A brave new world?
Buffalo dining in the twenty-first century
By Elizabeth Licata, with Spree food writers Mark Criden, Joe George, Jessica Keltz, Vicki G. Marshall, Kevin Purdy, and Margaret M. Toohey
Photos by Jim Bush

When I think of my years of local dining (as an adult), these are the first vignettes that come to mind: There was only one Indian restaurant in Buffalo in 1982, and maybe three Chinese places. Back then, the (recently-closed) Just Pasta was inexpensive enough for undergraduates to frequent, and the (also-defunct) Preservation Hall sold preserves along JP’s side wall. There was no Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or sushi available in Western New York. There was, however, a short-lived vegetarian restaurant on Elmwood: Koinonia.

The eating scene in Western New York has changed enormously over the past twenty-five years, and, if you go back further, it’s even more drastically different. Who better than our Spree food writers—who range in age from twenty-something to fifty-plus—to remember the old days and assess the new ones? I asked them all for their thoughts on the WNY dining scene, past, present, and future, and here’s what resulted.

Beef on weck from
Charlie the Butcher.
Days of yore
My query certainly opened nostalgic floodgates for some of the writers. Here’s what Mark Criden remembers well:
Adieu Bailo’s and Ace’s. Although Schwabl’s in West Seneca and Eckl’s in Orchard Park do an admirable job keeping the tradition alive and the meat rare, nothing shouted “horsemeat” like the former landmark at Bailey and Lovejoy, and nothing evoked downtown like the old Steak Pit at Franklin and Mohawk. Nothing stains a white shirt like juicy beef, and little provides the crunch in life like a Kummelweck.

Mark also laments the demise of Pat’s:
Western New York was hot dog country back in the day, and nothing said loving like an evening at Pat’s on Sheridan Drive. The gnarled tube steaks, Al Jolsoned in a fog of carbon soot and blast-furnace heat, were the highlight, but not the only reason to visit. If you had a GTO, Trans-Am, or simply overdeveloped biceps, Pat’s was your summer showcase. The Liaros family does a lovely job with down-the-street Ted’s, but Pat’s was one of a kind.

Margy Toohey remembers cheap meals as the wife of a young law student in the early seventies, and her fondest memories include Bailo’s as well:
Beef on weck really never had a heyday—it was there yesterday, it is here today, and will be here tomorrow—but back in the seventies, before Charlie the Butcher went retail, word around the law student community was that Bailo’s served up the best. So we made our first trip over to Bailey Avenue, not knowing quite what to expect. To this day the experience brings back fond memories.

Fellow foodie Vicki Marshall also moved here in the seventies; her biggest adjustment was to pizza, upstate-style:
We moved to Lewiston from the heart of Manhattan in August 1971. Our first dining experience with our two young children was the Como restaurant on Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls. Our second experience was La Hacienda, also on Pine. Both of these establishments are still thriving in a community that has decreased significantly since we arrived. The Como’s sauce and pizza bread have not varied in the past thirty-seven years. …The hardest thing we had to endure was the difference in the pizza. La Hacienda came fairly close, but honestly there really is no place in Western New York that makes pizza the way they do in New York.

Vicki says that her favorite white-tablecloth joints back in the day were the Cloister, Manny’s, McMahon’s, Adam’s Rib, and Lord Chumley’s. “Of all of those mostly steak and beef restaurants only Adam’s Rib is still thriving in its original location on Main Street in Snyder,” she notes.

Changing times
Spree writer and chef Joe George pinpoints the late eighties as the time when the cuisine scene in Western New York began to evolve significantly:
Back then is when the American food movement began to hit Buffalo. It had begun in places like California years earlier, but as you know, Buffalo is sometimes slow to catch up. Formal restaurants like the Rue Franklin, Oliver’s, and the (original) Hourglass Restaurant were and for the most part still are important mainstays in our culinary scene. But there was also a new breed of restaurant in Buffalo that focused on high quality but in a more casual and fun setting—places like the short-lived Buffalo Rome, which was the first Thai fusion restaurant in the area, and the original E. B. Green’s before it became a steakhouse. E. B. Green’s was the first local restaurant that I know of to have an open kitchen fully visible to patrons, and of course the original Just Pasta Restaurant, where I first met you, Elizabeth—and if memory serves correctly, you made a pretty good ravioli. These high quality but casual restaurants are the norm today, but twenty-five years ago they were groundbreaking.

From Rue Franklin.
George explains what he means by change:
This new cooking may have been pioneered by the French as nouvelle cuisine, but with the ingenuity of American chefs it morphed into something different here. Ethnic cuisines were meshed or “fused,” which became known as fusion cuisine, and food became lighter, sauces were thickened by reduction or butter instead of flour, and for the first time chefs began to put the sauce under the main course, giving the plate a cleaner appearance. I have to say that the one fad that I am truly grateful faded was blackened food. Though not a true Cajun food—it was created by Paul Prudomme—when done correctly it’s very good, but there’s a difference between blackened and burnt.

Where we stand now
Our youngest food writers, Jessica Keltz and Kevin Purdy, have a completely different perspective on local dining, but within the short time they’ve been eating here, they’ve seen significant advances, and have their own restaurant demises to lament. Purdy notes:
We have more authentic and no-pretense barbeque options than a region twice our size really deserves, and anybody can enjoy an honest debate over the best chicken wings, beef on weck, and hamburgers around—with five or more contenders. Lunch options, in particular, seem to have grown by multiples in the area since I first started dining out here; fixed-price bistros, a handful of new ethnic options, and even high tea possibilities are now available to those seeking more than a cheap salad or sandwich. Not that my adopted hometown hasn’t seen setbacks. Having the astoundingly affordable and authentic 99 Fast Food just off Niagara Square felt like a cheap and delicious validation of Buffalo’s cosmopolitan existence, until it was suddenly closed. High-end eateries and mom-and-pop shops have closed their doors to hold back the forces of increased lease payments or decreased foot traffic; there are spots on Elmwood, Hertel, and Delaware that see a new concept every month, with more wagers on their closing date than paying customers.

Tofu dumplings at Tru Teas.
Keltz, a vegetarian, came here from Ithaca, and says her initial perceptions of Buffalo food were drastically contradicted:
My college friends from the Buffalo ’burbs said the town was all about wings, sheet pizza (which is fine for vegetarians, actually), and Bills games on Sunday. How wrong I was, and how wrong they were. Just around the corner from my drafty upstairs/downstairs double was Amy’s Place, a University Heights institution known for its many uses for the lentil, all-day breakfast, veggie burgers, and Middle Eastern specials.

During my first year at UB, a week rarely went by without an Amy’s Place visit. The eggplant parmesan sandwich, with seasoned fries, remains among my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, and although the pitaco salad (iceberg lettuce, tomatos, spiced grilled lentils and grated cheddar served in a taco salad shell) sounds artless and weird, I can attest to its unique pleasures.

Since then, it seems that Buffalo’s dining scene has steadily, if slowly, improved with each passing year. Hidden vegetarian delicacies—the tofu dumplings at Tru-Teas, seaweed salad and inari pockets at Kuni to Go, daily veggie soups at downtown hotspots like Fables and Vito’s Market, fancy grilled cheese sandwiches at Allen Street Hardware Café, anything involving kalamata olives and feta at a Greek diner, and, oh, the amazing bargain that is a Taste of Thai lunch special on Hertel—seem to be around every corner.

More good news
Both Mark Criden and Joe George celebrate the new abundance of fresh produce and better ingredients overall both in our stores and on our plates in restaurants. As Criden says:
Vegetables used to be a weary afterthought in area eateries, where steak reigned supreme and ran the gamut from well-done to shoe leather. Now, it’s hard to toss a platter in one of our favorite haunts without hitting some beautifully prepared salads, adventurous entrees or ethereal desserts. Whatever came first—the free range chicken or the egg Florentine—we’ve demanded and gotten far better food. Joints like Hutch’s, Sea Bar, Left Bank, Rue Franklin, Oliver’s, Wasabi, Amaryllis, and Torches would have been scarce decades ago. Now, our expectations are raised and talented
chefs are busy meeting them.

And then Criden utters the W-word.
Sure, the Lexington Avenue CoOp gleams on Elmwood and the good folks at Dash’s have made considerable inroads into the hearts and stomachs of suburbia. But for those whose remembrances of supermarkets past start with Bells and end with Super Duper, Wegmans is transcendent. One-third upscale groceria, one-third Harrod’s food hall, and one-third souk, Wegmans has become the dominant force towards better, upscale eating in our community. And it’s not Wholier (Foods) than thou: you can still pick up canned corn and Pepsi along with your line-caught salmon and arugula.

George praises not just the local food but the sustainable thinking behind it:
Seasonal foods have always been part of the big picture for restaurants, but today it’s not limited to just that. Chefs today have to be environmentally conscious, and one of the ways they do this is to cook not only seasonally but more importantly locally … To know where their food comes from and the conditions in which it was raised, and in a region such as ours with short growing seasons, and with the hectic schedule of most chefs who are already wearing more than one toque, this is not an easy task. But I really think that this is the way of the very near future.

Elizabeth Licata thanks
Spree’s wonderful food writers for sharing their memories and assessments.


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