Another Rust Belt town, another rebirth.
In Western New York there has been Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” initiative—a generous allocation from the state to create jobs and spur investment throughout the area. And one need look no further than Harborcenter’s 38-foot TV to see evidence of the downtown dough injection brought by new Bills and Sabres owner Terry Pegula. While everyone throughout the 716 seems eager to express a newfound positivism around the revamped waterside sliver known as Canalside.
These are all local, specific examples of the warm, fuzzy tropes of urban revitalization. All part of what’s happened in Detroit, happening in Cleveland, and on the brink of happening in Buffalo.
It is becoming a city certainly buzz worthy these days, where visitors can drink Brazilian rum at hot spot Vera, eat anchovy tartine with crème fraiche at Buffalo Proper, sample “fine ferments” at the Portlandia-esque fetishization of a place like Barrel & Brine, ride a water bike down the river and malinger between taco trucks near the warehouses of Larkin Square. Oh, and where locals can enjoy all the delicious hipster affectations sweeping such medium-sized, once easily priced cities. Can you sense the sarcasm?
But does this mean death to Buffalo’s hoary old jokes about the snow? About the Super Bowl(s)?
In a way, we hope not. Because, really, what’s so wrong with snow? What’s more beautiful, pure? What’s more Buffalo? And maybe it’s time to forgive, hell, embrace Scott Norwood, the kicker who cost the football squad Super Bowl 25, and the city’s entire beleaguered sports history.
Maybe it’s time to seek and celebrate the side of Buffalo that’s always been there, through it all. The places, at least, with zero interest in slinging small plates.
To simply and concisely bridge the gap between new and old school, wander away from said water bikes and outdoor movies, past the fresh swarm of Canalside, around the shadow of First Niagara Center, by the wafts of roasting Lucky Charms emanating from the General Mills factory. Swannie is a corner brick bar of wood panels, fish fries, chicken wings and the same daytime Bukowski-type drinkers that have inhabited the joint since Swanerski House opened some 130 years ago, when Buffalo was the third largest seaport in the world. Today it feels like a big-shouldered waterfront dive of a time capsule, at the nexus of where the town is being reborn into whatever it is modern American cities are supposed to be nowadays. Swannie slides nicely into this now without changing a thing, existing pleasantly as the perfect bar for a Sabres or Bisons post or pregame, with a rough-hewn friendliness to make everyone, sort of, at home. We prefer it for a proper liquid lunch of too many frigid Labatt Blues.
Photo by Y L, BY NC ND
Obama ate here. But not really. He got in a quick photo opp on the way out of town at the location by the airport. But for the original, a hungry wanderer needs to head a bit north, to Amherst, where a permeable cloud of oil essence wafts around the original location. Where the floor and Formica tables have an uncleanable greasy sheen, where your nasal passages are cleared by peppery sauce pungency before you even sit down, as you gaze at walled pictures of Thurman Thomas and desperately hope your name gets called soon. When it happens, one does best to observe that “medium is hot” menu disclaimer. Because you might not realize it at first, but your wings are not just coated, the unfortunate ones in the bottom of the wooden bowl are literally drowning in the Frank’s Red Hot-and-butter synthesis sauce that swims through the DNA of any Buffalonian. The wings here are somehow at once skin-crisp and saucy, extremely spicy but tasty, enjoyable but painfully visceral. Both sweat and tear inducing, Duff’s is the apotheosis of the wing experience in Buffalo.
The Todaro family has built quite the legacy since 1957. From claims of “largest independent pizzeria in the U.S.,” to legitimate stakes as the official pizza of the Bills, Sabres and Bisons, La Nova is an operation that needs to be seen as well as tasted. The original on West Ferry in the rebirthing west side is a venerable ant hill of bustling delivery drivers, a cacophony of ringing phones and oven heat, somehow able to consistently sling both the best barbecue sauce-battered wings around and an exemplary paradigm of Buffalo-style pizza.
But what is Buffalo-style pizza? Based on how many ex-employee spinoffs the city has (Leonardi’s being the best) and the most common assessment of natives, Bocce’s probably has the closest to the prototype: thickish, triangle-cut pan pizza with a singular, semi-sweet, zesty sauce with some heft; and bountiful, blanketing mozzarella. And there’s our favorite Buffalo pizza characteristic: a copious amount of quarter-sized, thick-cut pepperoni buttons scattered atop the cheese, curled, burnt and blackened by the oven’s heat lick, which turns them into little cups—holding devices for pools of grease.
Photo by Linden Tea, BY NC ND
Visit friends in any city around the country, and you’ll be inevitably led toward small plates in a newly hip onetime-warehouse district that is gritty yet gentrified, and mostly striving toward Park Slope. Then there’s Buffalo’s Allentown. With Nietzsche’s, Mulligan’s and other pubs many adult locals’ grandfathers drank at, and the very real possibility you might see somebody get punched in the face right on Allen Street, it’s hard to see this neighborhood is actually a funky, Bohemian enclave. But it is, and at the heart of it all is Gabriel’s Gate. With the taxidermy, tin ceiling, classic rock and a building that dates to 1864, it’s easy to assume it’s nothing more than a friendly, comfortable fireplace and chandelier clad dive bar with an old soul. Don’t judge the book by it’s cover; it’s still a Buffalo pub at its core, serving some of the best wings in town. Crisped and sheeny in sauce, an order of them is a formidable base for a night of bar-hopping, and should tide you over until it’s time again for Jim’s (there’s another location a block away).
After a few Molson Canadians and darts at Kelly’s Korner, locals somehow forgo the smells rising from the fryer, and trudge across Delaware Avenue to wait in line for steak hoagies. Jim’s SteakOut’s 11 locations are mostly open till 5 a.m., leaving ample post-drink opportunities. It’s here that a neophyte can be overwhelmed by the height of the Buffalo sub scene and pummeled by impossibly diced sirloin morsels swimming with mayo-y secret sauce and melty provolone, singing with banana peppers. The Diavlo especially is a massacre of a tender meat-bread-sauce-spice medley, the cheese running in rivulets through the steak, the collective sauce gooping sluggishly toward the eater’s ulna bone, the greasy package greater than the sum of its parts. When drunk, when maybe only half-drunk, OK, even when stone sober in the middle of the day, this is possibly the best hero/hoagie/cheesesteak in the country. And somehow, despite occasionally needing to show far east-coasters how flat-topped meat is done, what Jim’s is most famous for is the Chicken Finger sub.
Ted’s Hot Dogs
Photo by hellomarkers! BY NC ND
The problem with Ted’s, a nine-location chain that’s been slinging encased meats since Theodore Spiro Liaros began selling his wares to Buffalo’s Peace Bridge construction workers in 1927, is that repeated exposure can permanently murder any appreciation for dirty-water boiled dogs. Locally made Sahlen’s are prodded and pivoted over charcoal grills by expert prong-wielders, cooked hot and slow, the flame eventually yielding a midnight-blackened skin. The result is blistered and charred, smoky and snappy, appearing overcooked, but holding the juiciest of flavor-bursting centers. The homemade peppery hot sauce, running with Buffalo’s own Weber’s horseradish mustard, caps a transcendent meat-tube experience. A foot-long is somehow never enough. Especially when washed down by a Loganberry (ask your bartender).
Essex St. Pub
On the surface, this place looks like just another in a lot of cool Elmwood Village corner bars with pool, darts, patrons till 4 a.m., and a jukebox. But on our latest trip we couldn’t help noticing our bartender’s “Malarchuk” tee shirt. It seemed, in a way, a perfect metaphor for the city itself: a local rock band named in celebration of a Sabres goalie most famous for nearly dying on the ice after his jugular was sliced by an opponent’s skate. We thought, what better place to lament the glory days of the Bills and curse the forthcoming season of inevitable disappointment in the same breathe, to have another benign Labatt or a crafty, hoppy Southern Tier, or to understand the ups but mostly downs the Sisyphean struggle of life, than Buffalo? As Camus—certainly a Buffalonian at heart—reminds us, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” With fresh cold ones and an order of wings due up from the kitchen—dry rubbed and smoked, fried and coated in a bourbon barbecue sauce, sided by a garlic and cilantro dipping sauce—it’s easy to do so.
Todd Lazarski is the author of the novel Make the Road by Walking. Freelance musings on food and music can be found on his website.