Proof people will come to the outer harbor in winter might just be in the Lobster Dawg at Dug's Dive.
A thick bun, overstuffed with lobster and mayo and topped with crispy bacon bits, was enough to draw Lea Natalello back for the second time in a cold winter's week. But it was the view out the window that had Natalello and a friend thinking about coming back again.
Outside, slush melted into the water. A few men were still ice fishing farther out on the lake.
“You've got to embrace the Buffalo winter somehow,” said the friend, Gina Mattioli, a student at the University at Buffalo.
Inside, the two friends sipped warm coffee with their salads. Fire glowed in a wood-burning stove, and Michael Jackson pumped from the speakers.
There are those who believe icy winters will freeze out development prospects on the outer harbor. Then there are those who move forward and prove it can be done.
Not that it's been easy for Dug's Dive in its first winter of year-round operations. There were times when the waterfront restaurant was empty. But there were also bustling Friday fish fries and a Sunday so busy the staff pulled out the pagers they use when the lines grow long on summer days.
“Although it wasn't crazy at the beginning, we did make a difference and we were able to squeak out a profit at the end of the day, although very minimal,” said Tucker Curtin, who leases the restaurant from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. “In my eyes, it was a tremendous success, and it shows that there is opportunity for year-round activities to happen out at the outer harbor.”
Dug's Dive can feel like an outpost on the outer harbor in winter – standing sentinel above the closed marina and shored docks.
But it is anything but lonely.
Gene and Nancy Connors were there on Friday and dreaming about summer. Nancy Connors had been driving by the restaurant on her way into work every day, so when they needed to line up a summer slip for their new Sea Ray, they stopped in for lunch.
“There's so much they could do with all this waterfront,” said Gene Connors, of East Eden, as he looked out at vacant buildings on the water's edge.
It's a pivotal moment for hundreds of acres of outer harbor land owned by the NFTA. Progress at Canalside has awakened people's belief that the waterfront really can drive the city forward. The redesign of Fuhrmann Boulevard and upgrades along Gallagher Beach have spurred more summer action at the harbor, and talks to transfer the outer harbor land to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and Buffalo have sparked hope that decades of inaction will end.
“The industry is gone, but it's left us with a piece of real estate along the water,” said Curtin, who dreams of expanding Dug's Dive into a full-service restaurant and deli. “We have to be good stewards of it and make sure that we don't miss the boat and make the mistakes that we made in the past.”
It is a critical time to make the right decisions about the outer harbor. Cut off public access to the water in the name of development, and we will forever regret what was lost. Squander another few decades with inaction, and we will continue to lament what could have been.
The first winter at Dug's Dive is another step on the path to bringing more life to the lake's edge. It may be lobster rolls today, but it could be a whole new neighborhood someday.