Summer Road Trip: 36 Hours in Buffalo

It all happens on the river, in Buffalo.
It all happens on the river, in Buffalo. Photo by Christopher Behrend

There's probably never been a better time to visit Buffalo, New York, what with its "Rust Belt renaissance" narrative unfolding in much the same way we've experienced here in Cleveland. It's a three-hour straight shot up I-90, and you'll feel right at home as soon as you drop off the Skyway. It's got the Great Lakes comforts of Cleveland, but it's a major American city all its own — and even the local Buffalonians are taking a closer look at their roots these days.

The recurring theme in Buffalo is a by-the-bootstraps makeover. The city's renowned and iconic turn-of-the-century architectural grandeur welcomed decades of prosperity: Buffalo became a hub of technology, local and national Democratic politics and even international commerce. This century, the city's residents (including a growing number of those "boomerangers" that Cleveland touts) are turning old buildings and forgotten neighborhoods into unexpected gems supporting a growing dining scene and a diverse array of entertainment options. The foundation set by the city's education, health care and architectural design institutions has given way to unprecedented growth. 

In 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $1-billion investment in the Buffalo economy (the "Buffalo Billion"), signaling state support for a city that seemed open to innovation and reinvention. Buffalo was once the eighth largest city in the U.S. — a titan of industry along the hemline of the Midwest — and while, population-wise, that stature might not return anytime soon, Cuomo figured that projects like Elon Musk's SolarCity solar panel factory (public investment: $750 million) would find a nice home in this delightful corner of New York state.

And right in the heart of the city, Assembly House 150 opened a few years ago. Dennis Maher, a painter, sculptor and clinical assistant professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, was looking for a home for his students' projects and for the Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts (SACRA). Built out of the former Immaculate Conception Church, the experimental design and architecture headquarters allows for prospective builders to create new projects incrementally, like the massive, angular library and auditorium "rooms within a room" inside the old church. The SACRA training program at Assembly House 150 comes via a partnership with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo's signature museum and a testament to the power of architecture and civic design all its own. 

"We're looking at unique opportunities and needs, and trying to draw relationships between those things," Maher told Scene

Our Great Lakes friend is seeing a resurgence in tourism, which is prompting the current hospitality development frenzy. (Sounds familiar, yeah?) There are plenty of choices in various parts of town, but now might be the perfect time to look into Hotel Henry. It may be the most visible sign of the city's renaissance; the hotel anchors the Richardson Olmsted Campus, designed in the late 1800s by H.H. Richardson to house the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.

Hotel Henry is also home to 100 Acres, which by all means should be included on any guests' dining agenda. The restaurant teams up with nearby SUNY Buffalo to provide some "hyperlocal urban agriculture." Tables are arranged neatly around ground-floor hallways — some of them lingering beneath the grand staircase, others tucked into quiet corners with sunlit views of the sprawling Forest Avenue lawn.

Like Cleveland, the cultural resurgence in Western New York is based in large part on local chefs opening up terrific new restaurants — putting cool spins on classic dishes and offering up a nice variety across the city.

Your first stop should be Ru's Pierogi, which will make any Clevelander feel at home. Chef Andy Ruszczyk rolls out innovative takes on his family's excellent Polish recipes. Think chicken wing pierogi. The restaurant, which pairs a fast-casual concept with a bar, is in an old brick building that once housed a mid-19th century sarsaparilla bottling plant.

Closer to downtown, BreadHive is a worker-owned cafe on the city's west side that dishes up a mighty fine roast beef sandwich with coleslaw, cheddar, greens and mustard. The rest of the menu, of course, is delightful, rounded out by various loaves of fresh-baked bread arriving each day.

Breakfast at Five Points Bakery, which does some knock-out takes on organic wheat toast in a rehabbed building replete with rustic wood beams and that lovely worked-in feeling, is a great way to start a weekend morning. We tried the whole-grain "power bread" slathered with creamy goat cheese.

Later on, Big Ditch Brewing Co. is a vibrant downtown magnet, offering a spot to gather before Sabres or Bisons games or, say, a performance along Main Street's theater district. It's spacious, and the beer is top-notch. Big Ditch's taps are complemented by a robust menu. We enjoyed the Hayburner IPA, which seems like sort of a local beacon, available on taps throughout the city. 

And don't sleep on the wings. We checked out Gabriel's Gate last time we were in Buffalo (also in Allentown), and were blessed with 10 of the finest wings we've ever enjoyed: Just the right level of crisp. Back in April, Visit Buffalo Niagara unveiled the Buffalo Wing Trail, which brings people to a dozen fine restaurants around the city. The Buffalo Wing Festival takes place over Labor Day Weekend, attracting 70,000 to the city last year and making for an excellent framework for a trip to Buffalo. 

Architecture and the city's past-meets-the-present are two predominant themes here, so we'd recommend including a trip to Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House complex near Delaware Park on your trip. Wright designed the fascinating home in the early 1900s for wealthy Buffalo magnate Darwin Martin. Later on, neglect led to disrepair and the demolition of a few of the complex's buildings. The Martin House Restoration Corporation has spent the past 25 years bringing the home back to its previous luster. With interior restoration work recently completed, the home is more ready than ever for tours and photos and history lessons. Wright himself called the place a "domestic symphony," and it's hard not to agree on the walk from the expansive, fireplace-accented living room into the pergola that draws visitors into the conservatory. The Winged Victory of Samothrace stands tall at the northern end of the pergola.

You can continue following the architectural tourism thread by taking an historic architecture tour downtown through Explore Buffalo. Here, you'll get an up-close look at the historic foundations of downtown Buffalo, like the intricate art deco features of City Hall. 

For a really unique experience, take in some jazz at the Historic Colored Musicians Club and Museum, the only remaining jazz club of its kind in the U.S. The venue just celebrated its 100th year. You can stop into the classic venue upstairs to take in some top-notch jazz performances after a visit to the newly opened interactive museum downstairs.

As far as day trips, you've got to check out Explore Buffalo's grain elevator tours. These iconic grain silos line the Buffalo River, and you can take a tremendous tour deep into the inner workings of the city's grain storage and malt production past. The Silo City: Vertical tour last about two and a half hours, and takes guests on a rigorous climb 10 stories into the air. The views are incredible.

In the evening, when the grain silos are illuminated along the river, head down to Canalside and take in any number of possible festivals that may be happening while you're there. Further along the river, visit the Riverworks with its pickleball courts and a beer garden beneath a towering Labatt Blue six-pack. Recently, the facility added a zip line and rock climbing wall along the river.

One longtime resident assured us that the best thing to do after a visit to the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is to take a quick eastward jaunt to Delaware Park. There, you'll find a wonderful little lake right in the heart of Buffalo, part of the city's incredible Olmsted parks network (one of the best urban park systems in the world, according to the Guardian). It's a relaxing respite amid a day spent taking in a new city, and then you're only a short walk along interesting residential streets to Elmwood Village (a Buffalo analog in some ways to Ohio City, say).

Pick up some sponge candy at Watson's and take it over to Resurgence Brewing Co. to pair with their Sponge Candy Stout. (Sponge candy is a vital part of Buffalo's food scene.) Resurgence, with its killer patio, is another emblematic Buffalo spot: It's in a building that once housed a boat engine factory, and it has played a vanguard role in the city's important craft beer scene.

Lastly, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Founding Fathers Pub, one of Esquire's best bars in America and as fine a place to enjoy a pint as any. If you don't happen to be there for the pub's presidential trivia night, feel free to lob questions about the dubious sartorial choices of Grover Cleveland (during his first administration, of course). Whatever you do, don't miss this place on your trip to Buffalo. The nachos are free.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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