Buffalo’s food legacy is still largely centered around the eponymous Buffalo wing and unpretentious local delicacies like "beef on a wreck" (pastrami on a caraway seed roll), but in recent years a restaurant culture has emerged that embraces the city’s newfound reputation as an innovation hotspot.
After decades of hard times, New York state’s second largest city has been experiencing an economic upward swing, due in part to an influx of startups and tech companies lured by the city’s lower cost of living. While Buffalo revels in and rebels against this success (tech money means gentrification and skyrocketing housing costs), its restaurateurs have ridden the wave and transformed the city’s dining scene into something quintessentially 21st-century Buffalo.
You’ll still find lots of spots serving the old classics, as well as no shortage of farm-to-table New American bistros, but many of Buffalo’s most exciting restaurants are taking a third route, merging the Queen’s City’s classic sensibilities with these new influences. Here’s a guide to Buffalo’s restaurant revolution.
Trucks, chains and courts
In 2013, Buffalo got in on an already popular trend when it hosted the first ever Food Truck Tuesday at Larkin Square, which saw dozens of mobile food vendors converge on one of the city’s newly developed parks (former home of a few industrial warehouses, natch). Since that first convergence, the food trucks convene every Tuesday from spring to early fall, and the event has come to define the entrepreneurial spirit of the city’s new era.
The year after the first Food Truck Tuesday, Buffalo was bestowed with the newest location of revered chain Dinosaur BBQ, which got its start as a mobile eatery that traveled to motorcycle gatherings across upstate New York serving meat cooked in a steel drum. After setting up as a traditional restaurant, its reputation exploded when it opened locations in noteworthy food destinations like Harlem, Brooklyn, and nearby Rochester. In 2016 EXPO Market opened in the theater district, a food court full of local restaurants serving things like Burmese takeout instead of bland national chains. Together these additions to the restaurant scene act as a useful barometer for the city’s tastes: high-quality food that pays homage to the city’s roots while still offering something new.
Fresh takes on regional favorites
Cuisine inspired by Buffalo’s rich immigrant communities has been baked into the city’s restaurants for generations. At Las Puertas in Buffalo’s West Side, chef Victor Parra Gonzalez builds on those traditions while throwing diners a rather scrumptious curveball. His plates are inspired by traditional dishes from his native Mexico, but with a modern twist and more than a few nods to his training in Japanese and Italian cooking. Dishes like roasted cauliflower in a salsa verde sauce or pumpkin stuffed with crab feel special, as though you’d have to travel back to Buffalo if you wanted to try them again.
Closer to home, but no less exciting, is the Allen Street Poutine Company. The Quebecois dish of French fries, gravy and cheese curds isn’t uncommon in New York state’s northern reaches, but the Canadian duo who launched this comfort food endeavor have an intimate knowledge of with poutine that allows for some wild variations that actually work. If you’ve ever wondered how General Tso’s chicken or a Philly cheese steak would taste loaded onto fries, you can now end your searching. You’re home.
Buffalo's black restaurateurs
Buffalo’s sizable and influential African American community has been making major strides in representation in the city’s disproportionately white restaurant world. In February of 2019, eleven black-owned restaurants participated in the city’s first Black Restaurant Week, which treated visitors to everything from cakes to BBQ to soul food to classic steakhouse fare. A similar event had been held the year before, but it featured just five restaurants and lasted only three days. The event doubled in size and length in just one year, a strong indication that black-owned restaurants will continue to influence dining trends in the city for years to come.
Several of the restaurants participating in 2019’s Black Restaurant Week were new enterprises. One such is Je Ne Sais Quoi, which had only been in business for a little over two years prior to the event, but that was enough time for runaway success, however. Proprietor Gwen Ingram’s soul food spot was so popular, in fact, that in 2018 she moved from a 22-seat dining room in the Fruit Belt neighborhood to a 120-seat dining room on ultra-trendy Hertel Ave, where the restaurant has been getting rave reviews for its fried catfish and mac ‘n’ cheese.
Back to the bakery basics
Two of the city’s buzziest eateries are bakeries that embrace the humble art of bread-making. The menu at Five Point Bakery, located in a cavernous industrial-chic space, is almost entirely made up of various types of toast. In the era of the cronut and rainbow bagels that kind of simplicity may seem out of touch; however, the lines are reliably long with folks eager to try apple cider bread with whipped brie or a rich multigrain with cheese and pickled peppers, so it appears that these back-to-basics bakers are actually ahead of the curve.
Buffalo’s other beloved bread-focused cafe is the aptly named BreadHive. They specialize in hearty sandwiches squeezed between slices of their house-made breads, each of which is named after popular women musicians (the brie- and fig-slathered Fiona is particularly scrumptious). Their menu accounts for the ‘Bread’ portion of their name, while ‘Hive’ is a reference to their business model: they are a worker’s collective, meaning the bakers and other employees own and manage the bakery together. As of now BreadHive's operation is unique among the city’s restaurants, but they have only grown in popularity since opening in 2014, perhaps heralding yet a new chapter of business innovation in the Queen City.