Buffalo: New York’s hottest culinary destination
By Trupti Devdas Nayak
Thirteen years ago, I boarded a plane and flew 7,820 miles from India to Buffalo, New York for my graduate studies at the University of Buffalo. Since then, I’ve been on countless flights to countries and places far beyond my imagination, but I still have a soft spot for the city that became my home away from home for two years.
My friends and I used to joke that Buffalo was the perfect place to be a student, there weren’t too many distractions or temptations which we could ill afford.
After finishing my studies, I took a one-way flight to the other coast, California. I visited Buffalo a couple times since then, mostly to show family and friends the majesty of Niagara Falls, but I never ventured into downtown or explored other city sights.
Come a Long Way
“Buffalo has come a long way. You should visit and see for yourself,” my friend Manas Kulkarni said emphatically when I asked him what had changed in Buffalo over the past 10 years.
“The downtown and waterfront area called Canalside has been completely renovated and is now a major attraction with free concerts, the Harbor Center, kayaking and even a Buffalo Riverworks complex for skating, hockey and curling .
There are several new restaurants, cafes and bars that have sprung up in the Downtown / Allentown districts and places like Westside Bazaar giving small businesses and entrepreneurs a place to set up shop and thrive.
This has been a win not just for visitors, but all of Buffalo’s communities as well.” he added. His enthusiastic response highlighting the merits of visiting Buffalo took me by surprise. I had to make a trip for myself to find out!
I boarded JetBlue’s newly launched direct flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF). It took a mere 4.15 hours to fly coast to coast, covering 2500 miles.
I was impressed with JetBlue’s famed leg-room in economy along with “Even More” leg-room seats where you can stretch comfortably like a cat after pre-boarding with your carry-on luggage.
No visit to Buffalo is complete without hitting up one of its oldest and most famous institutions, Anchor Bar – home of the original Buffalo wings since 1935. Locals, students, tourists, everybody comes to Anchor Bar for two things – wings and more wings.
Whether you prefer them doused in medium hot sauce or you are brave enough to try the “suicidal” sauce, eating wings at Anchor Bar is true tradition.
I visited AnchorBar a decade earlier when studying at University at Buffalo and was eager to relive those days. The interiors looked unchanged, as did the menu.
I went with my regular order of medium wings with a side of “suicidal” hot sauce and a friendly waitress soon brought a huge platter of crispy golden fried chicken wings.
The suicidal sauce was hotter than I remembered, with an addictive peppery flavor and burning-the-tongue-and-throat after effect, making my sinuses run. “Milk refills not allowed” read the menu, which made me laugh as I savored the crunch and spice of Buffalo’s most famous culinary creation.
My first stop on reaching Buffalo was the Westin in downtown before putting on my tourist hat for the day. I hadn’t been to downtown in more than a decade and did not know what to expect.
My jaw dropped when I saw the Westin, a brand new property in downtown which was just opening to the public that same week. It was a sight to behold!
Sparkling glass exteriors, modern interiors with intersecting lines and curves were an eye-catching mainstay of the architecture. I even got to attend their ribbon cutting ceremony the morning I arrived, and I got to hear Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara , Bettina Young, brand manager for Westin Hotels and Thomas Long, general manager share their visions for Westin Buffalo and do the honors of cutting the ribbon.
Walking around the hotel afterward, I couldn’t help but admire the thoughtful details and contemporary touches that were everywhere. A huge living wall studded with green garden plants welcomed visitors into a brightly lit lobby.
Comfortable leather chairs, plush cushioned L-shaped couches, all invited the traveler to lie back and relax. Huge glass framed photos of iridescent autumn scenes hung lightly on the walls from one end of the hall to the other.
On the 2nd floor, the gym at the Westin overlooks Buffalo’s picturesque downtown with silhouettes of tall stately brick buildings. The gym is fully equipped with a variety of workout options, and comes with full showers and all essential amenities like fresh towels, toiletries and even Westin’s famous gear lending program .
Westin has two dining options on-site, a casual Jake’s Cafe and fine dining at Patina 250 . The Patina Restaurant Group is world-famous, in fact Patina Catering (part of the Delaware North family through Patina Restaurant Group) recently earned national media coverage for serving Hollywood’s biggest stars at the 68th Emmy Awards.
A Power Breakfast at Patina 250
Feeling like a star myself, I started with a power breakfast at Patina 250, where I was greeted by an impeccable host. Patina’s breakfast menu offers everything from french toast to a smoked salmon board.
I opted for the omelette studded with fresh vegetables that came with a side of pan-fried potatoes, a plate full of fresh-baked rye bread and a glass of carrot-apple juice, which was divine, who knew carrots could taste so delicious!
When I told my friends I was visiting Buffalo, nearly everybody offered their recommendations on their favorite new places to eat and drink on Facebook. “Don’t miss the relatively new cool hangout on Chippewa, ‘ The Chocolate Bar, ” gushed my friend Saloni Sonpal who had been to Buffalo recently. Another friend, Urvi Telang, extolled the joy of feasting on tacos at Lloyds Taco Truck.
It surprised me to hear that the dining scene in Buffalo had undergone such a transformation! 10 years ago, the options for us as students would have been gorging on the endless buffet at Kabab and Curry, stuffing our faces with breadsticks at Olive Garden or embarking on a guiltless midnight run for jalapeno poppers from a local fast-food joint.
Patina 250 has several areas customized to suit customers moods, from cozy plush chairs around candlelit tables, to a curved bar seating underneath a constellation of industrial chandelier lights, to an array of square and rectangular tables for seating larger groups as well as private dining booths.
The main dining hall provides clear views into the intense energy of the kitchen as Chef Homer Ford and his team work their magic.
My favorite appetizer was the jumbo lump crab cake, and the satisfyingly carb-loaded pierogi came a close second. I ordered the Market Fish for my entree which turned out to be Kingfish with a side of eggplant relish garnished with chickpea fritters. My first taste of smoky, tangy flavors of the eggplant assured me that my choice was spot on.
I also got to try some of the popular side dishes like the decadent butter mashed potatoes, gourmet flat #12 mushrooms, spaghetti squash fondue and swiss chard gratin. Stuffed to the gills after feasting on my fish (pun intended), I wasn’t sure about dessert but the menu looked so good that I could not pass on trying some!
A Bustling Scene
While waiting for my sweet tooth to be satisfied, I stepped outside the dining room to get a closer look at the activity going on in the open-view kitchen. The restaurant was bustling with patrons, every table was full of happy, smiling people. Loud laughter and animated conversations dominated the energy at every table.
Inside the kitchen, I sensed the same energy but it felt more controlled. Chef Homer Ford and his sous-chefs were intently focused on their tasks at hand. One was plating a dessert and I marveled at her expertise in laying out a fine chocolate sauce grid on a plate flawlessly.
A server was standing at attention with a platter of breads in her hand, ready for instructions before whisking them off to the right table.
Another chef was picking out vegetables using chopsticks and arranging them artfully on plate until it looked like a work of art rather than a salad.
Large plates of food magically appeared underneath the heating lamps as servers moved with astounding agility, focused on getting the dishes to their destination.
I tried samples of the Blackout ‘65 (devil’s food cake), Donna’s Deep Dish Apple Pie and Brioche Bread Pudding, but my top two favorites were the Banana Cream Pie and NY Cheesecake which were deeply satisfying. Downtown had surprised me with phenomenal options for fine dining like the ambrosial cuisine at Patina 250 and I couldn’t wait to discover more.
Meeting Some Locals
Later, when I chatted with Maureen Jameson , who has lived in Buffalo since 1985 and is a professor of French at the University at Buffalo. She fondly recalled a recent visit to Riverworks , a brewery that had opened next to some of the industrial ruins along the Buffalo River. “It was amazing enough to see people having a drink on a terrace, looking out over the water as though they were in New Orleans.
But what stunned me was to see a bridal party disembark from a limo and head over to the actual grain elevator ruins for wedding photography.
It would seem perfectly normal to us that wedding parties would be photographed at the Acropolis or at the Temple of Karnak, even though these too are ruins. That our own ruins had suddenly become attractions for affluent visitors was quite a change”, she exclaimed.
I asked Maureen what she saw for Buffalo’s future, and she excitedly shared that the Buffalo Renaissance was a force that lifted everyone, not just those working in the tech or medical or real estate sectors.
“ When the Buffalo Humanities Festival announced its plans for this year’s “renaissance”-themed celebration, they gave first billing not to prestigious outside speakers, but to a local town hall meeting which brought together community representatives, rich and poor, to speak to the issues presented here. This gesture leaves me optimistic for the area’s ability to move forward in an equitable way ”, she said.
SeaBar Sushi a Hit
I felt optimistic about Buffalo’s future too. On my last evening in Buffalo, I decided to visit downtown’s famous SeaBar Sushi restaurant. Opened in 2007 by one of Buffalo’s most well known chefs, Chef Mike Andrzejewski who also owns several popular downtown restaurants, including Bourbon and Butter, Tappo and Cantina Loco , SeaBar has quickly become one of the city’s premier go-to places for fresh-from-the-sea sushi and innovative creations like Miso Broiled King Crab and Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
Walking through downtown to the restaurant at dusk, I noticed the setting sun reflected off the structures along the streets, as glass window panes of modern high-rises reflected honey-tinged gold-hued brick walls. My fascination with the light elevated on entering SeaBar, which was bathed in kaleidoscopic colors.
I loved the uniqueness of the ambience even though it meant that my fellow diners would occasionally be cast in a ghastly green or ghostly yellow before returning to a normal pinkish human hue again. Chef Mike Andrzejewski came out of the kitchen to check on us and chat about the menu.
With his groomed goatee and impeccable hair, he looked just like an Iron Chef (in fact, earlier this year, SeaBar hosted dinner starring Top Chef winner Mei Lin) and he had several intriguing and colorful tattoos on his arms. One tattoo on the back of his left hand in particular caught my attention.
“ What does that lettering on your hand say?”, I asked him. “It looks Japanese!”
“Ah, Yes it is in Japanese!” Chef Mike grinned. “It says ‘Cook’” he said, laughing heartily at his own quip.
Fresh Fish from Honolulu
Chef Mike Andrzejewski originally trained in Honolulu in Hawaii before coming to Buffalo. He told me that they fly in fresh fish for the restaurant from the Honolulu fish market. “This city has changed a lot”, he said. “When we first opened the restaurant 9 years ago, we were the only upscale sushi place around for miles.
My wife and I lived above our restaurant and I remember thinking “What have we done?” and worrying about our business. Thankfully, things worked out well” , he added with a smile, looking around the dining area where every table was occupied.
The menu at SeaBar offers a variety of options from sushi rolls to shu mai dumplings and dim sum to Sashimi platters and entrees like fried shrimp BLT rice bowl. But one of the most memorable small plates I tasted was the miso broiled king crab, succulent thick chunks of pure crab meat served on a bed of forbidden rice with ginger butter. Moist and luscious, it was perfectly cooked and tasted delicious.
An interesting take on salad with fried avocado with creamy chevre had all of us swooning with the presentation while the local favorite, beef on weck sushi rolls (showcased at the Super Bowl) had everybody smacking their lips as they savored the steak and were surprised by the nutty taste of caraway seeds and piquant horseradish mayo.
Beer and Buffalo
Beer and Buffalo have a long history together, since the first drinking establishment was opened in the 1800s. So after dinner, I headed for a night cap at the Big Ditch Brewery in downtown where the crew wears t-shirts stating “Celebrate Beer. Celebrate Buffalo” .
In a short couple days, I had experienced the city’s culinary transformation making Buffalo the hottest new dining destination for foodies in New York state. It made complete sense to celebrate the new with the old.
Sipping on my Excavator (Rye Brown Ale), I recalled recent conversations with locals, friends and visitors, with each and every one of them attesting to the transformation Buffalo has undergone over the past decade with enthusiastic approval and optimism for Buffalo’s future.
Some had fondly reminisced about the city’s heyday when Erie Canal made Buffalo a dynamic 19th century port town as ships docked at grain elevators and trade and business in steel and grain flowed at full speed, bringing in jobs and a high tide of economic growth.
Changes had come to Buffalo in the 1920’s with the Great Depression and a dying industry, as they inevitably do everywhere.
But now, with a roster of fine new dining establishments like SeaBar and Patina 250 and upscale hotels like the Westin, downtown Buffalo was on the upswing again, forging a whole new identity for itself, giving visitors a whole new reason to visit.
One thing I know for sure, I can’t wait to be back.
Find out more about visiting Buffalo at their Tourism website.
The Westin Buffalo
250 Delaware Avenue, at Chippewa, Buffalo, NY 14202 website
Patina 250 (Located at The Westin Buffalo)
250 Delaware Avenue, at Chippewa, Buffalo, NY 14202 website
475 Ellicott St, Buffalo NY, 14203 website
Disclosure: Delaware North, The Westin Buffalo, Visit Niagara Buffalo and JetBlue provided for my visit to Buffalo in exchange for writing about my experience. Regardless, everything I have said in this post reflects my honest observations and opinions.
Trupti Devdas Nayak is a Travel Writer and Photographer based in San Francisco, California. She is passionate about travel and writing and has explored countries in Asia, the Americas and Europe extensively. Trupti’s writing and photography has been published in National Geographic Traveller India, GoNOMAD, Viator Travel Blog, Viator Things To Do and Snowshoe Magazine among other online and print publications. Visit her website at Exploring The Blue Marble.