We’d been warned that the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, birthplace of the Buffalo wing, is a tad touristy now. “It’s a lot like ‘Cheers’ in Boston,” we were told by a native Buffalonian. No lie: When we got to the fabled bar, there sat Kelsey Grammer, a.k.a. Dr. Frasier Crane on “Cheers.” Say what? After a seven-hour drive from Boston, were we hallucinating 1980s sitcoms?
Nope, Grammer was hawking his line of made-in-the-Catskills beer, and signing cans for fans. We got thisclose to the TV star-slash-beer purveyor as he headed to the men’s room, but skipped the meet-and-greet — we were eager to get our hands on the real legend in the room, the Anchor Bar’s buttery, sauce-drenched chicken wings.
This famous bar was our first stop on the Upstate Eats Food Trail (www.upstateeatstrail.com), a 225-mile route that showcases iconic foodstuffs in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Binghamton, launched in May. We drove from Boston to Buffalo to tackle the trail, which added a few hundred more miles to the journey! Our route takes you across the Empire State from east to west, and includes two Great Lakes, several waterfalls, and as much local food as you can shake a drumstick at. A side trip into the beautiful Finger Lakes region is a great option if you’ve got the time. In Western New York, you’ll feel like you’re in the Midwest, not the East. (Buffalo is closer to Toronto than New York City, so locals tend to go there for big-city getaways.) The food trail is a great way to explore cities that might not be on your gotta-see list, but offer unique attractions and natural beauty. (Who knew Rochester had a museum devoted to play, and a fringe festival?)
After a long road trip with nary a food stop, we dove into a mound of medium-hot wings. Wing fans, the Anchor Bar (www.anchorbar.com) is the mother ship — it all started here on Buffalo’s Main Street in 1964, when Teressa Bellissimo’s son Dominic and his friends needed a late-night snack. Anchor Bar owner Teressa improvised, grabbing chicken wings intended for soup stock. She deep-fried them, tossed them with hot sauce and voila! The Buffalo wing, an American culinary classic, was born. Super Bowl parties would never be the same.
Purists take note: the Anchor Bar’s medium-hot wing comes closest to Bellissimo’s original wing recipe. Wings are slathered in a 50-50 blend of butter and the bar’s signature hot sauce. A platter of these glistening beauties comes with celery sticks and bleu cheese dressing for dipping. “Order them with ranch and you’ll be shunned!” warned Drew Brown of Visit Niagara Buffalo. The wings were crispier than expected, but very tasty, and we built up a pile of bones in short order. These days, every eatery in Buffalo sells wings. There’s even a Buffalo Wing Trail, and a National Buffalo Wing Festival, held on Labor Day weekend.
Day One: Iconic eats in Buffalo
The air in Buffalo smelled like popcorn during our visit. It was actually Cheerios, produced here at the General Mills factory. Imagine how good it smells when they’re making Lucky Charms! Our itinerary revealed a carb-heavy day, so we were happy to add some sightseeing to the mix — including a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Prairie-style Martin House complex. Tourists to the core, we also side-tripped to Niagara Falls, 16 miles away, to see the triple waterfalls — two in America, one in Canada — located in the state park of the same name, in the town of the same name.
How good is the Buffalo pizza at Bocce Club Pizza (www.bocceclubpizza.com), our next stop on the Upstate Eats Food Trail? So good, we got accosted in the elevator of our hotel by two Buffalo Sabres hockey players. “Best pizza ever!” one said. “You gonna open that box?” No, we were not, so we quickly got off the elevator before things got awkward. The credit for this superlative pie goes to one Dino Pacciotti, who bought a sandwich shop with bocce courts in 1946. (His son Jim now runs the place.) While messing around with a pizza oven he found in the basement, Dino Pacciotti perfected a medium-thick, fluffy, charred-around-the-edges pizza crust, and topped it with a sweet tomato sauce, homemade mozzarella, and spicy, greasy-in-the-middle pepperoni cups. They make other combinations now, but this is the one to beat. The leftovers even held up after two days in a cooler. (They ship, so try it yourself.)
We weren’t hopeful about the next foodstuff on our list, sponge candy. We’d been told to expect “slightly sweet Styrofoam” dipped in milk chocolate — not a promising testimonial. But Parkside Candy (www.parksidecandy.com), opened in 1927, sure looks inviting. The shop, with its neon sign and attached candy factory, is a National Historic Landmark. No sponges are harmed in the making of its signature treat, said Parkside’s Bob Sprague. “It’s a Buffalo thing. You can’t get it in Rochester. You can’t get it in Syracuse. You can’t get it anyplace else,” he said. The chocolate coating on these squares of crisp sponge is delicious. The insides? Well, if you’re a fan of Butterfinger, you’ll appreciate this airy, crunchy confection.
It’s a good thing we didn’t polish off an entire pound of sponge candy. The next stop on our Tour de Eats would feature another only-in-Buffalo creation — beef on weck. Tiny German-based Schwabl’s , the home of Buffalo’s original roast beef on kümmelweck, has hosted Anthony Bourdain and Alton Brown, who deemed this sandwich the best in Buffalo. Since 1837, they’ve been serving hand-carved beef (you pass a guy slicing meat as you walk in) served on a salt-topped roll that’s been soaked in au jus. It comes with German potato salad and coleslaw or pickled beets.
At first bite, Buffalo’s signature sandwich tastes like an everything bagel filled with delicious sliced beef. At third bite, it tastes salty. No wonder they sell a lot of old-school cocktails, like Tom & Jerry’s, at Schwabl’s — you need something to cut the salt. Slather on some horseradish and it’s a better bite. Other menu items include Hungarian goulash and a hot turkey sandwich.
We walked it off (as if!) along the Buffalo waterfront, wandering past four decommissioned Naval vessels, part of the Buffalo & Erie Canal Naval & Military Park. The sky was peachy gold as the sun set over Lake Erie. The color of … the inside of a piece of sponge candy.
Day Two: Garbage Plates and white hots in Rochester
Roc-City is only an hour or so east of Buffalo, if you aren’t tempted by stops along the way, like the Jell-O Museum(!) in LeRoy. Everyone in town was at the same place on Saturday morning: Rochester’s Public Market. We saw a little boy nibbling Brussels sprouts off a stalk as if they were candy as we wandered the Haymarket-like outdoor space. All the produce groups were represented at this c. 1905 standby, surrounded by shops selling doughnuts, beer, specialty foods, and kombucha.
We resisted these delights, girding our loins for Rochester’s famous (notorious?) “Garbage Plate.” This dish dates back to 1918, when it was known as a “hots and potato” plate, says Rachel Laber Pulvino of Visit Rochester. According to local lore, a group of (possibly inebriated) college students visited Nick Tahou’s eponymous restaurant in the 1980s and requested “a plate with all the garbage on it.” Tahou piled everything he had onto that plate. The name “Garbage Plate” stuck, and the tradition continues: A choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, and white or red hots (hotdogs), served atop home fries, French fries, baked beans, and/or macaroni salad. This is topped with a spicy meat sauce and mustard and onions (optional).
The Garbage Plate is not a pretty sight. “It looks like mess hall food,” our companion said. The meat sauce was the best thing about it. But do not trash-talk the Garbage Plate in Rochester — it is beloved here. Check out comedian Jim Gaffigan’s riff on the dish on YouTube. This iconic concoction crops up elsewhere under different names (Tahou trademarked “garbage plate”) in other guises: there’s a vegan version called the “compost plate” at Red Fern Rochester (www.redfernrochester.com), and a “trasher plate” served at Stingray Sushifusion (www.stingraysushifusion.com), for example.
To cleanse our palates, we hustled to the Lake Ontario shoreline for dessert, frozen custard. A take-out stand called Abbott’s Frozen Custard (www.abbottscustard.com) has been operating since 1926, serving silken, creamy swirls of a frozen treat that reminded us of Four Seas Ice Cream in Centerville. Order a sundae so you can sample the decadent hot fudge, made expressly for Abbott’s, as you stroll along the pier at Ontario Beach Park.
This is a lovely lakeside spot, and you can sample another Upstate Eats icon in the ‘hood: a Zweigle’s White Hot Dog, served at Bill Gray’s at Port of Rochester (www.billgrays.com). Zweigle’s is a fifth-generation family-owned butcher shop launched in 1880. They became famous for their white hots, a combination of ground pork, beef, and veal, stuffed into a natural pork casing and made without nitrates. These dogs split open when they’re cooked, creating a well for mustard, onions, and spicy sauce. “Not bad,” was our verdict; the white hot’s flavor profile was mellow, not overly spiced. File this one under good, portable ballpark, or boardwalk, food.
Alas, our pants were feeling snug. There’d be no more eating today. As for drinking, we couldn’t head home without sampling the product at the Genesee Brew House (www.geneseebeer.com), site of the oldest brewery in New York State. Sitting outdoors on the deck with an Oktoberfest lager, and views of Rochester’s 96-foot waterfall, High Falls, was the perfect end to a weekend of iconic eats. (Actually, we hadn’t quite finished the tour; we’d hit a tiny roadside shack called Mother’s Cupboard in Syracuse for a massive frittata on the way home.) Binghamton, we’re sorry we missed you, but we’ll make it there one day, to taste your iconic chicken spiedie. Because these culinary classics are not going anywhere.
Where to stay
In Buffalo, the 194-room Buffalo Marriott at Lecom HarborCenter (www.marriott.com) is located in the heart of the action, good if you’re not familiar with the city, and it has a unique amenity — a public ice-skating rink. (Walk to Buffalo Sabres games at KeyBank Center from here.) Rates from $175. In Rochester, we stayed at the Strathallan Hotel & Spa (www.strathallan.com); from $157, a 155-room property in the city’s East End. This one is an eight-minute walk to downtown, and close to museums and Rochester’s Arts District.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org