Two giants of my early eating and drinking life, Tony Marra and Patsy Collins, died in 2021.
Patsy ran a bar. Tony ran a restaurant.
Patsy’s bar was called The Burton Hotel, or The Burton for short. It’s located on a street corner in Allegany, NY, and it was one of my parents’ favorite watering holes for much of the time they lived down there. I spent quite a lot of time sitting in The Burton with my parents as they quaffed beers and I quaffed grapefruit soda right along with them (at least until I turned 21).
I suppose The Burton was what you would call a “dive bar”, though I confess that I used to think describing a bar as a “dive” meant something disparaging: it indicated a place that was kind of dingy and crappy, dirty and dark and not a very nice place to be.
Not so, obviously. A dive bar is an unpretentious bar, and might be quite a few years–or decades–old. A dive bar is the place frequented by locals, and often you can tell where a dive bar is less by the bar’s sign than by the neon (or, nowadays, LED) beer signs decorating the outside. The clientele of a dive bar tends to be the locals; it’s the kind of place where, well–where everybody knows your name, if you go there with any frequency. It’s not the kind of place where you’ll get the best drinks ever, or where you’ll find cutting-edge mixology where bartenders experiment with smoke and a dozen kinds of bitters and CO2 canisters–but it is the kind of place where the beer is always cold, where there are packages of Beer Nuts for sale, where the game (or a game) is always on teevee.
The Burton is apparently well-known for its burgers–very well-known, as in, “often cited on Best Burger lists” well-known–though I never had one when we were going there. Apparently back then their kitchen was not open very often. Nights at The Burton would often go longer than expected, and there were more than a few educational conversations directed at me on the way home after such nights. It’s a dark underbelly of such places that…well, sometimes bar talk in places that are fairly rural, completely white, and generally conservative can veer into unpleasant areas. I’ll just leave it at that.
But things changed as St Bonaventure University, the local college, stared developing a reputation as a party school. The Burton was–and maybe still is!–the bar closest to campus, and as such at some point it started filling up with college students. Patsy Collins had been running a successful bar up until then, but after that he was running a local institution. The Burton was, first and foremost, a beautiful bar. I mean, look at this bar!
It was hard to find photos of the entire bar, but these give an idea. It’s changed a bit since I was going there with my parents, but…not really a whole lot. I don’t recall any signage listing available beers at the time, when the bar was frequented by locals who knew what they wanted to drink.
And here’s a better look at the Art Deco lights that flank the main body of the bar:
Like all such lights, they’re more effective at night, in the dimmer light of the bar itself, but how bad can a bar be if it has Art Deco tasteful nudes as part of its decor? Not bad at all, that’s how.
The Burton is still chugging along, keeping synapses of the Southern Tier well-lubricated. Patsy Collins’s legacy lives on.
Patsy Collins himself was a kind man who laughed a lot–I remember well his rich baritone laugh, there was always lots of laughter in that bar!–and who by the time we knew him was tending bar less; his son Chuck had taken over the majority of those duties. But Patsy was there a lot, holding forth on various items of interest from one of the stools in his low voice. He did not have a long commute: he lived on the opposite side of the same street, a few doors down. His house was quite lovely, and his wife did a great job of converting it to a virtual “gingerbread house” each Christmas. (If I can find a picture of that online, I’ll post it.)
When Patsy Collins retired, he gave over the Burton to son Chuck and his daughter Crisanne. Just last year (or maybe the year before) Chuck and Crisanne decided it was time for them to get out of the bar game, so they sold The Burton to a couple of investors who are St. Bona alumni. From all reports, they are still running the place true to what it always was.
And I’m still wondering about those burgers.
Then there was Tony Marra, who along with his wife Marilyn ran for many years a bar and restaurant on the same street as The Burton, just a few blocks down. Their place was called The Bird Cage. In retrospect, maybe it was a dive bar too–though it did have a beautiful dining room. We didn’t go in the dining room much, but it was a lovely place, decorated with all manner of avian bric-a-brac in keeping with the place’s name. Marilyn served and ran the bar; Tony did most, if not all, of the cooking.
We ate there pretty much once a week, every week, while we lived in the Southern Tier. We went on Thursday night most weeks, because The Bird Cage ran a special on chicken wings on Thursdays. I don’t remember what the prices were, but we’d get both breaded and Buffalo wings, along with some other deep-fried delight–Tony made “Irish Wings”, which were steak fries tossed in Buffalo wing sauce–and wash it all down with, well, more beer than we probably should have been consuming. (Our beer at the time was an ale called Red Wolf, which was discontinued a few years later, sadly enough. This may have been a good thing, though. Red Wolf certainly wasn’t a great beer, but it was smooth and very drinkable, especially in large quantities with deep-fried bar foods.)
Until we moved away from Allegany in fall 2000, we were weekly (or more than weekly) regulars at The Bird Cage. How regular? Well…The Daughter was born not long after midnight on a Saturday. The very next Thursday? We were at The Bird Cage, with our five-day-old kid along for the ride. This worked out pretty well, as there were plenty of folks among the bar crowd who were willing to hold a baby for a bit.
Before Tony and his wife, Marilyn, opened The Bird Cage, they worked for a restaurant down the way called Antonio’s. Antonio’s was a nice place that I remember fondly, especially its cocktail lounge section with plush leather chairs, low tables, and a sunken bar. Here’s what Antonio’s looked like:
It’s hard to tell in the photo, but those shelves are a massive collection of liquor bottles. I’m a bit fuzzy on the ownership of Antonio’s; I don’t think that Tony Marra actually owned it, but I may be wrong. Eventually Antonio’s changed ownership completely, becoming a place called Pasta Luigi, and Tony and Marilyn took ownership of a bar once called The Village Inn. This became The Bird Cage. The Marra family was once a major family in the Olean region’s restaurant community, but that dwindled until Tony and Marilyn were the last ones running a restaurant. All eras end, sadly.
As for Antonio’s/Pasta Luigi: the latter restaurant eventually closed too, and the building was demolished. Now, from what I can tell, a beverage-redemption place stands on that spot [that’s a store where you can buy beer and redeem all your cans and bottles for $.05 each, thanks to New York’s bottle law]. About a half mile up the road used to stand Olean’s once-beloved Castle Inn, which is also now but a memory.
I know that The Bird Cage actually moved some years after we left the region, shifting into a location across the street, and finally the place had to close entirely when Tony was diagnosed with cancer. This article, from Olean’s newspaper, indicates that Tony and Marilyn were holding out hopes of returning to their restaurant when Tony returned to health, but…it wasn’t to be.
Since we left the Southern Tier more than twenty years ago, we’ve never found a bar/restaurant to fill the same role in our lives that The Bird Cage or The Burton once did. That’s for various reasons: finances, family stuff, and later on, The Wife’s celiac disease. We’re just not “bar people” anymore. But I have a lot of great memories, some sharp and some that are admittedly pretty hazy (remind me not to write about “Pig Roast Weekend” at The Bird Cage any time soon, because let’s just say that if we didn’t manage to convince Annheuser-Busch to keep Red Wolf Ale in production after those three nights of consumption, nobody was going to do so), of the handful of years when we were bar people. Tony and Marilyn Marra also helped send The Wife and I off in the first place: Who else would we have trusted to cater our wedding?
I think that in 2022, though, I’m going to at least try to figure out how to make Irish Wings. I think that would make Tony happy.
(Oh! And Tony was a Seattle Seahawks fan! At least he got to see his team win a Super Bowl!)
Photo credits: The photos of The Burton are from here and here. I found the photo of Antonio’s on a Facebook group called “Olean Memories Back In Time”, which is exactly what it says: a group dedicated to nostalgic remembrances of a once vibrant small city in a region that the world has mostly left behind. I wasn’t able to find any photos online of The Bird Cage in its original incarnation, the one I knew so well before we moved.