I worked in downtown Niagara Falls for 11 years, when the city was in the middle of its slide into the desolation wrought by the bulldozers of urban renewal and the construction of ugly, monolithic buildings that seemed not only unwelcoming but actively hostile to pedestrians.

Therefore, I can tell you that we (along with the millions of tourists who visit the falls every year) would have loved a place like the Old Falls Street Deli, run by the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute in a gorgeously renovated section of the until recently vacant and deteriorating Rainbow Centre Mall.

We were especially excited to eat in a place operated by culinary students. Our experiences at such restaurants have always been very positive, with the only drawback being a bit too much attention and detail. We knew that the prices at Old Falls Street Deli were not low – $9 for panini and sandwiches, $7 and $8 for the four salads – but on the weekend at lunchtime when Paula, Tom, John and I visited, we were interested to enjoy some good food and learn more about the program.

Although we had some good food, our overall impression was that they should make some big changes before the tourist season starts. We were served a lunch best described as wildly uneven in quality.

The door to the culinary institute restaurants is on Old Falls Street, steps from Rainbow Boulevard. It needs better signage to attract passers-by. The door opens into a beautiful, arching atrium space, bright and airy, accented with long, sleek pendant lighting and a modern fountain. From this area, which includes about a dozen tables, you enter the deli, the upscale restaurant, Savor (see review on Page 14), and La Patisserie. There’s also a bookstore with cooking gadgets, T-shirts and a limited supply of books and a wine shop.

The deli was staffed by a half-dozen young people, including at least one manager and several students. The large glass display cases show off plates of panini, wraps, sandwiches and salads, and there’s an option to build your own.

The preparations were interesting and unusual. The chicken panini was made with grilled chicken breast, fig jam, boursin cheese and arugula on a baguette; the vegetable wrap included hummus, feta, tzatziki, olives, cilantro, oven-roasted tomatoes and shaved red onions in a tomato basil wrap. There’s also a dessert panini made with Nutella, banana and marshmallows ($8.50).

The make-your-own sandwiches can be on various kinds of bread, rolls and wraps, and the meats are corned beef, roast beef, turkey, ham and salami. We wanted one make-your-own sandwich with half ham and half turkey, not more meat but two different kinds of meat. The person taking the order offered to add a second meat for $2 and in our haste we said yes. More on that later.

After ordering, picking up soft drinks (local favorite Johnnie Ryan included) and paying, we picked a comfortable table in the atrium next to some bright green fake foliage.

The ingredients of the Cobb salad ($8), listed as iceberg, tomatoes, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, avocado and turkey, were chopped into small, uniform pieces and arranged in the traditional strips. Everything was cold and good, and the composed salad was very easy to eat. The bacon was absent and bits of another meat, probably pancetta, had been substituted. We chose a balsamic dressing rather than the blue cheese, and it was complexly flavored.

Our self-designed deli sandwich, made on foccacia with turkey, ham, horseradish cheddar, lettuce, tomato and caramelized onions ($11) was a winner. This was a towering sandwich on a sturdy but undersized foccacia. Oddly, there was at least twice as much ham as turkey and both lapped over on all sides of the bread. The meats were fresh and delicious, and the horseradish cheddar added a burst of unexpected flavor.

The pulled pork wrap ($9) was made with slow-braised barbecue pork, horseradish cream, fresh cilantro, coleslaw and thin-sliced red onion on a jalapeno cheddar wrap. This was also very good, with an unusual flavor far beyond the bottled barbecue sauce notes of tomato and smoke. It was very tasty, if a bit small for $9.

Also small was the Reuben panini ($9). The first bite tasted like roast beef, the second like corned beef. Pulling the sandwich apart revealed slices of meat that were half-cured and half not. The cured part was the expected bright red color, but when the non-cured part had been heated, it browned like roast beef. It was not good at all.

Worse, when a student came out to ask us how things were, we showed her the two-toned meat slices and gave her our theory that would explain two flavors. Her response was that she hadn’t sliced that meat and wasn’t sure what was going on. Then she left. I know she was a student, but the first day of Restaurant 101 should include the lesson that customer concerns should be addressed.

A small plastic cup of pasta salad and a half-pickle were served with each sandwich. The pasta salad was dried out, tasting as though it had been plastic-wrapped several days before.

We wandered across the atrium into La Patisserie and picked out three pastries to share at the marble-topped tables outside. The almond croissant ($2.50) was fantastic, not too sweet, but rich and buttery. The chocolate eclair ($3) was cool and satisfying, and the salted caramel tart ($3) was out of this world. La Patisserie also serves gelato, and we anticipate that this will draw hordes of tourists this summer.


Old Falls Street Deli

Where: 28 Old Falls St., Niagara Falls, N.Y. (210-2585)

2.5 pennies

Room to improve

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Wheelchair Access: Yes