Restaurants we love
Excerpts written by Alan Bedenko, Kevin Purdy, and Joe Sweeney

Prepare yourself for barbecue and baba ghanouj, beef on weck and hot fudge, bars and bistros, delis and diners. Yes, these are the restaurants we adore in WNY, and you’re about to get hungry. Very hungry.


Fat Bob’s
Marvellous mac & cheese, part 1:
The unimpeachable side dish

Photo by kc kratt.
41 Virginia Pl., Buffalo
887-2971
www.fatbobs.com


Do you know someone who’s eaten at Fat Bob’s? Then you know someone who loves the macaroni & cheese there. Servers have reported Bob’s famous homemade side as having either three or four cheeses, but the formula always seems to even itself out to deliver a certain amount of fork-entwining gooey goodness. Even when a barbecue snob screws himself up to issue a lashing on Fat Bob’s (and that’s hardly a rare thing to hear about any place that dare call itself 'cue), the mac & cheese is almost always spared the rod. Go ahead, dig through that most opinionated of joints, the web—the side picks up the labels “luxuriously rich,” “no fat spared,” “homey and satisfying,” and “in all ways delicious.” If it’s hard to find many critical words about a dish that almost everyone has fond childhood memories of on the internet, well, that’s saying something.
—Kevin Purdy



Torches
Marvellous mac & cheese, part 2:
Upscale meets downhome

1141 Kenmore Ave., Buffalo
447-7915
www.torches1141.com


If you’re a dedicated follower of menu fashions, you may already have declared macaroni & cheese with lobster “done with,” “played out,” or whatever you want to huff from under your upturned nose. That’s a shame, because it remains an oh-so-wrong, oh-so-good dish—in the right hands. At Torches, the lobster mac, a special that comes and goes like the sun in winter, has won rave reviews from many discerning palates. What’s always on the menu is the Nickel City Mac & Cheese. Elbow macaroni, a buttery bleu cheese sauce, strips of buttermilk fried chicken, sundried tomatoes, scallions, a healthy dash of Frank’s Red Hot, and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. As you might guess, this dish isn’t all that weighed down with melted, mellow cheese—it’s hitting you with two drastically untraditional kinds of fromage, one of them a favored car-ride snack among tykes, while also making a smirking comment on the town you’re eating in. As with the lobster variety, you’re welcome to either scoff at its presence on the menu of a fancy-water-glass kind of restaurant, or leave your leftovers for the rest of us.
—Kevin Purdy



The Waterline
More for midday downtown

50 Lakefront Blvd., Buffalo
464-3432


Last year, something magical happened. The convenient but uninspired/ing little deli down the hall from my office transformed from a lunch of last resort into a gourmet lunch destination. The Waterline in Waterfront Village is brought to you by the same people behind the excellent Fables, located in the downtown library.

After standing in a long line on my first visit, and having just consumed a most amazing wiener schnitzel on a roll with a side salad, I considered the fact that the prior outlet had missed out on an amazing opportunity. Located as it is in the lobby of a large office park near the Erie Basin Marina, the Waterline has a lot going for it—for starters, the only other places that are an easy walk are the fast food at the Hatch and the always-fascinating experience one has at Shanghai Red’s. Waterline’s food is infinitely better than what you’ll find at either of those places, and during the warmer months, they even grill outside and offer patio seating.

With an essentially captive clientele from the three large office buildings, the Waterline has succeeded in meeting this location’s full potential. Each day brings a homemade selection of soups so appealing, you can’t decide what to try. Hint: they’re all good. The daily chicken salad is always excellent—especially the apple/bleu cheese/bacon and the grapes/curry. Try the very reasonably priced Holy Trinity, which gives you a cup of soup, a small salad, and half a chicken salad wrap. The grilled paninis are always exquisite, as is the massive, cheesy tuna melt.

You will take a long time to decide, but remember this: everything is good. It may sound like hyperbole, but the Waterline could very well be the best restaurant anywhere near the Buffalo waterfront.
—Alan Bedenko


Salvatore’s Italian Gardens
Bring the extended family

Salvatore’s dish photo by Jim Bush.
6461 Transit Road, Depew
683-7990
www.salvatores.net


Salvatore’s Italian Gardens is a lot of things. It is a local institution, known as much for its extravagant design as it is for being a local go-to place for special occasions. Many a confirmation and bar mitzvah takes place in one of Salvatore’s many banquet rooms. But it’s also a great place to get together with the whole clan when everyone flies in from the four corners of the world for some reason or another.

When a restaurant has a maitre d’ podium that resembles the check-in desk at the airport, you know that it can handle the big crowds, and, as you can watch one Grampa argue with the other over who’s paying the bill, you get an almost Vegas-esque experience.

The nice thing about Salvatore’s massive size is that it’s almost always got availability. Unlike the trendier spots, 7:30 on a Friday is doable. Even for a huge group. Smaller venues you might need to rent out entirely.

Salvatore’s exterior photo by Katie Schlientz.

Even better is that the food is not what you’d expect. Well, locals know, but out-of-town guests will come upon Salvatore’s exterior and wonder why they’re all dressed up to eat at a red sauce joint. But once seated, this over-the-top restaurant offers you an elegant, comfortable dining experience.

Get a few orders of Salvatore’s signature breads, and pass them around while drinking your predinner drink or sipping a glass of wine. Try the delicious wedge salad, which has almost enough ingredients and mass to be a proper Cobb salad entrée. The steaks here are phenomenal, served with your choice of seasoned butter, cooked to perfection, and bound even to please even the most persnickety visitor.

The servers and kitchen can handle big groups, and kids will love a special-occasion restaurant that’s got a Barbie display in the women’s bathroom or the model car collection in the men’s bathroom. Everyone will leave happy.
—Alan Bedenko



Schwabl's
History, bite by bite

789 Center Rd.
(Rt. 16), West Seneca
674-9821
www.schwabls.com


Forget Ken Burns and his Civil WarSandwiches That You Will Like is the true PBS documentary on the American experience. This 2002 travelogue investigated the origins and lasting appeal of regional specialties, including our own beef on weck. Turns out the signature WNY sandwich comes from a time when swarms of mill, dock, and factory workers would get free lunches at taverns; the salty, seed-flecked roll and juicy beef made customers eager for more beer.

Schwabl’s photo by Christopher Schobert.

It’s no surprise the Sandwiches team set the segment at Schwabl’s. When you step through its doors—which have been open since 1837—you feel like you’re at that bar, in that time, and eating that “free” lunch. It helps that the restaurant still makes its cocktails without mixers, and serves drinks like the Tom & Jerry and Ebenezer Punch, the latter named for one of West Seneca’s original German Lutheran settlers. It also helps that the look of the place isn’t some Disney-fied historic recreation of a bygone era, and the wait staff isn’t forced to wear period dress. They just bring solid portions of honest food, made upon ordering, to tables that are sitting a bit closer together than modern diners are probably used to, but none the worse for wear.

The beef on weck is, needless to say, a bona fide classic, the hot ham sandwich a strong second finish, and the pickled beet and German potato salad sides stick right to your ribs. So will the Hungarian goulash and dumpling, served only on Saturdays. Just as it did 173 years ago, eating and drinking from the Schwabl family’s table fortifies you in both constitution and tradition. The entire experience is not unlike a certain sandwich, born in the German Black Forest, reborn in nineteenth-century America, and now almost impossible to resist.
—Kevin Purdy



Tempo
Fine dining that never flounders

Tempo photo by Jim Bush.
581 Delaware Ave., Buffalo
885-1594
www.tempobuffalo.com


Whenever you set out to have a seafood dinner, there’s a significant amount of trust involved. And everything about Tempo oozes this kind of trustworthiness, from the relaxed, fine dining aesthetic that mixes candlelit corners with the driving beats of piped-in blues to the insanely knowledgeable and accommodating wait staff. But all of this would be moot if the food didn’t walk the walk, and chef Paul Jenkins makes his seafood absolutely strut. Whether it’s the rich, oceany fried oyster chowder, the invigorating ahi tuna and vegetable salad appetizer, or the ever-imaginative main courses (like the branzino with broccolini, featuring a fish I’d never heard of), Tempo’s excellence in all things seafood will have you ready to do a trust fall into Mr. Jenkins’ talented hands.
—Joe Sweeney



Black & Blue Steak & Crab
The place to see and be seen in the 14221

Black & Blue photos by kc kratt.
493 Sheridan Dr., Williamsville
839-2525
www.blackandbluesteakandcrab.com

The room is dim and intimate; the design, cutting edge. You don’t just get a server, you get a team of them. Black & Blue is clearly a restaurant that is accustomed to catering to persnickety people, and it does a fantastic job. The V-shaped dining room is elegant, separated from the bar area by a glass-encased wine cellar that looks like something a Bond villain might construct.

As the name suggests, the emphasis here is on steak and crab. The Maryland she-crab soup is a revelation of creamy texture and fresh crab flavor. The filet is tender and cooked to order. (Try the orzo mac ’n’ cheese on the side.) An extra $12 will add half a lobster to your meal. $7 and you can add blue crab. As is the fashion in most contemporary steakhouses, you can opt to add a sauce; give the black truffle butter a try.

Our area could use a few more upscale, contemporary restaurants of this caliber, where the dress is always casual Friday and you can linger over a big glass of red. Black & Blue clearly adds a bit of color to Sheridan Drive.
—Alan Bedenko



Fiddle Heads
An Allentown charmer delivers

62 Allen St., Buffalo
883-4166


Fiddle Heads photo by kc kratt.

If you’re looking for savory cuisine in a cozy, romantic setting, look no further than Fiddle Heads. There’s a certain cachet to a restaurant that knows its way around a duck, and this long-time Allentown favorite elicits flavors from the bird that are brighter than a mallard’s coat. The seared boneless duck breast is the dish in question; it’s what my wife ordered on the day I proposed to her, and I’ll never forget how grateful I was that we could mark the occasion with such elegant, satisfying food. That, and the way her engagement ring sparkled in the candlelight, marked Fiddle Heads as a place I’d love forever—one that made me feel less like the cat playing the fiddle, and more like the cow jumping over the moon.
—Joe Sweeney



Mothers
A family secret

Mothers photo by Jean-Pierre Thimot.
33 Virginia Pl., Buffalo
882-2989


It’s a thin line between pleasant, attentive, quality-minded service and snobbery. Mothers is all of the former and none of the latter—kind of like, during the best of visits, your mother’s place. Beyond its exceptionally late hours, Mothers has earned a reputation for its Scotch list, bartenders, and as a place where local bigwigs can often be seen partaking in a drink or meal, followed by local chefs when they get off shift. But what real people go here for is the real food. Meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes were popular here long before they hit their recent stride on fancy menus. The markup on drinks and steaks is reasonable, the specials are fancy without being fussy, and the tiny door, alley location, and cavernous decor give off a feeling of being in on a dining secret—one you only share with your closest friends.
—Kevin Purdy



Kentucky Greg’s
WNY’s VIP of BBQ

Kentucky Greg’s photos by Jim Bush.
2186 George Urban Blvd., Depew
685-6599
2911 Southwestern Blvd.,
Orchard Park
677-2225
www.kentuckygregs.com


Some barbeque gurus treat their prep work, smoking, and recipes as a sacred, secret ritual. Greg Engelhardt, the Texas-born, Kentucky-raised proprietor of the astutely named Kentucky Greg’s, wants to show and tell you all about his food. Pulled pork, beef, ribs, chicken, and Polish sausage all get a go through Greg’s smoker, and the sides are almost uniformly delicious. Both the Depew and Orchard Park locations aim to mimic the feel of the South’s bona fide ’cue joints—not with crazy amounts of warehouse-order wall fixtures, but by fostering a communal, y’all-eat-up-now vibe. The place has food cred, getting mentions in online reviews alongside such near-biblical eateries as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City. Of course, you can argue about the techniques—Carolina mopping against Texas dry-rub, tomato versus vinegar sauces, dry versus dressed pork—until you’re good and tired. At that point, head to Greg’s, grab a seat and a beer, and learn how to relax.
—Kevin Purdy



La Hacienda
Your best bet on either side of the Falls

La Hacienda photo by Elizabeth Licata.
3019 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls, N.Y.
285-2536
www.lahaciendaofny.com


The glitz and glamour of the Canadian side of the Falls is all well and good, but even when we take the kids to the behemoth water park in Ontario, we end up getting food at Aldo Evangelista’s place on Pine Avenue.

Say no to the chains. Turn your back on the Frankensteins and hucksters on Clifton Hill. If you want excellent homemade southern Italian cuisine or some of WNY’s best thin-crust New York-style pizza, then let Aldo feed you.

The pizzas are hand-tossed with love. The dough is made on premises. So is the sauce. When my kids get the spaghetti and meatballs, I invariably try a forkful and realize that it’s probably the best spaghetti and meatballs I’ve ever tried. Old-fashioned and incomprehensibly Mexican the décor may be, but you don’t eat the walls or furniture. (You also can’t eat with credit cards; the lone drawback here is that they only accept cash, so stop off at the ATM beforehand.)

Bacchus photos by kc kratt.
La Hacienda isn’t trendy, and it’s not fancy. It’s just good, honest food. You won’t be disappointed.
—Alan Bedenko



Bacchus
Fit for the gods

56 West Chippewa, Buffalo
854-9463
www.ultimaterestaurants.com/bacchus


Although the Chip Strip actually hosts a bar named Soho, a walk across the street to Bacchus will bring you to an atmosphere far more evocative of the artsy, upscale Manhattan neighborhood. Bacchus has long been a mecca for local wine buffs and foodies. This consciously fancy joint is devoted to the full-blown fine dining experience, and it’s marked by a lively atmosphere, a product of the restaurant’s hub-of-activity location and usually well-attended bar. From the refreshingly spicy tuna tartar to the double cut pork chop in Gorgonzola cream sauce, and the wine list (duh), Bacchus is A-list all the way.
—Joe Sweeney



Jim’s Steakout
Homesickness starts here

Jim’s Steakout exterior photo by Katie Schlientz; steak hoagie photo by Jean-Pierre Thimot.
Multiple locations
www.jimssteakout.com


It’s amazing, really, how many places in the world outside WNY lack chicken finger subs. This self-explanatory sandwich is one of many aspects of Jim’s Steakout to wax nostalgic for (in earshot of anyone who will listen) when you’re away from the area. The standard fare is unapologetically greasy and panders to exactly what your utter lack of willpower craves at that exact moment. The joint has unexplainable quirks, like the periodic call-and-response of the staff (“Say ‘Thank you!’” “Thank you!”) and the presence of salads in the counter display. And due to its nature as a nearly-all-night refuge, almost any trip there recharges your reservoir of fashion mistakes and random encounters for future storytelling.The real appeal here, though, is the food, and ordering it is like being in on a secret regional handshake. After your first three visits, you know which hoagie suits your style, whether you’re a self-loathing Diavlo type, the high-falutin’ chicken kind, or an admirer of the way they pack everything from the toppings bar into the Steak Hoagie Deluxe. You give a knowing smirk when you spot the card-waving out-of-towner saunter up to the register and ask, “What shall I have?” You’ve developed a standardized and thorough set of rules about claims on loose “bag fries.” Your allegiance has been sworn to a particular location, and you swear that the loganberry tastes different there than at that off-brand spot your friend frequents. More than anything, though, you have a good sense of what Jim’s Secret Sauce is, but you’ve also developed an amazingly selective amnesia of this knowledge, triggered just when you need to make one more stop on the way home from a very, very fun night.
—Kevin Purdy



Eastern Pearl
Chinese food, beyond the brown-and-salty

Eastern Pearl photo by kc kratt.
938 Maple Rd., Amherst
204-8898
www.theeasternpearlrestaurant.com


A year or two after Chang’s, a respected, reliable mid-range Chinese restaurant in the Boardwalk Boutique plaza burned down, Eastern Pearl appeared in its place. Billing itself as gourmet Cantonese, Eastern Pearl turns familiar dishes into something extraordinary. The dining room is elegant and the waitstaff are friendly and quick, but the food is where the Pearl truly shines; so far I’ve tried Eastern Pearl’s take on all of my old favorites, and each was the best version I’ve ever had.

This isn’t the same old Chinese you’re used to: that depressing mass of brown, salty food. Everything here is made with care, and flavor is king. The steamed pork dumplings are wonderfully tender, served with a phenomenal ginger dipping sauce. The crab wontons taste incredibly fresh and hand-made. Orange beef is crispy and sweet with an amazing but subtle spicy kick. The chicken dish named for a certain General Gau/Tsau/Tso is another standout. Chicken with cashew nuts proves incredibly fresh, and the flavors simply explode in your mouth. The Singapore noodles and pork lo mein complement any meal wonderfully.

Eastern Pearl is a welcome addition to a city hungry for a few more good, upscale, sit-down Chinese restaurants.
—Alan Bedenko



Left Bank
The feast of St. Benedict

Left Bank photo by kc kratt.
511 Rhode Island St., Buffalo
882-3509


Whether you see brunch as just breakfast with some melon on the side or you use it as a verb, this perennial West Side “American bistro” is bound to please. Sure, a Sunday afternoon listening to light jazz and eating walnut-encrusted French toast may sound thoroughly chichi, but Left Bank has a way of humanizing its refined atmosphere. Maybe it’s the presence of the lively bar in the front of the place, or the down-to-earthiness of the service. Regardless of the reason, you can sit down, order the fanciest Benedict on the menu, and feel like you’re part of something indubitably Buffalo. And it doesn’t hurt that everything’s so delicious, from the always-imaginative crepe of the week to the top-notch potato pancakes.
—Joe Sweeney



Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse
Destination dining at a mall

One Walden Galleria, Cheektowaga, 685-3111, www.hydeparkrestaurants.com

The thing about Hyde Park is not just that it’s at a mall. It’s that it’s technically in the ground floor of the Walden Galleria parking lot, where you’ll also find the Cheesecake Factory, Bravo, Bar Louie, and others.

And it’s nice, after all, to have somewhere elegant to eat after a day’s shopping in Cheektowaga. Not everyone wants to be handed toothpicks with samples of nondescript Chinese dishes whilst winding their way to Subway to eat. And sometimes Johnny Rocket’s is a bit too bright and cheery.

Hyde Park is no food court fare. Indeed, it’s not even as casual as the other restaurants on the northwest corner of the mall. Hyde Park has its own valet parking. The inside is clubby and understated. It is a quality steakhouse. In a parking lot. At a mall.

Photo by kc kratt.

And like most contemporary steakhouses, the service is exquisite but not overbearing. The steaks are delivered in perfect condition, as ordered. A dozen oysters on the half-shell are a great way to whet your appetite. A menu section called "local favorites" offers up angus burgers, crab cakes, and twin 3.5-ounce filets with béarnaise sauce, each one for about $20. Sides are for sharing, and the creamed spinach and potatoes gruyere gratin are excellent complements to the 12-ounce filet or the prime ribeye. Savory sauces can be added for free, and lump crab or lobster tail cost extra.

The added benefit to the fact that the service and food are excellent at Hyde Park is the fact that reservations are accepted and honored. No more walking around with a buzzer or waiting despite having a reservation. This is a convenient and excellent culinary oasis in a sea of mediocrity.
—Alan Bedenko


Kabab & Curry
Spicing us softly

Left Bank photo by kc kratt.
5185 Transit Rd., Williamsville
565-3822
www.kababandcurry.com


Indian food is so reliant on spices that if it’s not skillfully prepared, it can shock your taste buds in a less than pleasant way. Not so at Kabab & Curry, where the robust flavors of traditional Indian and Pakistani dishes are brought out with artful sensitivity. Low notes murmur beautifully amongst the highs, like the garlic and ginger seasoning in the lamb tikka or the hints of spinach in the pakoras (K&C’s take on this staple appetizer is the most satisfying in town). The menu is almost dauntingly deep, dozens of potential meals assembling themselves in your head like the most diligent of Doozers. And its location in a Transit Road strip mall lends to its innate charm. While everyone else on the block is gorging at chains and big box retailers, you can take pride in adding some real spice to your life.
—Joe Sweeney



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