A road trip to a revitalized Queen City yields warm hospitality, rich heritage, vibrant art and landmark architecture…
By Doug Wallace
My friends all pulled a big face, screwing up their noses as if I smelled. “Why the hell are you going to Buffalo?” Morons. Because it’s right around the corner, I told them. Turns out we were on the Peace Bridge in two hours and nine minutes, and well on our way to an excellent weekend away.
It didn’t take long to discover the quiet revival taking place in New York’s Queen City: cool neighbourhoods you could picture yourself living in, old buildings and homes getting a new lease on life, once derelict parts of town now the talk of the town. We also locked into the hospitable vibe from all the nodding; people actually acknowledge your presence – in store lineups, on street corners, bellying up to the bar – just like in a small town. Turning off the Toronto anonymity is often a vacation in itself.
Buffalo used to be big, big stuff, a city of half a million. Situated so close to Niagara Falls, it was one of the first US towns at the turn of the century to have extensive electric lighting, luring entrepreneurs and investors, its industries and car factories thriving. After a period of decline from the 1960s onward – maybe my friends get their opinions from their parents – the city is now slowing working towards a revival, with manufacturing, health care and education leading the field. Happily, we can include hospitality in this list, too. I mean, boutique hotels are a pleasant surprise if you’re expecting Holiday Inns.
Curtiss Hotel is a case in point. Built inside a renovated 1913 office building, it bridges old and new beautifully, exhibiting a few fun quirks. We found the first one immediately: a revolving bar had us slowly circling the bartenders, waiting patiently for our barstools to spin past a group of attractive suits doing after-work bevvies, and on to a bevy of tuxedoed groomsmen throwing back mid-wedding courage. The second twist is the hotel’s little urban hot springs, a heated spa pool we had all to ourselves. Returning later for nightcaps in the all-white rooftop lounge, we made fast friends with the local scenesters and watched the last few wedding guests say their goodbyes.
The Curtiss isn’t the only hotel breathing new life into an old property. We saw this pattern all over the place, particularly at InnBuffalo off Elmwood, a nine-suite spot in Elmwood Village that inhabits a former mansion built in 1898. The ultra-charming innkeeper described it as a “preservation in progress,” with most of its turn-of-the-century finishes still intact. (He even offers it up to university students studying heritage restoration at nearby Buffalo State, giving them a chance to learn first-hand how to deal with disintegrating silk wallpaper or warping woodwork.) We arrived on the day of the neighbourhood’s annual Porch Fest to find such a block party going on, and had to sneak in the inn’s side door – a “Mustang Sally” kind of band and a psychedelic performance artist having taken over the front porch. Not a bad welcome: hundreds of people were wandering the streets, soaking up the vibe and the suds. We were certainly not the only house with a band on the porch, but we were the only one selling beers and hamburgers in the driveway.
It’s not all chicken wings and Fruity Pebbles
I’m not ashamed that palate-pleasing is one-third (if not half) of my travel experience. Dinner reservations are always made weeks in advance of going to the airport, and my whole day of adventure is scheduled around lunch…and my nap. Happily, Buffalo delivers on the food front in spades. Similar to Pittsburgh, Buffalo is a bubbling-under town on the scope of the national food scene, chefs often returning here having made their name elsewhere. We managed to eat our way through a chophouse, a diner, a whisky bar and a Southern restaurant, before our jaws dropped at Las Puertas, the city’s much-lauded Mexican restaurant. This 35-seat gem in the West Side, founded by 2018 James Beard-nominated chef Victor Parra Gonzalez, who hails from Acapulco, is thoroughly and distinctly modern Mexican, yet executed with classic French techniques that elevate it to top-10 status.
Start my dinner with a mezcal cocktail, and I’ll be in your pocket. We confessed to our dietary restrictions and let Victor just feed us – the best way to benefit from this food experience. From the watermelon and radish soup, through the ribbons of ceviche, all the way to the coconut meringues, dinner was flawless, the Japanese and Italian influences in terms of both style and presentation making the tastes even more sensational. And what makes a meal here so intensely personal is the fact that Victor is on the floor, talking about the menu and taking orders, this due to a tiny staff; the cooks bring out the plates they themselves have created. On top of being a destination restaurant, Las Puertas is located in an eclectic neighbourhood filled with people who are well into this kind of food journey, much like we are as tourists.
Dinner on a Saturday night in a foreign town generally includes dancing it off. And the gay watering holes in the Allentown neighbourhood are friendly and mostly old-school, like the town itself. We started off dodging drunk pool players at Cathode Ray on Allen Street, then proceeded around the corner to Fugazi, where a slightly younger crowd is throwing back martinis. Gotta love the American free-pour.
Cool art, iconic architecture…and a little side trip
When it was time to quiet down a bit, we pegged one whole day just for art, spinning through the Albright Knox Art Gallery in the north end of town to absorb its incredible collection of modern and contemporary art, followed by a visit across the street to The Burchfield Penney Art Center, a museum exhibiting works by Western New York artists. After a picnic in nearby Delaware Park, we headed to the newly restored Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin Martin House and completely nerded out on this 1905 home, one of Wright’s architectural masterpieces. From the open-concept living areas – crazy talk at the time – to the nature-inspired embellishment of more than 400 art glass windows to the pergola through to the conservatory (now full of orchids), the home is a solid marvel. Wright’s legendary controlling nature is on full display in many rooms, especially those with built-in cabinetry – he didn’t want anybody moving the furniture around.
More art and architecture came in the form of a small side trip to the town of East Aurora, a half-hour southeast of Buffalo. We hit the trail to visit Roycroft Campus, a cluster of historic buildings that was once home to a community of Arts & Crafts movement artisans in the early 1900s.
Known as Roycrofters, the group began as printers and publishers, expanding under founding father Elbert Hubbard to become a self-sufficient guild of furniture makers, metal smiths, leather smiths and bookbinders. We wandered through a few of the nine remaining original buildings on a guided tour that illustrated the history of the group, which was often mistaken for a cult, but was really just a gang of artists with a creative appetite and a focused work ethic. It’s a rare survival of an art colony, the story and art kept alive through several restored workshops and an excellent museum. Various art shows, history courses, lecture series and film-society events keep the campus humming along throughout the year. There’s even an artist-in-residence.
East Aurora is a get-away-from-it-all kind of place – full of heritage houses, big state parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other fresh-air stuff. We made a mental note to consider a return trip to hang at Roycroft Inn, also a national historic landmark, built in 1905, its lobby filled with restored Roycroft murals, and its lounge and suites packed with handsome Arts and Crafts furniture and décor that, as fans, left us salivating.
When it was time to head back over the Peace Bridge, we prayed for a short lineup while we recapped the weekend’s highlights. Who knew this place was more than just chicken wings and the Sabres? Not my friends, that’s for sure. But they do now.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource TravelRight.Today.