In The Pipeline: Flying high on tangy wings

Was it an earthquake? An explosion? What was that strange eruption that took place on Beach Boulevard between Ellis and Talbert avenues at about 1:15 p.m. Sunday?

Wait. It was more than 100 intense Buffalo Bills fans reacting to their team's wild win over the New England Patriots.

The place is Buffalo Wings 'n Things, 18302 Beach Blvd., where each Sunday since 1989 the Bills faithful have gathered to cheer on their team.

It all started just after owner Don Hayes (a dyed-in-the-wool Brooklynite who has never been to Buffalo) opened his establishment more than 22 years ago after seeing how well a couple of other Buffalo Wings 'n Things were doing in Florida.

He did it on a lark. And his now-famous wings didn't exactly fly out of the kitchen that first year.

"This is California, and they hadn't discovered Buffalo wings yet," Hayes said as we stood in his restaurant, the room steadily filling with men, women and children clad in red, white and blue.

A brief history of Buffalo wings: Late one night in 1964, a man named Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar at his family's restaurant, the Anchor Bar Restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y. That evening a group of Dominic's (hungry) friends came in, so Mrs. Bellissimo whipped up something special.

She deep-fried the wings and covered them with a secret, tangy sauce. From that point on, Buffalo wings became a regular part of the menu at the Anchor Bar, and word spread fast until other restaurateurs were soon serving them.

Like Hayes.

But how to sell Buffalo wings in Huntington Beach in 1989, when so few knew what they were?

Enter Bills fan and Buffalo native Tom Kelly who came in one day and pitched Hayes on the idea of becoming the Sunday meeting place for Bills fans — already tried and true wing lovers.

Hayes agreed. And a new California chapter of the Buffalo Bills Booster club was born, with Kelly serving as first president.

"They saved my business," Hayes said. "Every Sunday we'd be packed with Bills fans, and they helped spread the word about the place."

Although Hayes needed to invest in a satellite dish to ensure that every game could be seen at Buffalo Wings 'n Things, his investment has more than paid off.

"This is about more than football," Hayes beamed, surrounded by pennants, jerseys, pictures and other Bills memorabilia that crams every spare inch of space. "It's about community. And friendships that have been created. This is a special group of people."

*

A game day visit

The day of the Patriots shocker, I met some of them.

Current Bills' club President Mike Hummel calmly oversees the gentle chaos of a Sunday morning as the fans steadily stream through the front door. The former Marine arranges the table seating chart, runs several charitable raffles throughout each game — with money going to Wounded Warriors and other places — and makes club announcements, among many other duties.

There's old-timer Bob Lillie, a 20-year vet of Sundays at Wing 'n Things, and he's not even a Bills fan. He follows the 49ers and brings his own TV into his booth each week where Hayes provides him a cable hookup to watch his team.

Why does he do it?

"I love these people," he says.

Mike Rovere has been coming since 1993 and his 10-year-old son has grown up around the crowd. Rovere's dad is recovering in the hospital from kidney cancer so Hayes tapes the games so Rovere can bring them to his dad to watch. That's the kind of place this is.

By the 10 a.m. kick-off, the place is packed with a cross section of fans that's a small town community unto itself — elders, young families, middle-age professionals — who come together for their team, but for each other too. And there's no nonsense allowed.

"Any swearing or anything, we will ask you to leave," Hayes says. "This is not a sports bar. It's a restaurant, and we respect our customers too much to allow any stuff like that. Look at how many kids we have here."

By 11 a.m., after breakfast is served, platters of hot, steaming, aromatic wings are brought out, cooled for some by another Buffalo favorite, Genesee Cream Ale.

Like a big American living room, featuring a big screen and two smaller sets at the back of the room, the restaurant comes roaring alive, generations of families and friends rising and crashing with each play of the game. It is a comforting sound in a big, cozy space that's warm and friendly enough to make you forget all of the other not-so-wonderful stuff happening out in the rest of the world.

There are no dues to pay and you don't even have to be a hard-core Bills fans to attend games on Sunday and be a part of the club, though you might easily find yourself leaving as one. If you'd like more information, visit http://www.socalbuffalofans.com and drop Mike Hummel a line.

And of course, Buffalo Wing 'n Things is open every day, so it's easy to enjoy the most authentic Buffalo wings west of Buffalo, if you ask me, and I have tried a few around the country.

But I know I'll be back on an upcoming Sunday to be with the Bills faithful. My son and I left as fans — of the fans.

And whatever the doctors are using to heal Mike Rovere's dad, something tells me the best medicine in the world is going to be watching the tape of that victory Sunday.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

Buffalo Wing 'n Things

18302 Beach Blvd.

(714) 848-2767

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
73°