48 Hours in Buffalo: The Clevelander's Guide to Visiting Our Great Lakes Friend

click to enlarge 48 Hours in Buffalo: The Clevelander's Guide to Visiting Our Great Lakes Friend
Christopher Behrend

There's probably never been a better time to visit Buffalo, New York, what with its own "Rust Belt renaissance" narrative unfolding much in the same way we've experienced here in Cleveland. It's 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 has seen) 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.

Two quick examples: In 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $1-billion investment into the Buffalo economy (the “Buffalo Billion”), signalling 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.

We write all this to say: If you're craving a nice weekend out of town, get thee to Buffalo immediately.

click to enlarge Hotel Henry - Eric Sandy
Eric Sandy
Hotel Henry
Where To Stay

Our Great Lakes friend is seeing a resurgence in tourism, which is prompting the current hospitality development frenzy. (Sounds familiar?) There are plenty of choices in various parts of town, but now might be the perfect time to look into Hotel Henry, which opened to the public just this week. It may be the most visible sign of the city's renaissance; the hotel anchors the Richardson Olmsted Complex, designed in the late 1800s by H.H. Richardson to house the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. It's a towering landmark — "The city grew up around it," we were told — and it's become quite the upscale hotel. As one might guess, it's labyrinthine corridors house unique and modern rooms, offering a fine blend of the past and the future and, we would suggest, as exemplary a metaphor for Buffalo's renaissance as we could find during our visit.

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.

Downtown, the Mansion on Delaware represents the vanguard of Buffalo's hospitality boom. Opened in 2001 within an 1870 Victorian on the city's main drag, the Mansion was one of those projects that initially raised eyebrows across town. A high-end hotel in a long-vacant house downtown? The $2.7-million investment paid off, giving weight to a tourism industry that was about to expand exponentially. Walking around the place really feels like you're on a "tour" of your wealthy hedge fund manager uncle's mansion on holiday. A stay at the Mansion also includes the services of Butlers, who will shepherd you around town in swanky rides and pick you up at a moment's notice. (Note, while we're thinking of it, that Uber and Lyft have not yet arrived in Buffalo.)

And moving closer to the entertainment hub near the lake, Curtiss Hotel promises big things for guests and Buffalo residents alike. Illuminated nightly by skyward beams of light, the hotel will be up and running by June, we're told. (Snag 20 percent off your booking via Facebook.) The hotel is five years in the making, and it combines the luxuries of smart technologies in each room and high-end, unique accommodations. Don't miss the rooftop bar.

What to Eat

We mentioned Buffalo's dining scene already, and, 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. Summertime festivals and a phalanx of food trucks are introducing Buffalonians to the new wave of restos at a sharp pace, and many vendors are opening brick-and-mortar joints alongside the city's long-standing institutions.

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. (Ru's is also paired with a Ru's food truck that roams around town, hitting local events and such.)

Other excellent lunch options include Lloyd Taco Factory, born from another food truck and credited informally with helping to kickstart Hertel Avenue's latest resurgence. The place is different from Cleveland's own excellent taco joints, making it worth a stop during your trip. Craft cocktails are paired alongside taco sets piled high with locally sourced, organic ingredients and, if you're doing it right, a mighty helping of picked red onions.

Closer to downtown, BreadHive is a worker-owned cafe on the city's westside that dishes up a mighty fine roast beef sandwich with coleslaw, cheddar, greens and mustard. It's called The Whitney, and you should order one. The rest of the menu, of course, is delightful, rounded out by different loaves of fresh-baked bread arriving each day (westside sourdough on Monday, whole-wheat cinnamon fig on Tuesday, etc.).

Breadhive is an excellent example of a local spot that sprouted organically, and wholly supports its community. That neighborhood symbiosis that we champion so heartily in Cleveland is visible all over Buffalo, and very vibrantly so right here. "Places like BreadHive are what makes Buffalo Buffalo," hometown supporter Newell Nussbaumer has written. "Honestly, by the time you scour the menu, you’ve learned about so many other culinary operations that your head spins."

Go big for dinner and get a nice round of entrees and wine at Toutant downtown. It's a three-story, beautifully designed ode to Southern cooking — with an emphasis on upscale seafood and scratch cocktails. From the top story, take in the view of Ellicott Street below, one of several nexus points in Buffalo's downtown resurgence.

click to enlarge Five Points Bakery - Lisa Lubin
Lisa Lubin
Five Points Bakery
Get up the next day and start with 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. We tried the whole-grain "power bread" slathered with creamy goat cheese. It's an excellent starting point for the day. Pair with choice coffee, and you're set.

Later on, Big Ditch Brewing Co. is a nice, vibrant magnet downtown, 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 nicely by a robust menu. We enjoyed the Hayburner IPA, which seems like sort of a local beacon, available on taps throughout the city.

Head north a bit to Allentown, the fun-loving, all-night epicenter of Buffalo's PBR-toting past-and-present hipster scene. Grab a big one at Allen Burger Venture, where delights like Hudson Valley foie gras, grand cru onion marmalade and cambozola cheese sit atop plump patties. Make a rez; this place gets super busy.

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. 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.

click to enlarge 48 Hours in Buffalo: The Clevelander's Guide to Visiting Our Great Lakes Friend
Patrick Mahoney
What to Do

Architecture and the city's past-meeting-the-present are two predominant themes here, so we'd recommend starting out with a trip to Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House complex near Delaware Park. 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 last 25 years bringing the home back to its previous luster. With final furnishings and last touches taking place over the winter, 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 literally taking an historic architecture tour downtown through Visit Niagara 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.

There's a great local music scene in Buffalo, too. We were fortunate enough to catch a two-night stand from Aqueous last fall at Buffalo Iron Works. The hometown band was releasing its latest EP, and both nights brought an enthusiastic crowd to this awesome little venue (which features an outdoor patio separated by retractable garage doors right near the stage). We would highly recommend catching these guys when you're planning your trip to Buffalo.

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 in to 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 take guests on a rigorous trek 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, the new Riverworks facility is pretty much up and running now, with pickleball courts, a skating rink and an imminent beer garden beneath a towering Labatt Blue six-pack.

click to enlarge Grain silos illuminated at night - Joe Cascio
Joe Cascio
Grain silos illuminated at night
Insider’s Tips

There are too many cool things to talk about in Buffalo to fit neatly into a piece like this. For instance, in sort of a Wonka-ish way: The city smells like Cheerio's at almost all hours of the day, thanks to General Mills' cereal plants right across the river. That sort of stuff.

Walk along the Bird Island Pier for a nice perspective on the Niagara River and the flurry of I-190 traffic above.

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 from Elmwood Village (a Buffalo analogue to, say, Ohio City in some ways).

click to enlarge 48 Hours in Buffalo: The Clevelander's Guide to Visiting Our Great Lakes Friend (3)
David Wilson
Pick up some sponge candy at Watson's and take it over to Resurgence Brewing Co. to pair it with their Sponge Candy Stout. (Sponge candy is a vital part of Buffalo.) Resurgence, with its killer patio, is another emblematic Buffalo spot: It's in a building that once housed a boat engine factory, and it's played a vanguard role in the city's important craft beer scene. (Again, you'll find similarities between Cleveland and Buffalo's cultural shifts all over the place.)

One of the newer additions to the Buffalo scene is the Barrel Factory, now open in the Old First Ward. It's a unique building that houses a kombucha tea spot, a kayak tour agency, a spirits distillery and, soon, a winery, restaurant and a much-touted West Coast brewery that can't yet be named. Also, it's just a beautiful building right near the river. We predict big things for this spot.

Another really cool place that blends a variety of vendor experiences is the West Side Bazaar, home to refugee entrepreneurs. There, you can dine on a variety of authentic foods from Central and Southeast Asia (and beyond) and check out the fine wares in the retail section of the place. The refugee population in Buffalo is growing and contributing greatly to the city's new sense of direction and pride.

Lastly, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Founding Fathers Pub, one of Esquire's best bars in America and as fine as 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.

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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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