The Rio Bamba was Rochester’s swankiest restaurant and a pillar of the city’s “Restaurant Row” for more than a half-century.
Corporate bigwigs and government officials were among the regular customers. Newspaper columnists name-dropped of hobnobbing with actresses and movie moguls who stopped by the Rio.
A reputed mobster once was charged with beating a man with a tire iron in the posh restaurant.
The Rio Bamba was in a converted 19th century Victorian home on Alexander Street, between Park and East avenues. The place won international awards for its wines and was listed among Rochester’s landmark restaurants.
As Pat Dougherty wrote in a 1983 Upstate review, “I have heard it said more than once — and by knowledgeable and discriminating people who enjoy fine dining — that Rio Bamba … is the best restaurant in town. It may well be.”
Alfred Greene founded the Rio Bamba in 1949. News accounts said Greene copied the name of his favorite New York City restaurant.
Henry Clune and Bill Beeney, who were columnists for the Democrat and Chronicle, wrote often of the Rio in those early years. Clune mentioned the restaurant in a 1949 column when he wrote of artist Colleen Browning, who painted murals for “a new and novel Alexander Street restaurant, the Rio Bamba.”
A 1951 Clune column mentioned Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., son of the late president and himself a U.S. Congressman, dining at the Rio. Other visitors featured in Clune columns include a publicity man for United Artists, the advertising director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, Israel’s deputy director of the Ministry of Health, longtime syndicated columnist Art Buchwald and actress Louise Brooks.
Beeney wrote a 1953 column that noted the Rio’s “plushy new room” which was open to select clientele and accessible only by gold keys. A party to honor the new president of Bausch & Lomb was held at Rio Bamba in 1954, the same year that Beeney wrote that the restaurant’s “Golden Key Room” was attracting “just about every celebrity to hit town.” In 1955, that included movie starlet Cleo Moore.
Greene sold the Rio in 1959 and later made millions as a mortgage broker. The new owner was Peter Van Cola, who had been a bartender at the Rio. Van Cola kept the Rio for decades and continued, or even enhanced, the elegant atmosphere.
Awards and accolades continued to pour in for the Rio, which became part of a “Global Menu Club” dining plan in the ‘70s that included other top restaurants like Eddie’s Chop House, Top of the Plaza and the Hof Brau House.
The mobster mention occurred in 1980, when “reputed Mafia underboss” Richard Marino allegedly got into a skirmish with another man inside the Rio. News accounts said a grand jury was hearing evidence that Marino, “armed with a tire iron, beat a man in the Rio Bamba in front of several patrons and restaurant employees.”
Marino was indicted, but a state Supreme Court judge eventually dismissed an assault charge because witnesses couldn’t positively identify Marino as the man with the tire iron.
That incident was an anomaly for the normally reserved Rio Bamba. In her book, “Rochester Eats/75 Years of Classic Faves & Craves,” Karen Deyle called the Rio “as close to stylish New York elegance as Rochester had.” Mark Wert wrote in a 1986 Upstate review that the Rio was “still a big-deal restaurant” and praised the “encyclopedic wine list.”
By the late ‘80s, ownership changed again and the upscale tradition continued.
Rio Bamba offered valet parking, and a 1988 news story quoted one of those valets saying “You get to park a lot of great cars.” (The list included Alfa Romeos, Jaguars, Porsches and Cadillacs.)
By 1993, the Rio had a new general manager who was “pumping new life into the grey lady of Alexander Street,” as Kathy Lindsley wrote in a Democrat and Chronicle review. A pianist played in the cocktail lounge on weekends and Lindsley noted that although staffers “still wear tuxedos,” customers were now welcome to visit in more casual attire as the Rio cultivated a younger, more upbeat image.
The “Bamba” part of the name was eliminated for several years but reinstated in 2000 under another ownership group. The restaurant was closed for several months for an extensive renovation. The fine-dining reputation continued upon the reopening.
By mid-2005, though, the Rio Bamba was done. Owners announced that the place would be known as “Bamba Bistro,” with lower prices and a more casual and relaxed atmosphere. “After 50 years of being Rochester’s foremost formal dining establishment, the Rio Bamba is taking the white linen off the tables and the cummerbunds off the wait staff,” Frank Bilovsky wrote in a Democrat and Chronicle story.
Bamba Bistro lasted several years before closing. The site is now occupied by another restaurant, Ox and Stone. The grey lady of Alexander Street, meanwhile, is just a memory.
Whatever Happened to …? is a feature about Rochester’s haunts of yesteryear and is based on our archives.
Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in March 2018.