When I told people I was headed to Niagara Falls (USA) and Buffalo over the Labour Day long weekend, I’ll admit I saw a few raised eyebrows. I mean, I had just spent the summer in Europe – many people wondered if Niagara Falls (NY) and Buffalo would hold the same kind of interest for me – so many people said “I hope you like (chicken) wings!” As a matter of fact, I do like chicken wings but having spent a whirlwind two days touring the region, I can confidently report that it’s an area I would definitely put on my list of “must visit again” for so many more reasons, none the least being it’s SO close to Toronto. Even in Labour Day weekend traffic it only took us around 90 minutes to get there! So often, it seems we overlook places that are right in our backyard yet if we look carefully, there are gems to be discovered.
Here are my top 5 reasons why I think you need to check out Niagara Falls NY and Buffalo now:
1. A thriving food scene (yes, so much more than wings!)
The area definitely has a food scene that reaches far beyond the “Buffalo wings” it is famous for. Our first night, staying in Niagara Falls NY, we headed to Lewiston to eat at Carmelo’s – a neighborhood restaurant at its best (everyone knows everyone else’s name it seems!) where we enjoyed some really tasty dishes – this head-on shrimp with blistered sweetcorn and a smoked tomato sauce was a definite highlight. With a frequently-changing menu that offers the best of what’s seasonal and just 16 tables and seating for eight at the bar, Carmelo’s is the kind of place everyone wishes they had in their ‘hood.
425 Center St,
Lewiston, NY 14092
A town with a large culinary programme is always a sign of a thriving food scene and we spent a wonderful morning touring the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. Housed in a 90,000 square foot mixed-use facility in a portion of the former Rainbow Mall, the NFCI offers students access to 7 state of the art teaching kitchens as they work their way through a variety of courses leading to certification in Baking & Pastry Arts, Culinary Arts, Gaming & Casino Management, Hospitality, Restaurant Management, Tourism Management and Event Planning or Winery Operations (or a combination). They even have a specialty ice-carving kitchen!
Food enthusiasts visiting the Institute can dine at Savor, a student run fine-dining restaurant with an in-kitchen chef’s table, check out The Wine Boutique, offering some of New York State’s finest wine selections, stock up on sweet treats at La Pâtisserie, a European style pastry café; satisfy savoury cravings at Old Falls Street Deli and shop for food and wine-themed books at a special Barnes and Noble culinary themed store. Lunch at Savor introduced us to the “Beef on Weck” pizza. The crust (not unlike the kummelweck bread roll the sandwich version popular in Western New York is served on) was topped with toasted caraway sees and kosher salt. The beef was sliced thinly and placed on a layer of horseradish along with caramelized onions and a three cheese blend. A wonderful taste of Western New York!
Savor at Niagara Falls Culinary Institute
28 Old Falls St,
Niagara Falls, NY 14303
In Buffalo, we checked out The Black Sheep, Steve and Ellen Gedra’s new take on the farm-to-table philosophy they practiced at their previous restaurant, the popular Elmwood Avenue Bistro Europa. The Black Sheep focuses on house-made, handmade food, served with an excellent wine, beer and craft cocktail menu. We sampled a good deal of the menu but by far our favourite dish was the peach caprese featuring local peaches, mozzarella and pesto. Each item we tasted was exquisitely plated and prepared with the respect that great local, seasonal produce deserves. If you go, you must make room for sticky toffee pudding (even if you think you can’t eat another bite!). One taste and you will understand why they can never take this off the menu. The whole evening was flawless from start to finish, largely because because our waiter was so knowledgeable, personable and professional. Highly recommended.
The Black Sheep
367 Connecticut St,
Buffalo, NY 14213
On our final night in Buffalo we headed to Toutant for some Southern hospitality in the heart of the city. Say what? A Southern restaurant in Buffalo? Yes! Open just over 3 months, the place was packed on the Sunday evening of a long weekend and apparently this is the norm. Our server managed to talk us into eating way more than we had envisaged (having spent the afternoon at The National Buffalo Wing Festival we weren’t sure we had much room left but everything sounded so good) including the INCREDIBLE buttermilk fried chicken with collard greens and a melt-in-your-mouth brisket with charred cauliflower. Accompanied by some fine beverages (a nice cocktail menu and some interesting wines by the glass) and ending with a wonderful lemon meringue pie in a jar and Café au Lait (an affogato – brown butter ice cream served with chicory “coffee”).
437 Ellicott St,
Buffalo, NY 14203
And yes, when in Buffalo, one must check out wings at least once… We were lucky that our visit coincided with The National Buffalo Wing Festival so we got to sample many different kinds of wings in the space of an afternoon. Held over Labour Day weekend every year, it’s worth checking out and a great way to sample wings from different restaurants and compare them. If you’re not there during the festival, you might read up on the wing scene here.
First thing’s first. Coffee. Always. I am a bit of a coffee snob (no, I won’t drink Tim Horton’s… even after 15 years in Canada) so I am always thrilled to discover great coffee – especially when it’s unexpected. The team at Visit Buffalo-Niagara had suggested we check out public espresso, located in the lobby of the Lafayette Hotel (itself worth checking out, even if you just wander around the lobby). public is a small-batch coffee roastery, espresso shop and pour-over bar founded by brothers James & Matt Rayburg and their good friend Sam Scarcello who longed for better coffee after traveling and experiencing better options in other cities (hurrah, clearly I am not the only one!). public features a modbar espresso and pour-over system paired with baked goods from local partners. public uses highly graded coffee beans and local ingredients – you won’t find syrups and artificial flavours on their menu. Their “goal as coffee roasters and baristas is to highlight and draw out the natural features and qualities intrinsic to properly grown, processed and roasted coffee beans.” And I might add, this all makes for a damned fine cup of coffee.
391 Washington St,
Buffalo, NY 14203
Next, beer. If it’s a local, craft beer you are after in Buffalo, you simply cannot go past Resurgence Brewing Company. At Resurgence, they believe “great beer is an experience that brings people together“. The name plays into the idea that all of Buffalo is seeing a resurgence these days. Their mission is to bring people into the taproom to see what they’re all about but also to get their beer into the hands – and homes – of the public through their growler, crowler and new can line. They believe that “enjoying a great beer is about what’s in the glass, as well as who’s on the bar stool or in the lawn chair next to you”. In terms of what they do, they say it best:
We’re a craft brewery that comes up with unique, deliberate beers that don’t taste like anything you’ve had before. We don’t want to be “just another IPA.” We want to be an IPA you’ll remember and order again. We want to challenge your taste buds, tickle your fancy and most of all, inspire you to ask for a refill.
With giant Jenga, Connect Four, bubble hockey, darts and cornhole to keep the kids (and kids at heart!) busy, this is a true beer garden, like you’ll find in Germany – not just a place to go and drink beer but a place to socialise and relax. With a dozen brews on tap (including some mainstays, like Sponge Candy IPA and Loganberry Wit) as well as rotating experimental and seasonal brews, there is a beer for everyone. We sampled eight and paired them with spicy Buffalo Caramel popcorn – a perfect (and addictive) pairing.
Resurgence Brewing Company
1250 Niagara St,
Buffalo, NY 14213
Lastly, when chatting beverages in the Buffalo-Niagara region, we can’t ignore the up-and-coming wine scene. It’s exciting times on the south shore of Lake Ontario (USA) in the wine industry right now. Learning from Niagara on the other side of the border, many wineries are now moving away from hybrids, and starting to focus on vitis vinifera varietals – the traditional grapes known the world over. They’ve discovered the vines, if well treated, can withstand the winters and produce high quality wines. One such winery is Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, which has been around for a decade. Using sustainable farming methods, and as little manipulation as possible in the winemaking process, they produce some hearty reds that, in the past, the region was not known for. Tasting through a flight (and barrel samples) of Syrah, there’s great vintage variation and classic varietal taste profiles; this is most definitely Syrah, not Shiraz. The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon will age nicely, and the 2011 Cabernet Franc is drinking wonderfully now. Also known for their ice wines, Arrowhead is well worth a detour if you are visiting the region. The area itself is looking at the success in Ontario, and we expect will catch up in terms of quality quite soon. Expect to see more Arrowheads.
Arrowhead Spring Vineyards
4746 Lockport Town Line Rd
Lockport, NY 14094
For more information on the Niagara Wine Trail click here.
3. The art scene
Buffalo is home to the fabulous Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of the oldest art institutions in the country and home to one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary art in North America. Even if you are just a casual art lover like me, you’ll recognise names like Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Gauguin, Pollock and Warhol.
Cross the street to visit Burchfield Penney Art Center (located on the campus of Buffalo State College). The Burchfield collects and exhibits the work of artists from throughout Western New York, with a special emphasis on the work of famed watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield, who made his home for many years in nearby Gardenville. Sadly on this visit we didn’t have enough time to get here but it’s at the top of the “art things” list for our next visit!
Check out more of Buffalo’s art scene offerings for the visitor here.
4. The Falls (more than just the Canadian side!)
Ok, so I’ve been the the Canadian side of the Falls a few times (it’s where you bring visitors to Toronto, right?) and to be honest, apart from the Falls itself (and nearby wine country), there’s not much to do. There’s a whole area of touristy stores and always so many people, no matter what the season. On the other side, just a few minutes’ drive lies Niagara Falls State Park – housing over 400 acres of landscape (including the Falls) and wildlife. Of course, there are Falls-based attractions like Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds, but the park itself (the oldest state park in the nation) offers the visitor a chance to see nature as nature intended it to be seen.
The Park is open every day of the year. You can walk through the park or take the Niagara Scenic Trolley ride. Our late summer early morning stroll took us by the Tesla monument dedicated to Nikola Tesla who designed the first hydro-electric power plant in the world right there in Niagara Falls. the whole vibe on the US side of the Fall is so different to the Canadian side – if you think you’ve “been there, done that”, take the time to check out “the other side” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
5. Look up – there’s amazing architecture!
Buffalo is known for its architecture and rightly so. The New York Times calls it “a textbook for a course in modern American buildings” – indeed Buffalo’s many architectural gems have been faithfully restored to their former glory. There are seven Frank Lloyd Wright monuments in the region itself and Buffalo’s streets offer the chance to see buildings by designers like Richard Upjohn, Stanford White, Lord & Burnham and Charles Atwood. We didn’t have the time this trip but I am definitely going to take one of the architecture tours next time I am in town.
In Niagara Falls, we were lucky enough to stay at The Giacomo – formerly known as The United Office Building, an historic art deco construction, built in 1929, showcasing both art deco architecture as well as a Mayan motif. Renamed The Giacomo in 2010 and listed on the The National Register of Historic Places, it’s now the premiere luxury boutique hotel in Niagara Falls.
So….great food, wine, beer, coffee, art, architecture, nature at its best – what are you waiting for?
Learn more about what’s on in Buffalo here.
Learn more about visiting Niagara Falls USA here.
Disclosure: Neil and I were guests of Visit Buffalo-Niagara and the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation who covered our accommodations and meals through the weekend. We were given a list of suggested places to visit and ultimately, it came down to what we had time for and what interested us the most. We were not further compensated for writing this article.