A block from Elmwood Avenue in one of the more interesting sections of Buffalo, Betty's has become a neighborhood fixture since opening in 2004.
The restaurant is done up in a homey blend of exposed brick and autumn tones, right down to the plaid tablecloths. The walls of its historic, renovated building are often lined with local artists' works, and it regularly hosts literary discussions. Even if you're not a regular, it feels familiar.
It's the food that brings the crowds, though, especially Sunday brunch and Saturday "blunch," which often features groups of people waiting for a table. (Fortunately, there's a cushioned waiting nook in the foyer.) The breakfast burritos, tofu hash and chilaquiles have legions of fans.
Cat and I were there for dinner, though, and there were plenty of open tables. We quickly observed two more reasons people want to pack into Betty's: it has a vegetarian-friendly menu and welcomes children. Two families with toddlers, dining during our visit, were accommodated without disruption.
Plus, we got to read a menu that doesn't treat vegetarian entrees as an afterthought. It features vegetarian shepherd's pie ($15), black beans and rice ($13) and roasted vegetable risotto, although you can add meat to the last two. Betty's has been known for comfort food, represented by the meatloaf and chicken pot pie (both $15) that are perennial dinner entrees, but its cooks can work both sides.
Cat chose a vegetarian dish from the evening's specials: oregano and smoked Gouda "dumplings" baked atop a mushroom parsnip broth ($15.50). I went for a dish of stuffed quail ($19). We also asked for a lentil salad ($9.50), potato pancakes with bacon ($9.50) and a Thai noodle salad ($10).
The server brought two slices of fresh, fluffy Italian bread and butter, and cups of soup that came with our entrees, instead of salad. The curry lentil was scented with Indian spices, and carried a touch of heat. The minestrone was stuffed with lots of beans - kidneys, chickpeas and green beans, along with pasta tubes, carrots and celery. Rather bland, though.
The lentil salad featured lentils with shredded carrots and onion, slices of toasted baguette, a small disc of goat cheese and a ramekin of oil. I like al dente lentils but these were crunchy, and their seasoning was so subtle as to be nearly undetectable.
The toast was terrific and the warm chevre went well with earthy lentils, but altogether it seemed underseasoned. Asked about the oil, the server said it was herb flavored, and meant for dunking rather than pouring over the lentils.
The spinach potato pancakes with bacon were comforting indeed. The spud patties were well-browned, and the bacon was chewy and meaty. An unexpected thrill was the applesauce, spice-scented and chunky. Relaxed as Betty's is, plate licking would have been rude, so I demurred.
Next was the Thai noodle salad. The ingredients on the plate - carrots, cucumbers, red bell pepper, cilantro and lettuce - were fresh and crispy, with the enjoyable contrast of soft, cool rice noodles. Instead of a nam pla style fish sauce dressing or sataylike peanut dressing, it was clad in a coconut-based vinaigrette that was meekly flavored, needing lime, chile or a touch of zippy to make itself heard. When I got to the bottom I remembered there were peanuts, and wished they were crushed Thai salad style, so they would stick to dressed greens and not vanish beneath the foliage.
Cat's dish was a vegetarian answer to biscuits and sausage gravy. It was meatless but rich with cream, mushrooms and parsnips, and the baked dumplings were warm and cheesy, in a good way. We chased the rest of the sauce with spoons.
My quail plate was a finesse note in an otherwise unassuming meal. Twin birds were boned out and stretched over rice stuffing, on a platform of slightly crunchy, garlicky greens and glazed with tangy ginger molasses sauce.
It was a delightful balance of heartiness and careful cooking, with tender dark meat tinged with sweetness, and fragrant rice.
Desserts included bread pudding ($5), a dense wedge of eggy casserole drizzled with creme anglaise. The banana pie ($5.50) had a soft crust but admirable banana-to-custard ratio of 1:2.
The weekend lines are there for a reason. Whether carnivore or vegetarian, if you're looking for comfort food, Betty's will take care of you, just like your hip artist grandma would.
7 plates (Out of 10)
Comfort food in comfortable surroundings draws crowds to neighborhood spot.
WHERE: 370 Virginia St. (362-0633, www.bettysbuffalo.com)
HOURS: 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursdsay; 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Breakfast, $4.50-$9.50; brunch and lunch, $7-$11; salads and appetizers, $6.25-$12 and dinners, $15-$24.
PARKING: On the street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.