For almost eight decades, a lunch club in the heart of the city with sweeping Lake Erie views has been at the top of the Liberty Building and almost secret.
What started in 1936 as a place for men to “meet their friends at midday far from the madding crowd,” opened with 250 members – and a waiting list. But as leisurely lunches went out of style and downtown workers’ salaries dipped, membership dwindled.
Facing a crisis, the Mid-Day Club changed. For the first time since it opened in 1936, it has been open to the public on Fridays since last summer.
Yet a little past noon Friday, the dining room was nearly empty.
“This place should be filled,” said Lindy Korn, looking toward the only other occupied table.
Club leadership has been trying, and failing, to figure out a fix. Instead of the 350 it was designed for, last year’s roll of 100 dropped to 85 this year. With dues at about $800 a year, more members are needed to cover costs that include a wait staff and a full-time chef who cooks with potted tarragon and herbs sunning on a patch of roof by a window ledge.
“It’s sort of a safe haven in an otherwise crazy world,” Korn said, while enjoying a plate of scrambled eggs and smoked sausage from a window table with a close up view of the tiled Art Deco top of City Hall. “Your problems could be solved when you go out to lunch,” she said.
The membership problem frustrates club president Scott Duquin, working hard to lure people.
This spring the club expanded lunch deliveries to include the Main Place Tower next door. Last month the updated menu debuted with sauteed artichokes on arugula, burgers and pita pizzas added to its lineup of salads, soups and sandwiches.
Maybe, said Duquin, the disinterest is a culture change.
“People don’t have lunch anymore,” he said, over a roast beef and blue cheese salad, another new menu item.
The club is also hard to find. ”Unless you work downtown or are in the Liberty Building, how would you ever know about this place?” he said.
Getting there is like making a trip to an alternate Harry Potter universe. Start in the lobby of Liberty on Main Street at Lafayette Square. Take one of the wood-paneled elevators to the 19th floor. At the end of a long red carpeted hallway, turn left, climb a few flights of stairs to a white door with a brass knocker and a Mid-Day Club name plate.
It opens to the club lounge that looked like a posh cross between a living room and a hotel. A vintage copy of Oliver Twist stood between bookends on a polished wood table. The Skyway and grain elevators looked like toys from the cushioned window seat framed by a beaded valance.
An old newspaper story in a frame on the wall outlined the club’s startup by “a small group of intimates.” Clam juice shared the menu with shad roe and bacon and chicken a la king.
Founded at the end of the Great Depression, the Mid-Day Club, open for lunch during the week from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., seems like a leftover from old Buffalo culture chronicled in A.R. Gurney plays like “The Cocktail Hour.” Flip through a bound copy of typed minutes from the club’s first two decades and find men with names still around the city on streets, a real estate firm, a school and a foundation. Tupper, Jewett, Gurney, Burgard, Wendt.
To Duquin, 37, exclusivity is as old-fashioned as those bygone times.
“It’s not meant to be elite,” said Duquin. “Times have changed.”
Yet the club is mostly white and with 11 women, only slightly diverse. About 20 percent of the membership is under 40. “It kind of went back to the old boy’s club,” said Duquin, “not by design.”
The club hooked him when he stepped in for the first time. He had landed his first job out of law school and the partners who hired him to defend insurance claims brought him here to celebrate. The view of downtown made being inside feel like outside.
He now thinks everybody should have the chance to eat here. “The club is really open to anybody,” he said.
By about 1 p.m. Friday more tables filled up with members and their guests.
A father and son – stockbroker and stockbroker in training – sat at the long “members table” for diners interested in sharing conversation with fellow members. A trio of lawyers were in a hurry to finish their salads and make an appointment. Another lawyer who had been reading the paper in the lounge walked in with a luncheon companion who had just arrived.
From a window, Doug Coppola lifted his spoon from his bowl of potato clam chowder as if to toast the friend sitting across the table. “Is there better soup?” he said.
A member for 20 years, he is a lawyer who thinks too many office folk spend lunch at their desks. “Few people take the opportunity to get a breathtaking view of Buffalo you can’t get anywhere,” Coppola said. “I come back to work much more energized.”
Korn had moved on from eggs to broth-steamed mussels over spinach. “I do have a good appetite,” she said smiling, cracking a shell and skewering a mussel with her fork.
She was optimistic about the future. The expanding Medical Campus has promise. “People are going to want a place to gather.”
Korn remains a believer in the possibilities and serendipity of lunch. She met her late husband Richard McCormick about a dozen years ago when she sat gazing at the lake from the members table and he asked to join her. He died in 2012. His favorite meal, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is named “The McCormick” in his honor.
“My husband used to say if you don’t go out for lunch at least once a week, you’re doing something wrong.”