Tucked between New York’s Finger Lakes Wine Country to the east and Canada’s Niagara Escarpment to the west, Buffalo is an under-the-radar destination for people in the know. Many compare it to the nearby culinary hub of Pittsburgh, but its edginess and proximity to grape-growing regions makes it more of an East Coast version of Oakland, California.
The lakefront city hit a rough patch after its industrial heyday, but Buffalo’s stunning turn-of-the-century architecture was never torn down, and the cost of living and doing business stayed within reach. Now the old buildings are being revived for new ventures like restaurants, distilleries, breweries and wine bars.
“I’m meeting a lot of people coming here from bigger cities, doing cool things,” says Bobby Finan, whose Tommyrotter Distillery began producing gins last year, including a limited edition variation aged in Bourbon barrels. “For a young person, you can start a business here, take some risks, fail and keep going. And the core of Buffalo’s ongoing renaissance started with the food-and-drink scene.”
“For a young person, you can start a business here, take some risks, fail and keep going.” —Bobby Finan, Tommyrotter Distillery
Fine-dining staple Oliver’s has been around for decades. But its ambitions are on the rise, with a new wine director, Brandon Ford, and executive chef, Ross Warhol, who worked a stage at El Bullí. The 400-bottle list includes luxury bottlings as well as more affordable selections from local producers.
In Buffalo’s former Little Italy neighborhood sits Ristorante Lombardo, a favorite for 35 years. Old-school traditions remain (dinner jackets are common) and the restaurant cures its own lonza and coppa. The wine list, which favors small Italian producers, draws on Buffalo’s proximity to New York City to source wines available in few other places around the country.
Up the street on trendy Hertel Avenue is Craving, a neighborhood joint with a world-class pedigree. Adam Goetz brought his NYC-honed skills home to Buffalo, where he serves farm-to-table dishes with specialties like lobster poutine and roasted bone marrow.
Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant lends sophistication to Chippewa Street, Buffalo’s party-ready entertainment district. Inside the history art nouveau 1906 building, enjoy dynamic wines and dishes that include a foie gras-and-cherry waffle infused with Pinot Noir.
The five-year-old Vera Pizzeria has helped develop the city’s craft cocktail scene, with drinks served alongside “urban Italian” fare. Vera’s snug brick space is tucked in the city’s graceful Elmwood Village neighborhood, which is laced with Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parkways and Queen Ann-style homes.
The downtown City Wine Merchant store is fresh, sleek and urban, stocking notable Finger Lakes wines alongside French and Italian favorites. Meanwhile, intriguing upstart Paradise Wine is carving out its own niche, peddling organic and biodynamic wines on Buffalo’s West Side.
Flying Bison Brewing Company has been pioneering Buffalo’s craft brewing revival over the past decade. In the last two years, it’s opened a new location and tasting room in Larkinville, an old warehouse district reimagined for festivals and events.
Signaling the next wave of local beer, two-year-old Big Ditch Brewing Company draws on the heritage of the Erie Canal (once nicknamed the “big ditch”). The tap room roars every night, and its founders are already planning to expand. It was named Best Craft Brewery in New York State at the TAP NY beer festival in 2016.
After moving from Southern California, young Intelligentsia alum (a former quality control specialist) Jesse Crouse recently opened Tipico, one of the most thoughtfully designed coffee shops in Buffalo. The city’s creatives often cozy up on graphic-print tile seating around the kachelofen—a horizontal masonry stove whose architects call it North America’s largest.
Downtown, the historic Hotel Lafayette building, an Art Deco masterpiece by the nation’s first known professional female architect, Louise Blanchard Bethune, underwent a $30 million restoration, becoming the Hotel @ The Lafayette. The building houses a boutique hotel complete with a Public Espresso outlet, selling some of the city’s best pour-over coffee and French pastries in the lobby.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one of the art world’s great secrets. Early to the modernist scene, with masterworks by Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns and other luminaires. It is soon to undergo a landmark expansion.
Finally, don’t miss Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House, where a $50 million renovation is nearing completion. Recently, the complex added the glass-enclosed Greatbatch Pavilion, designed by acclaimed architect Toshiko Mori. It’s considered Buffalo’s most significant new piece of architecture in the past 50 years.