Cold Buffalo is a food hot spot
Sports-loving city is a year-round dining destination
Patrons prepare to split dishes at
Maybe your most recent image of Buffalo comes from late 2017, when the Bills looked like they were playing the Colts inside an overpacked snow globe.
Ever since Johnny Carson made a running gag of Buffalo’s Blizzard of ’77, the city has been famous for its winter precipitation. But while lake-effect snow does pile up sometimes (particularly in the southern suburbs), the flip side is friendly locals who happily band together to dig a newcomer’s car out in winter — or show off its glistening Lake Erie waterfront in summer.
I experienced both during three years in the city, and I recently returned with my mom to visit friends. I discovered that Buffalo now is a hot spot yearround. The sports-loving city embraces cold with activities such as outdoor ice skating and curling, and it celebrates summer with unique boat-up recreation venues.
Its history of all-year friendliness goes back well over a century. From immigrants to visionaries, open-hearted Buffalo has always welcomed workaday folks and ambitious leaders to its cramped Victorian rowhouses and handsome turn-of-the-century mansions.
These days, immigrants still bring their traditions and skills to Buffalo’s historic spaces. Case in point: James Beard Award-nominated chef Victor Parra Gonzalez runs one restaurant in Buffalo and another in Mexico.
Buffalo’s workaday ethic runs straight into its cultural and artistic flair in an unlikely spot: Silo City. The cluster of massive grain elevators stands on a gravelly lot along the once-overpolluted Buffalo River. Owner Rick Smith, a metal magnate, tried to start an ethanol business on the property before giving it over to highminded events like art exhibitions and poetry readings.
Today, it’s creative enough that the visual artist Nick Cave is basing himself there for a yearlong Buffalo residency. This summer, Smith opened Duende, a bar and restaurant on the site. Although it wasn’t yet open for the day when I came by, staffers invited me in anyway. On my way out, chef Doug Peck hollered at me to come back for the vegan eggplant wings. Next time.
Across the Buffalo River is a set of grain elevators with a different vibe, as evidenced by the halfdozen silos painted ultramarine like a six-pack of Labatt Blue. RiverWorks has a lot going on. In the warmer months, the complex is a boat-up brewery and restaurant that people can approach by water; powerboats, kayaks and kitschy floating tiki bars now dock along the recently cleanedup river.
A fresh zip-line course operates in the warmer months, and matchups in roller derby, ice hockey and martial arts happen at different times of the year across the venue, with its slightly macho, sports-bar vibe.
Even the scents are a fun time, since General Mills still produces cereal in a nearby grain elevator. Sniff the air and decide whether they’re making Cheerios, Lucky Charms or Honey Nut Chex that day.
The antithesis to chowing down on all those chicken wings might be Buffalo’s ethereal new vegan cafe Root and Bloom. The macrame art of the ’70s meets millennial pink walls in the dreamy, plant-filled interior space. (Another portion of the restaurant is even greener: It’s a light-strung back patio open only in the warmer months.)
Married duo Sarah Sendlebeck and James Ernst opened Root and Bloom in May, in what was a cheesemonger’s and then a chocolatier’s shop. En route to a friend’s place, I stopped in for to-go pastries, including autumnal apple-chai turnovers that were spicy and so flaky I couldn’t fathom how they didn’t include butter. Good thing I didn’t plan to sit: Long before any reasonable dinner hour, every table was full.
It’s an unusual but seasonally brilliant spread for a restaurateur: Chef Gonzalez’s Buffalo spot, Las Puertas, recently got him nominated for a James Beard Award for his next-level Mexican cuisine. The space, in a former home on Buffalo’s diverse West Side, is mostly white and stark, yet the welcome is familial. The food is as inventive as you’d imagine from a chef who had worked at Montreal’s famous Au Pied de Cochon.
Mom and I met a friend there for dinner. Although we all understood what to expect from “fallspice brined chicken” and “brown-butter-roasted squash,” we didn’t grasp in advance what camote tetelas were. They were a kind of sweet-potato pastry with a soft almond crust, it turned out, and the phrase “mezcal-laced coconut cream” told us all we needed to know about how decadent they’d be.
The new Buffalo Wing Trail, established in the spring, includes 12 classic spots for gnawing on Buffalo’s immortal gift to the food gods.
My pick is Duff ’s, where President Barack Obama once ate while in town, and an older Buffalo gal saw fit to tell him exactly what she thought: “You’re a hottie with a smokin’ little body.” (I’m sure he passed that on to Michelle.) Although Obama had swooped into the Duff ’s nearest the airport, Mom and I visited the original Sheridan Drive location. We sat under a 1946 black-andwhite image showing when the place was the Sheridan Patio, a weed-edged stand for hamburgers and hot dogs.
The Erie Canal that brought in Buffalo’s heyday was derided early in its existence as New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s “big ditch.” Big Ditch Brewing swims in that history from its roaring downtown brewery. A huge mural extols “Strength, Pride, Ambition: The Spirit of the Erie Canal” on one wall. After launching in 2014, Big Ditch quickly won the Tap NY cup for Best Craft Brewery in New York state, and the taproom became a must-stop.
Over Cinnamon Apple ales and chicken wings there, I caught up with a local friend who had been involved in developing the Wing Trail. Although we couldn’t necessarily single out the Hayburner IPA that Big Ditch mixes into the hot sauce, this expert winggnawer pronounced them as having a good “sauce to crisp ratio.”
Where to stay, play
The facts on the Hotel at the Lafayette: The masterwork of the country’s first certified female architect, Louise Blanchard Bethune, was restored to its Art Moderne glory as one of Buffalo’s first comeback-hotel projects. The building now hosts a brewery, lofts, shops, restaurants and countless weddings. Actress Vanessa Williams made one of its suites into a bridal when she stayed there not long ago after her wedding ceremony in downtown Buffalo.
My fresh opinion: The bright new space occupied by the coffee shop and all-day cafe Public Espresso + Coffee has made the hotel one of the most energized spots in town. Inhale the rich scent of the beans roasted and the English muffins baked on-site, and prepare, as I did, to get in line.
Buffalo’s former Little Italy business strip, Hertel Avenue, has been diversifying lately, with Caribbean and Middle Eastern immigrants opening restaurants, and trendy ice cream and taco joints setting up shop. Jumbled antique shops sit alongside pricey designer-run home furniture stores, and classic dive bars near sleek cocktail lounges.
Our ramble was pepped up by fresh public art along the avenue. But our best new find had to be Pastry by Camille, a bakery from a Gallic-accented French chef who told us he’d married a Buffalonian. We could taste the fresh cultural representation he’d brought to the avenue with spicysweet creations like wasabi meringue.
Buffalo’s new vegan cafe, Room and Bloom. Married duo Sarah Sendlebeck and James Ernst opened the eatery in May.
Owner and James Beard Award-nominated chef Victor Parra Gonzalez prepares camote tetelas at Las Puertas in Buffalo. The tetelas include sweet potato puree, coconut cream and salsa matcha.
Public Espresso + Coffee’s Vlad sandwich, with egg, bacon and cheddar, is a staple at the Hotel at the Lafayette, but prepare to get in line.
The wings at Duff ’s Famous Wings are a classic on the new Buffalo Wing Trail. The dish is said to have originated in Buffalo.