Sergio Citriniti walked in to Mes Que, Hertel Avenue’s Euro-style hangout and Buffalo’s only soccer bar, with his trench coat dripping rain. A Mes Que regular, he had come to catch a cold beer and an afternoon game, but this time, he was late. He needed a seat.
Within minutes we were sharing an assortment of imported charcuterie and cheese served on a slate slab, and a prime view of the Confederations Cup Spain vs. Italy match on one of four flat-screen televisions.
Mes Que’s menu draws from casual Spanish and Italian cuisine, but the most satisfying appetizer for its core clientele isn’t listed: soccer talk.
Citriniti paused his analysis of Brazilian vs. German playing styles with a gesture of comradeship toward his new futbol friend: “Try the Serrano,” he said, pointing out the dry-cured ham imported from Spain. “I can’t finish this myself.”
Soccer has come a long way in Buffalo. For years it’s been something of a bud-green fertile crescent fed by the twin streams of growing youth soccer programs, with their players and soccer moms and dads, and the passionate surge of futbol-loving immigrants, a growing part of the city’s population.
Fan support for local soccer team FC Buffalo, which plays at All-High Stadium, has been steadily climbing since the team debuted in 2009. According to the team’s website, the Blitzers’ most notable win came in a 2011 upset over the Bedlington Terriers of England’s Northern League before a crowd of 3,700.
Then came Mes Que at 1420 Hertel Ave. In 2012, Tony Christiano and his partners, including his cousin and Left Bank owner Mike Christiano, decided to open a place to serve as the home away from home for fans of the world’s most popular game. Bars and restaurants in Buffalo have hosted fans for World Cup tournaments and other major world soccer events, but the Christianos decided that Buffalo’s soccer scene had developed to the point where a soccer bar could survive.
So they set out to gather a dedicated staff, asking potential employees not only “What bar experience do you have?” but “What’s your favorite team?” Now Western New York soccer fans have a place they can go for that feeling of kinship, of shared experience, that should be familiar to any Buffalo sports fan who has looked for a Sabres bar in Fort Lauderdale or a Bills bar in Los Angeles.
A lifelong soccer player and fan, Oliver Soares thirsted for the experience of soccer fellowship in Buffalo somewhere outside of his living room. “I now have a place where I can go, with my favorite team jersey on, whether it be Arsenal FC or France in international competitions, and be with soccer lovers young and old, who either support my team or love it with a passion,” Soares said.
“The environment you’re in when watching a soccer game is so important and now I finally have one similar to those watching in other places around the world. With Mes Que, we can build a truly dedicated soccer fan base in the community, and just make the beautiful game readily available for all the locals.”
What Soares (and Citriniti) said about atmosphere made sense. On game day, Mes Que has a convivial spirit of a more nuanced flavor than what one might find at more traditional Buffalo sport gatherings – say, at a Ralph Wilson Stadium tailgate or at downtown restaurants, where locals stare down surly Leafs fans invading their turf for a pregame dinner.
“I could be next to a Brazilian, a Mexican, it doesn’t matter,” said Citriniti. “I don’t care what team it is. I like them all.”
Citriniti introduced me to fellow fan John Felgemacher, who played in Buffalo’s Jewish league. Felgemacher was a font of knowledge, and shared it freely, recalling a time when “you never heard of substitution.” As a newcomer to the futbol scene, I learned much from Felgemacher and Citriniti’s lively debate; and Felgemacher regaled all of us with tales of his trips to the World Cups, dating back to 1966.
I started to see Citriniti’s point that the game and the comradeship were inseparable.
“The beauty of soccer is the game,” he said. “I love to go to Delaware Park, and see the children playing soccer. It’s beautiful. All you need is a ball.”
Then a cheer went up – the first goal had been scored – and we were drawn back into the game.
It takes soccer to brew a Buffalo bar so diverse. A single pregame conversation peregrinated from the politics of family business in Buenos Aires to common misconceptions about the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. The youngest patron was about 8 years old, and the oldest was beyond 80.
One needs only to pass by on the afternoon of a game to see just how much Buffalonians crave what the bar offers: The crowd spills out past the patio and into the sidewalk, cheering at a fifth screen mounted outside.
And for particularly heated matches, this can be a problem. Now that Mes Que has become a bona fide Buffalo institution, “sometimes you can’t get in the place,” said Felgemacher. He had reason to suspect, though, that Mike Christiano’s collaboration with Tom Eoannou in the rebirth of the North Park Theatre might see big games shown in the historic 800-seat auditorium next door – handily solving the crowding problem.
Mes Que isn’t always crowded, though. Mike Christiano said the atmosphere will quiet at about 5:45 p.m., just in time for a light meal or predinner drinks with friends.
Without a soccer game, Mes Que draws a different crowd. The table by the window might seat a book club; the bar might serve both yuppies and the older folks they aspire to be; and the patio might be peopled by young couples, best friends or even Mike Christiano treating his mother to a meal – and all enjoying the street’s east-west summer breeze, and watching as Hertel lights the yellow bulbs of her gauzy nighttime peignoir. ...
The night before I met Citriniti, the patio crowd included a certain young man trying to impress a young lady. Shannon Tierney and I shared shrimp- and chorizo-stuffed piquillo peppers in garlic cream sauce ($8).
The menu didn’t include chicken wings or mozzarella sticks, and there were no beer-soaked shouts bleeding out the door – although it did offer the best beer list I’ve seen outside Dortmund, or Buffalo’s Village Beer Merchant. It also offered Zinfandel braised short ribs ($14), and penne tossed with prawns ($9) featuring fresh mozzarella and colorful seasonal veggies, and causing Tierney to note that “someone has an eye on presentation.”
Mes Que means “more than” in Catalan, and the night showed Mes Que is more than the official soccer bar of FC Buffalo, and home bar for American Outlaws Buffalo. It’s also ideal for summer dates, grabbing drinks with friends or encountering fine cheeses and interesting people.
“It’s a classy place,” said Citriniti – and I couldn’t agree more. I came to understand why Mes Que is considered a must for footie fans in Buffalo. But the uninitiated shouldn’t be afraid to stop by, grab a bite and learn a thing or two from the experts. You might just find a new friend – and maybe, even, a new favorite sport.