by Bryan Richards
images courtesy Rhea Anna, Drew Brown, Buffalo Aerial Pictures, Joe Cascio, Eric Frick and Onion Studio
Anyone who has ever been to Tavern on the Tracks on an NFL Sunday knows that Buffalo Nation is alive and well in Charlotte. Nary can a turquoise and black jersey be found among the Buffalo expats that have made the Queen City their new home. They’re a proud bunch that often wax ecstatic not only about their prized football team but also about coming of age with bars that stay open until 4:00 a.m. and a cuisine that is uniquely its own.
As an expat from a Rust Belt city myself, the nostalgia is lost on me. I proudly declare Charlotte as my new home, trading in my Browns jersey for a Panthers jersey. Thus, I decided to make a trek up to Buffalo to see what all the fuss was about. And, I was quite impressed with what I found. The city has plenty to offer, from history to recreation and food.
A great way to acclimate yourself to Buffalo is with a Buffalo River History Tour. The 90-minute guided river cruise journeys you through the city’s history from when the city was once one of the wealthiest in the country—thanks to the Erie Canal—to the city’s dark days after deindustrialization. Along the shores are ruins of former working grain silos that serve as reminders of where the city has been. Among the relics, a few spaces are being repurposed as entertainment venues, giving a nod to where Buffalo is headed as younger generations return home to make the city great again.
After the cruise, spend some time exploring Canalside, where the boat debarks. The $300 million investment in Buffalo’s waterfront is the crown jewel in the city’s revitalization efforts. Locals enjoy the outside space year-round from ice skating and ice biking in the recreated Erie Canal in the winter, to Thursday night concerts in the summer at Central Wharf. Canalside also boasts the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, the largest inland Naval park in the country. Think cruisers, destroyers, and submarines on display.
If you’re feeling a little more rebellious, head across the river to Riverworks, which you passed earlier on the river cruise. The repurposed grain silos house rock climbing walls, zip lines, curling rinks, a roller derby rink, a brewery, and way too many other activities to list. If the weather is nice, order up a cold one from The Ward, Riverworks’ restaurant and bar, and grab a seat along the river to watch boats and kayaks float by.
Larkinville is another example of Buffalo’s revitalization efforts. The neighborhood that was once home to Buffalo’s first business district and the Larkin Soap Company is now an urban playground. At the heart of Larkinville is Larkin Square, where, each Tuesday during warmer months, the city hosts a food truck rally with over a dozen trucks, live music, and thousands of revelers. The neighborhood also houses several restaurants (including a refurbished diner car), two breweries, and a distillery along with a miniature golf course and pickleball courts.
Of course, there is still plenty of old to explore along with the new, like the spot where President Theodore Roosevelt took his oath of office and the President William McKinley Memorial (who’s assassination in Buffalo led to President Roosevelt’s first term).
The biggest draw to Buffalo for many, though, is the city’s rich architectural history. The city boasts works from greats like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Stand in awe of Lloyd Wright’s genius at the Martin House. Admire Sullivan’s Guaranty Building—one of our country’s first skyscrapers. Stay in one of H.H. Richardson’s fabled insane asylums converted into luxury Hotel Henry. And spend an afternoon enjoying the early urban planning of Olmstead at Delaware Park (great spot for a picnic lunch).
All that exploring will work up quite the appetite, and Buffalo has a cuisine all to its own to help fill it. To start, let’s talk about the food that helped put Buffalo on the food map—the chicken wing. Here in Charlotte, we’re used to wings done dozens of different ways like smoked, breaded with a spicy Asian sauce, or slathered with sticky BBQ sauce. Buffalonians would snub their noses at all of those. Wings are done one way—fried and then tossed in a combination of Texas Pete hot sauce and butter. While Anchor Bar holds title as the creator of the Buffalo chicken wing, each local has their favorite wing joint, like Gabriel’s Gate, where the wings have just enough sauce to stick to the crisply fried wings.
Beef on weck is another local staple born in Buffalo. The base for the sandwich is the kimmelweck roll, which is where the sandwich gets its name. The white bread roll is heavily sprinkled with kosher salt and caraway seeds for a signature crunch. The cut side is then dipped in the jus from the roast beef that is hand carved and layered between the roll. Horseradish is typically served on the side. The many layers of textures and flavors are reason to wonder why anyone would ever leave Buffalo. While there isn’t an originator of the beef on weck, Schwabl’s serves up one of the best examples, along with some old Eastern European classics like goulash and dumplings.
Not born in Buffalo but equally as popular among locals are fish fries. The flaky, moist hunks of haddock were formerly relegated to Fridays during lent. Today, a few restaurants, like Gene McCarthy’s, serve them year-round. Gene McCarthy’s also has an onsite brewery to help modernize the blue-collar watering hole and restaurant.
For dessert, there’s only one choice—sponge candy. Try it in its classic chocolate covered spun caramelized sugar form at Watson’s Chocolate or in a more creative interpretation like sponge candy ice cream at Fowler’s Chocolates or sponge candy stout from Resurgence Brewing.
Once you’ve exhausted Buffalo, don’t head back home without a trip to wine country or out to East Aurora. Buffalo is book-ended by two wine trails—Lake Erie Wine Country and the Niagara Wine Trail. Along the Niagara Wine Trail, you’ll encounter 19 wineries pouring Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet alongside native Niagara grapes and ice wines. Lake Erie Wine Country is the largest grape growing region east of the Rocky’s and offers a variety of wines from fruity Labruscas to European styles.
Like wine country, East Aurora shows you a less gritty side of Buffalo. East Aurora’s claim to fame is the birthplace of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, thanks in part to Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft Campus. Hubbard moved to East Aurora 120 years ago and attracted a community of artists, craftsmen, and writers with him. Today, that creative legacy lives on in the artisans of the Roycroft Campus and the quirkiness of the village itself. Stop into Vidler’s 5 & 10 to see what souvenirs you can take home with you (when I was in East Aurora, a group of Vikings walked into the bar, because Vidler’s), taste the reputed best wings in Western New York at Bar Bills Tavern, or enjoy a creatively crafted ale at 42 North Brewing.
Buffalo is definitely a city worth visiting. Just make sure you do it during the warmer months, unless you want to experience the reason why there are so many expats living here in Charlotte.
Sidebar: Niagara Falls
Several companies offer day tours from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, most of which provide a pick up and drop off from your hotel. Don’t forget your passport if you plan to visit the Canadian side!