed, perhaps, by a mannequin, dressed in turn-of-the-century swimwear, stationed in a swing secured to the ceiling above the bar.
Schaeffer, a food salesman at the time, recalls his typical evening at the Cloister: “The typical salesman’s order would be prime rib (king cut, rare), baked potato with sour cream and chives, and whatever veggie they’d throw at me. Wine, back then, was sort of an afterthought. You were already stoked on a couple of Jimmy’s [DiLapo] cocktails, so by then Heineken was the beverage of choice for many of us.”
Guests could be seated in the Crystal Dining Room, replete with a glass atrium from which a waterfall cascaded, or the Green House or Carriage House, each decked out with more Tiffany chandeliers, statues, and enough greenery to rival the Botanical Gardens.
“The décor was somewhat gaudy and overdone, but it was interesting enough. Most guys didn’t care—a stiff cocktail, a huge hunk of rare meat, a couple of beers, and that’s all you needed,” Schaeffer says.
The Cloister’s interior wasn’t always so over-the-top. When husband and wife Jim and Angel DiLapo opened it, they had opted for the Spanish-American styled furnishings that were trendy at the time. After a very successful first year, the couple bought out the restaurant’s original investors and began to expand the popular eatery. They not only enlarged the footprint of the restaurant, they also added touches that hearkened to a décor period they called “English countryside,” but which some sources have referred to as “early French.”
Rare decorative items began to fill the space. Diners were surrounded by carved carousel horses, wrought iron trellising, two-story stained glass room dividers, and paintings hung at every turn. On the tabloid-style menu, dubbed “The Cloister Gazette,” owner Jim DiLapo described the Cloister as “a storybook journey back into the elegant era of the gay and fascinating nineties, with its days of lavish living, courtly manners, and romantic history.”
That menu featured items like bone-in prime rib, the restaurant’s most popular offering according to chef Joe Randall, who had difficulty recalling the exact year he began working at the downtown hotspot, but guesses it was sometime in the late seventies. “Beef Wellington was well-liked, and so was our Chateaubriand, and our Oysters Rockfeller. Steaks were big sellers, of course, and something we called Angel’s Flounder was a favorite—flounder stuffed with steamed crabmeat. We used the best ingredients, and so we flew in lobsters from Maine and featured things like chanterelle mushrooms. It was the premiere restaurant in the city, and famous people came to dine with us when they were in town—Liberace, Gene Autry, OJ Simpson.”
Randall runs a cooking school in Florida now, where he offers a class once a month that focuses on the dishes he once served at the Cloister. He still hears about it often: “No matter where I travel, people remember the Cloister. Once, when I was in California, this woman told me how much she loved it and that she had gotten engaged there. People celebrated important occasions there, and they remember it. I still get requests for recipes that were on the menu.” During its time, the Cloister was lauded by many publications for its décor and its menu, and it won over sixty national and international awards.
The restaurant’s 1988 closing marked the end of an era. Why did it close? Former Buffalo News restaurant critic Janice Okun has her opinion. “Time, I guess. The predictable menu that centered around beef—the prime rib was cut thicker than the sole of a fireman’s boot—was no longer enough for an ever-growing, knowledgeable population. Too many short cakes ‘topped with wild berries’ that really tasted of Birds Eye rather than a grassy meadow. But it was fun while it lasted.”
In 2006, there was a brief moment when Cloister fans crossed their fingers in hope that attorney Peter J. Fiorella, Jr. might see his vision come to life. His plan was to replicate the Cloister experience in the then long-empty original location. In a 2008 interview, he told me that he had a warehouse full of the Cloister’s chairs and fixtures, and replicas of other unique items on order. Over time he became quite successful in his attempt to assemble enough private investors to save the building from demolition and present Buffalo with a twenty-first century version of the beloved restaurant. Sadly the process dragged on, and as Fiorella says, “I only spend two years on a project. If it doesn’t come together, I’m on to new things.
Just this year, the Cloister was finally demolished, paving way for a new office building. While it is unlikely the Cloister will ever be revived, you can catch a glimpse of the well-loved restaurant in the James Caan film Hide in Plain Sight (1980).
When Fiorella was told that the Cloister might be named Buffalo’s best restaurant, he responded resolutely, “Well, it should be, because it was!”
Christa Glennie Seychew is Buffalo Spree’s food editor. Sources: realimagination.com/cloister, WNY Heritage Magazine, Peter J. Fiorella, Jr., Janice Okun, Joe Randall, and George Schaeffer.