Between 1946 and 1968, the owners of five family businesses decided to open locations on a 5-mile stretch of an east-west thoroughfare north of the city line.
In some of the cases, it didn't make a lot of sense for them to build on property on this road that at one time was accurately described as the middle of nowhere. But they did.
All five of the businesses are still there today and still packing in the about-to-no-longer-be hungry. Maybe you've heard of them: Louie's; John & Mary's; Anderson's; Ted's; and Duff's. The five iconic restaurants either got their start or cemented their legacies on that road that came to be synonymous with guilty gastronomic bliss.
Buffalo may be the heart of Western New York, but Sheridan Drive is the stomach.
Louis Turco was living the American dream in 1951. He had a steady job at Bell Aerospace, a wife he loved and a child on the way. But he was restless.
"My Dad was kind of a renegade. He wanted to go into business by himself," said his son, Angelo.
Out for a drive one night, he spotted a truck stop not far from the Niagara River. He had always wanted to own a restaurant, so he convinced his wife that this was the place. Louie's was born.
The cinder block building is still there, but it's hard to see it because once you get close, the aroma of foot-long hot dogs and freshly made Curly Q Fries is almost blinding. That smell is better than any advertising Louie's could buy.
The success of that stand led to growth for Louie's, which has two other locations in Western New York and two in Western New York South, aka North Carolina.
Louie's Original Foot Long Hot Dogs is not technically on Sheridan Drive, by the way, but that's news to most people who eat there; its address is 69 Grand Island Blvd. Angelo Turco said he refers to it as "the foot of Sheridan."
Unlike the other four restaurants mentioned above that offer indoor seating, Louie's maintains that hot dog stand feel it has always had. Partly because of that, the original Louie's Original also is the only one of the four that does not stay open year-round. It's a summer place.
I can't be objective about Anderson's. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My friends and I used to hop the fence in my backyard and could be waiting in line for a pint of black raspberry on Sheridan two minutes later.
All four of my children are current or former Anderson's employees. I still go there often enough to worry that I might have a frozen custard problem.
Obviously, I'm not alone. The little custard stand that Carl Anderson brought from the Bronx to Kenmore Avenue in 1947, before opening on Sheridan in 1953, is now a seven-restaurant chain. All but one are operated by his family.
The Town of Tonawanda was still mostly undeveloped land when he and his wife, Greta, decided to build their flagship on Sheridan. His daughter, Holly, told me he had a notion that the town was about to be the next big thing.
"He was pretty archaic in other areas, but as for his decisions about the business … they were very futuristic," she said. One of them was to add roast beef sandwiches to the menu in the 1960s, which might have seemed like a strange combination, but it worked.
The Sheridan Drive location underwent extensive renovations in 2008, creating indoor seating by adding what amounts to garage doors. That has allowed Anderson's to modernize while maintaining one of its great summertime traditions: the line of customers that stretches from the ordering window almost to the cars zooming by on Sheridan.
The story of Ted's started with the Peace Bridge, when recent immigrant Theodore Liaros began selling hot dogs out of a toolshed that was used by workers until the span was finished in 1927. Twenty-one years later, he made his first incursion into the burbs, opening the place on Sheridan that still stands today.
Like his friend and longtime across-the-street-business-neighbor, Carl Anderson, Liaros made his move without knowing what was about to happen to the town in the postwar boom years. At the time, it was not a popular decision.
"His attorney told him, ‘Ted, you're nuts. I advise you not to do it. That building is in the middle of farmland,'?" said his granddaughter, Thecly Ortolani. "But he had good foresight."
Apparently. Although the hot dog competition would eventually include Louie's to the west and Pat's to the east, Ted's continued to thrive and grow.
Today, there are seven Ted's locations in Western New York and one in the Phoenix area. An eighth is on the way, on the footprint of the old location on Union Road near the Walden Galleria.
Like the other four iconic restaurants, Ted's is a must-stop for expatriates visiting home. As if anyone needs a reminder, Ted's has bought ad space inside Buffalo Niagara International Airport, just in case.
The John & Mary's brand was well-established by the time John and Mary Guida came to Tonawanda in 1968. The original location on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga opened in 1952, and a second on Transit Road in Depew followed.
John & Mary's has had two bites of the Sheridan Drive apple. The first location opened at Sheridan and Colvin on the site of the old Brinson's Drive-In. The family closed that location when it moved to the current site at Sheridan and Ashford in 1974, a block away from Ted's.
When the newer Sheridan location opened, it created a kind of takeout heaven that also included the Red Barn next door and Pat's just up the street.
John Guida, the third generation of the Guida family to work in the business, said the other places were never thought of as competition because they were selling different food.
"To me, competition would be the same food. We each were unique," he said.
Only at John & Mary's can you get the signature A-bomb, Italian sausage with peppers, onions and hot sauce. (Eat it too late at night and it might come with a side order of regret.)
Today there are nine John & Mary's restaurants, all of them operated independently either by family members or close friends of the Guida family.
Duff's is the only one of the five not in Tonawanda and not the name of the person who started it, but it's close on both counts. In 1946, Louise Duffney started the business at the corner of Sheridan and Millersport Highway in Amherst as a gin mill.
Duff's did not start serving chicken wings, its signature menu item, until 23 years after it opened, when Louise started to make wings so that her son Ron could stop buying them from another restaurant. After that, Duff's reputation began to grow, but it was still a hidden treasure. Like another Western New York institution, Mighty Taco, it was largely a late-night place that attracted a post-bar crowd.
Jeff Feather, who today co-owns Duff's with Louise's son, Ron, said the turning point came in 1982 when Buffalo Evening News restaurant critic Janice Okun visited and wrote a positive review (3˝ stars). That's why a framed copy of that review still hangs on the wall.
Suddenly, Duff's was a destination. Families started coming. The doors eventually opened at 11 a.m. to accommodate the lunch crowd. It now closes at a more respectable hour of no later than midnight, as opposed to the former closing time of 3 a.m. And customers learned that if they ordered their wings hot, they were about to have a gustatory experience they would never forget.
Today, the argument about whether Duff's or the Anchor Bar has the best wings in Buffalo continues to rage, but the restaurant's success is not up for debate. There are seven Duff's locations, four in Western New York and three in the Toronto area.
Not bad for a gin mill.
The conversation often turns to food when I see people from my past who have moved away. One of my best friends is home from Texas and he already has been to Duff's and Old Man River and probably will hit some others I mentioned before he returns.
True, these are just restaurants, but they also are a part of our collective shared experience. In some ways, they are themselves just like old friends. They might not always be good for us, but they are there when we need them, and they never fail to make us smile.
There are a lot of reasons people who no longer live here hunger to come home. But thanks to what they continue to experience on Sheridan Drive, we can at least be pretty sure they're not hungry when they leave.