| Lynn Freehill-Maye |
MAYBE your most recent image of Buffalo comes from last December, 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 year-round. 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. James Beard Award-nominated chef Victor Parra Gonzalez runs one restaurant in Buffalo and another in Mexico. Legendary inventor Nikola Tesla once lit up the city’s electric grid with power from nearby Niagara Falls; now, Elon Musk’s Tesla is set to produce its splashy new solar roof tiles in a Buffalo factory. The city’s proud history, in short, is gaining a fresh 21st Century life.
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-over polluted Buffalo River. Owner Rick Smith, a metal magnate, tried to start an ethanol business on the property before giving it over to high-minded 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 restaurant on the site. Although it wasn’t yet open for the day when I came by, staffers invited me in anyway. Bob Sturm showed me everything he’d constructed of materials reclaimed from the property, right down to the establishment made from a roll-up garage door. 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 half-dozen 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 establishment and restaurant that people can approach by water; powerboats, kayaks and kitschy floating tiki now dock along the recently cleaned-up 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.
Frank Lloyd Wright was architecturally prolific, having dotted the Midwest and beyond with his signature Prairie Style homes. But even among the many, the Darwin D Martin House stands out as an early Wright masterwork.
Bracingly modern and low-slung, the mansion spreads wide across a grand lawn amid the tall, prim, closely spaced Victorians of Buffalo’s Parkside neighbourhood. On my return, I was startled to see the property edged in orange tornado fencing, since I’d previously seen it finish its recent USD50 million restoration (right down to the thousands of glass shards in the house’s showpiece mosaic hearth, with its pondlike gray-green shimmer).
The hosts in the glassy Greatbatch Pavilion – a welcome centre that is an architectural achievement in its own right – told me the grand finale is a total landscape restoration, which will bloom come warm weather.
The smart money (some USD155 million of it) might tell you to wait a couple of years to see the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at its best. The modern and contemporary art museum is just beginning a dramatic expansion designed by the Office of Metropolitan Architects.
The place will be rechristened the Buffalo AKG Art Museum following the donation of USD42.5 million toward the project by Los Angeles bond king and Western New York native Jeffrey Gundlach. The secret is, the Albright-Knox already holds a collection that rivals the Guggenheim’s, with masterworks by Kahlo and O’Keefe, Picasso and Pollock.
It’s so impressive that the historic-preservation group Explore Buffalo has offered tours (which I first took a couple of years ago) of the museum’s stunning outdoor art alone. A highlight is Nancy Rubin’s wild suspension of 60-plus metal canoes on a pole, titled in part ‘Built to Live Anywhere, At Home Here’. Visiting the Albright-Knox now is like discovering an underground band before it gets famous – you get bragging rights for being in the know before the larger world.
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; Parrilla’s mother and sister help staff Las Puertas.
The food is as inventive as you’d imagine from a chef who had worked at Montreal’s famous Au Pied de Cuchon. Mum and I met a friend there for dinner. Although we all understood what to expect from “fall-spice 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 deities. 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, Mum and I visited the original Sheridan Drive location. We sat under a 1946 black-and-white image showing when the place was the Sheridan Patio, a weed-edged stand for burgers and hot dogs. At the next table, visiting Pennsylvania college student Joshua Wanek went big by sampling his first-ever wing here. “I didn’t really have a bar to compare it to,” he said. “The bar has been set. This is the bar.”
The Erie Canal that brought in Buffalo’s heyday was derided early in its existence as New York Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “big ditch”. Big Ditch Brewing swims in that history from its roaring downtown establishment.
A huge mural extols ‘Strength, Pride, Ambition: The Spirit of the Erie Canal’ on one wall, while a giant black-and-white of the manmade waterway dominates another.
Over Cinnamon Apple 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 wing-gnawer pronounced them as having a good “sauce to crisp ratio”.
Buffalo’s long history of welcoming newcomers isn’t just a historical pattern. This century, the city has helped refugees from a range of countries get settled locally and offered them venues, like the longtime West Side Bazaar, to sell their food and goods. In 2014, after noticing that many resettled women brought stitching skills from their home countries, Buffalo State textile arts professor Dawne Hoeg founded a non-profit organisation to help refugee women parlay their existing sewing skills into a new living. Her Refugee Women’s Workshop includes 55 women from countries like Bhutan, Myanmar and Angola, and the adjoining Stitch Buffalo shop sells their work. It’s the Ten Thousand Villages concept on a local scale. I can’t resist the heart-shape “Buffalove” ornaments, bright and joyful adaptations of a millennial phrase of local pride.
Toys R Us went bust, and FAO Schwartz all but slipped away. Indie bookstores have made a comeback, but how about the local toy store? Three cheers for the colourful TreeHouse Toy Store, a favourite “business of play” in family-friendly Buffalo since 1996. All the imagination-building classics you might remember from childhood are still here: kites, rocket sets, modelling clay. Co-owner “Mr Dave” will help you pick out, as he did for me, a gift for friends who’d recently had a baby. (In my case, a book with fun-to-touch cloth patches.) Or if you’re shopping this happy little place with a kiddo along, he’s still got your back – 60-some buckets near the register offer budget-friendly USD5 treats, including rubber dinosaurs and miniglobes.
If you’re a fan, you probably know that New Era Cap is Major League Baseball’s official headwear, and if you’re an extra-attentive football fan, you might have seen that Buffalo’s NFL stadium was recently renamed New Era Field. But did you realise that the hatmaker is based in greater Buffalo, where some of those caps are – at least for the moment – actually produced? The factory isn’t open for tours (sadly, it’s set to move to Miami soon), but the company’s flagship store downtown stocks every special-edition collection, including fashion-forward tie-dye and retro stripes, plus local-pride designs you can’t get anywhere else.
“Welcome to Bills mafia, bro. You’re in the middle of it,” I overheard Buffalo native Chris Ocean telling his friend, Truong Nguyen, as they walked in. Nguyen, visiting from Seattle, looked agog at the selection. “If you’re a hat person, or a sports fan, you can’t not stop at New Era,” he said. “I’m totally fanboying out right now.”
Any town can host a funny T-shirt shop. Oxford Pennant’s co-founders, Dave Horesh and Brett Mikoll, saw potential in something else cleverly printed: felted wool pennants. The sporty triangles look like something you’d find in your grandpa’s basement but actually cheer for a modern “it” city like Nashville, Raleigh (or Buffalo).
Since launching five years ago, the locally headquartered company has printed pennants for Shinola and J Crew, Willie Nelson and Drew Barrymore. At its new flagship store, Horesh and his dachshund mix, Oxford, greeted me, and clerk Patrick Simons offered me a drink. The Goo Goo Dolls blared; that weekend, the store had been made into a pop-up concert shop for the Buffalo-bred rockers, selling ‘90s jean jackets and felt banners like “I Wanna Wake up Where You Are.” Horesh, a Rochester native, told me he’d thought about what gives Buffalo even more rah-rah spirit than other Rust Belt towns. “It’s sports,” he told me. “The Bills, the Sabres – there’s something to rally around.”
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 (plus) Coffee has made the hotel one of the most energised 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.
The Hotel Henry, an imposing double-towered building by the great architect HH Richardson, was once a psychiatric institution. Now, with the extra-wide corridors and flood of natural light that were recommended for patients back then, it’s become a trendy “urban resort” for hotel guests today.
The hotshot designers behind the 21c Museum Hotels, Deborah Berke Partners, undertook such a careful transformation that the hotel was named one of 2018’s three best preservation projects in the country by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mum and I lunched at hotel restaurant 100 Acres, and while the standard Reuben sandwich and harvest salad might not have been unique, the setting in an art-brightened corridor was unlike anything elsewhere.
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 lounges. Our ramble was pepped up by fresh public art along the avenue. The ‘Hertel Walls’ project included my new favourite, a Buffalo mural printed from illustrator Mario Zucca’s work that played up the city’s Lake Erie setting. 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 spicy-sweet creations like wasabi meringue.
Laced with ample green parkways drawn out by landscape architect and Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Elmwood Village may be the most graceful neighbourhood in Buffalo. “Were the houses always this beautiful?” my mum asked as we gawked at its painted-lady Victorian houses, whose ample porches seem to welcome residents, visitors, and returnees like me. The neighbourhood’s long main street, Elmwood Avenue, peddles products from books and toys to coffee and other beverages to – this being Buffalo – fleece.
I was only sorry that we had returned before a new location of Charlie the Butcher, a local-institution meat shop actually presided over by friendly Charlie in his hard hat, opened on the avenue. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post