If You Haven’t Been to Buffalo Lately, We Have So Much to Talk About
Fall for the modern charms of New York’s evolving second city with one perfect weekend.
So far away from New York City you might barely recognize Buffalo as being in the same state, let alone the same country, and yes, that’s Canada over there, just across the Niagara River, Buffalo isn’t—not typically, anyway—one of those places you end up by accident. Way out there on its own, closer to Toronto than anything, save Niagara Falls, this is a city that has for the longest time pretty much gone its own way, and there have been times, following the city’s post-industrial heyday, where the visitor might have been forgiven for wondering if Buffalo were actually going at all.
A funny thing has happened in recent years, however, and there are many reasons why, but these days, it is difficult to shake the feeling that Buffalo is once again on the up. After so much time flying under the radar, the city is undergoing a slow, steady, and altogether remarkable transformation. Naturally, after decades of stops and starts, there’s a long way to go, but it definitely feels as if Buffalo is once again going somewhere good, and while property isn’t the necessarily the bargain it once was (a Buffalo where people sit around kvetching about the rising cost of real estate—imagine!), this is still very much one of those places you might come to take life a little easier, to find your inner creative, or to take a risk on that small business you’d always dreamed of owning. The result? One of the most interesting (and encouraging) scenes you will find right now, in any of the Rust Belt capitals.
And what better time than summer to explore? While Buffalo has always been a worthy destination for classic things, from architecture to treasured food traditions, there’s so much new stuff to see. Here, just a sampling of the essentials, to get you up and running.
Start with lunch at the city’s best food hall
Much of the buzz on Buffalo right now comes from the ongoing transformation of the city’s West Side, a rather large area between Elmwood Avenue (for a long time one of Buffalo’s most appealing commercial strips) and the Niagara River, an area that had been struggling for years. A change in New York law that began resettling refugees in smaller cities throughout the state brought the first wave of new arrivals, well before many of the more high-profile new businesses considered putting down roots here. At the heart of this diverse community you will find the city’s best food hall, the West Side Bazaar, an incubator for immigrant businesses where you can pop in for a Burmese tea salad, sought-after Ethiopian mini-feasts, or over-the-counter dim sum from a family owned-and-operated kiosk.
Soak up the Five Points vibe
These days, Buffalo’s West Side feels something like Portland, the one in Oregon, if Portland’s winters were longer and colder, and if the world hadn’t (yet) become obsessed with the local culture. There’s no pocket that feels quite so up-to-the-minute as the old Five Points section, until recently one of the area’s trouble magnets, now a place for people to sit in front of big picture windows, contemplating life over coffees (and later in the day, cocktails) at the striking Remedy House, one in a handful of see-worthy cafes around the city.
Up the street, the thriving Five Points Bakery does a brisk business in quality toast and jam, while Paradise Wine hosts free tastings and stocks the latest must-have naturals, around the corner from the excellent Urban Roots, a co-operative garden center, catering to the whims and fancies of one of the country’s most active gardening communities. The neighborhood is also home to one of the city’s most celebrated chefs, of late—book a table at Victor Parra Gonzales’ Las Puertas, a modern Mexican spot that presents rather modestly, but is anything but business as usual.
Hang out at an urban farm
As in so many other cities that have had to deal with a long-term decline in population, urban farming has taken hold, in and around Buffalo, putting vacant plots to good use—the West Side Tilth Farm doesn’t exactly jump out at you, if you even happen to pass through its residential neighborhood, but on Saturdays during the summer and fall months, the farm opens up an on-premises stand to sell that week’s produce, turning the affair into a community gathering by firing up the brick oven and turning out some rather fine pizzas, utilizing their own produce, house made ricotta and quality local meats. Don’t sleep in too late—the fun kicks off mid-morning most Saturdays, throughout the season, and it’s over well before the dinner hour.
Snack your way through the Market Arcade
Back before there were shopping malls, there were arcades, often ornately designed; these days, we associate these usually carefully-preserved gems with cities like London and Paris, but Buffalo’s Market Arcade, built back in the 1890s, is once again a highlight for visitors to the architecture-rich downtown. It’s also home to one of the city’s more ambitious young entrepreneurs, French expat Camille Le Caer, who makes some of the finest macarons in the region at Maison La Caer, where he also pays tribute to his native Brittany by whipping up some very fine buckwheat crepes. (Note: The Market Arcade shop has now closed, but you can still find La Caer and those sought-after macarons at his other location on Hertel Avenue.)
Hungry for more? Keep it French—or at least, French-ish at downtown’s new Mon Ami, an instant-hit all-day cafe for croque monsieur and quiche lorraine.
Spend the night at the old asylum
The first time you lay eyes on Buffalo’s Hotel Henry, an oversized, heavily-landmarked Romanesque shrine to good ideas from days gone by, you might wonder—how does everyone not know about this place? Well, for one, it’s in Buffalo, and for two, what’s now a hotel spent most of its life as the Buffalo State Asylum, functioning as such until the 1970s, after which it fell into ruin. Since 2006—it’s been a long and winding road, and they’re not even close to finished, yet—there has been a concerted effort to get this grand campus, just a short walk from the city’s prized art museums, back on the map—the opening of the magnificently large hotel, with its high-ceilinged halls, well-designed rooms, and vast, rotating selection of impressive local artworks was a giant step forward.
Not only is this the most interesting place to hang your hat in Buffalo, right now—don’t worry, it’s not that spooky—it’s also got a great, semi-hidden bar (happy hours are quite generous) and a restaurant, 100 Acres, which sort of winds its way through a series of common areas on the main level. A great place to start your morning, or to turn up fashionably late for weekend brunch.