From '80s excess to eggs Benedict
The lasting legacy of Blades and its newest iteration
Lemon ricotta pancakes
Sitting in the dining room of Pomodoro, within the 1290 University Avenue plaza, restaurateur Sami Mina reminisces about the success of Blades. No, not his nearby brunch diner Blades, which specializes in classic items like French toast, omelets, and pancakes, as well as trendy, millennial-focused health food like acai bowls and avocado toast, but the original Blades—a mid-1980s bar that still lives in infamy for its wall-to-wall crowds, overall decadence, and the unforgettable nights it produced.
Before the 1290 University Avenue plaza housed Blades 1.0, Blades 2.0, Pomodoro, the Revelry, Vida Juice Bar, or any retail store fronts, it was a massive warehouse and factory used by Huther Brothers Incorporated—a saw manufacturing company. According to Mina, the building’s history inspired the Blades name, and its unusual location helped cultivate the bar’s success.
(585) magazine: How did Blades start?
Sami Mina: As Huther Brothers started downsizing, they rented the back space for retail, and that’s where Blades went in.
So, what exactly was the Blades of the ’80s?
It started as a steakhouse where you ordered everything by the ounce. If you bought a piece of tenderloin at eight ounces, you were charged at cost and charged for your seat. Like a corkage fee, we charged a seat fee. It went well for a while, but the concept was a bit too premature for its time. Unfortunately, it was not a Rochester-type of concept, so we started to focus on the bar and bar food. The bar was U-shaped and right in the middle of the room. We had a bar outside on the patio as well. In any case, the space became more of a bar than restaurant.
What ended up making Blades so popular?
I think the entertainment part of it and, of course, its central location and the fact that it was hidden in the back with plenty of parking. Also, the outdoor atmosphere, and during those days, the drinking age was eighteen, so everyone was out, there were less restrictions, and DUI’s were not as punishable. The absence of competition helped, too. Not many venues in town had such a big space with outdoor seating where a band could play outside without the city restricting it. We could have played until 2 a.m. because we had no neighborhoods. The zoning part of it was very favorable to our venue.
Can you describe a typical Friday night?
It was drinking night. Whether we had a band or not, people lined up to come in and drink. They gathered around the bar; there would be people four, five, or six deep in line. In the summertime, imagine the whole patio loaded with people, standing room only. On Fridays, I used to have employees stay at the office until 5:00 in the morning to count cash. $30 to $40,000 in cash, we used to make that in one night. During those days, that was huge. I work my butt off here [Pomodoro] to make $40,000 in a week.
Was it a rowdy crowd?
Yes. We used to have to carry people out. We had bouncers who would frequently call taxis or put people in their friends’ cars to take them home; that’s how bad it was. That’s where the risk was big; that’s why my partners decided not to keep it. They were completely against it for fear of being sued. People started straying onto the railroad track near the patio, and we had a few close calls, to the point where the railroad authority would call the police. My partners were doctors, lawyers, and accountants. At that point, they decided they had to let go of Blades, even though it was a very popular bar—they did not want the liability.
After a brief, explosively successful stint in the mid ’80s, Mina’s partners eventually sold off their shares of Blades, effectively shutting down the bar before Mina turned it into Pomodoro in the early ’90s. While it had a short life span, Mina’s tales of excess were not isolated; they’re mirrored by almost anyone who attended Blades, including regulars Mark Cleary, president of City Blue Imaging, and Tom Doggett, a manager at City Blue.
(585) magazine: What age and stage of your life were you in when you frequented Blades?
Tom Doggett: I was around 28 and running Thirsty’s (a popular bar in Pittsford). My roommate and my girlfriend at the time used to work at Blades, so I would go there on my nights off.
Mark Cleary: I was right around 26 years old and post-college. I was living around the Park Avenue area and starting a career.
Why did you go to Blades instead of other bars?
MC: The bar on a Friday night was beyond anything Rochester had ever seen in terms of the size and the draw. Blades was definitely drawing the young professionals; it was just a who’s who. If you didn’t want to go to Blades on a Friday night in its heyday, you were crazy. Even though it was sometimes difficult just to get a drink, you would still go. They were doing things people hadn’t seen, like oyster shooters and strawberries injected with Grand Marnier, and out on the deck there would be waitresses walking around with shooter bottles. They kept fueling the crowd and the alcohol.
TD: There’s nothing like that in Rochester right now—the volume they did—there’s nothing you can compare it to.
Can you describe what Blades looked like, what it sounded like?
MC: It was this large warehouse style, which was unusual then. The interior had old saw manufacturing equipment that was decorated and painted in yellows and greens, so it had a funky look. You would look on to University Avenue, and the lines of cars and the streaming of people—it was like they were giving away liquor. Every single street in between East Ave and University was just packed with cars. People were driving in from all over Monroe County.
TD: I knew the owners, so they let me park right out in front. I’d pull my car right up near the door and have a ball.
MC: All of this was near what used to be a very busy railroad. It was noisy, but no one cared.
TD: I remember an incident where a kid was pretty hammered up and he almost ran into it.
MC: I can’t imagine there weren’t more of those incidents. When you look at the proximity of those tracks to the deck, it’s pretty close.
Sami Mina, one of the former owners of Blades, told me how crazy Fridays were. Can you tell me, from your point of view, what a typical Friday night at Blades was like?
MC: The best way to describe it was like you were at some big party. The part of it being a bar was almost secondary. You were there, and you were seeing tons of people you know, and tons of people that you wanted to know. You weren’t going to stay there for a half hour, sometimes you parked half a mile away, so this wasn’t a place where you just ran in for a quick drink, you were going to be there for hours.
TD: All the side streets were packed with cars.
MC: Sometimes people would be all the way in the Wegmans parking lot. It was so busy in the Blades parking lot that they had people directing traffic.
TD: It started at four o’clock, too. People would get out of work early just so they could get a spot. It was crazy. There was a four-corner bar on the inside, a bar on the outside, and on big nights they would set up another bar. And they just cranked.
I have an image of a very flash ’80s scene.
MC: People dressed to impress. People would come in suits and suspenders. In the early ’80s people dressed up to work and you just came that way from work. It was the upwardly mobile professional crowd. Unabashedly. People like Charlie Sheen in Wall Street. It was a lot of excess.
TD: They had this bottle of Louie the 13th [Louis XIII cognac] above the bar, and it would lower from the ceiling with lights around it. They did all these things just to mix it up.
Do you have any other specific memories that stick out?
TD: Not that I can repeat.
MC: It was just—you would get your drink and it was just this wall of people.
TD: It would take a half hour just to get from one side of the bar to the other.
MC: Going to Blades was the beginning of a great night out.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Nicholas Abreu is a freelance writer in Rochester. Follow him on Twitter at @Nickabreu585.