City Scope: Buffalo

Long maligned as a sleepy upstate New York town, Buffalo is undergoing a food and beverage renaissance.

Bourbon and Butter's mixologist, Tony Rials, explores flavor pairings, infusions and seasonal ingredients while keeping the bar accessible.
Bourbon and Butter's mixologist, Tony Rials, explores flavor pairings, infusions and seasonal ingredients while keeping the bar accessible. (Photo by Joe Cascio)

Walk into Bourbon and Butter in downtown Buffalo, New York, and you can tell immediately that it’s not a traditional restaurant. With plush banquettes and subdued lighting, the venue more closely resembles a lounge, offering diners such delicacies as Crispy Pig Ear, served with fried egg, greens and pickled jalapeños, and a Korean Kalbi Beef Steamed Bun with kimchee and Sriracha mayo (small plates are $9 to $14; entrées are $10 to $26). The beverage menu features a half-dozen original cocktails at $10 each, including the Minted Man, a blend of Lockhouse vodka, Green Chartreuse liqueur, house-made rose hip liqueur, mint oil and cucumber; and the Death & Taxes, a combination of rye bread- and citrus peel-infused High West Double rye whiskey, cherry-steeped agave, and house-made citrus bitters.

Just a few blocks away at Buffalo Proper, the cocktail list includes options like the Ginger Baker, with Cachaça 61 Brazilian rum, fresh lime juice, house-made ginger jalapeño syrup and red grapes; the CastleBar, mixing Irishman Founder’s Reserve Irish whiskey, Fernet Branca amaro, raw sugar, Joe Bean coffee and cream; and the cheekily named Friends with Benefits, made with Krogstad aquavit, Braulio amaro, fresh carrot and orange juices, and ginger syrup.

It’s all a far cry from the Buffalo wings and beer that have long been staples for residents in this Rust Belt city 500 miles from Manhattan. The town still loves its wings and brews, but changes are underway.

The lounge-like Bourbon and Butter offers small plates, international cuisine and specialty cocktails inside the Hotel @ The Lafayette.
The lounge-like Bourbon and Butter offers small plates, international cuisine and specialty cocktails inside the Hotel @ The Lafayette. (Photo by KC Kratt Photography)

Growing Sophistication

Buffalo is in the midst of a resurgence, with billions of dollars in real estate development currently underway in and around downtown. These projects include residential buildings that contain lofts and apartments for city dwellers, as well as major commercial investment along the Lake Erie waterfront. And there’s enough demand to support a slew of restaurants and bars downtown and in other popular neighborhoods.

“It’s been incredibly different over the last two to three years,” said Mike Andrzejewski, a 38-year veteran of the Buffalo restaurant scene. He’s currently the owner and chef of Bourbon and Butter, as well as three other downtown eateries: Tappo, Seabar and Cantina Loco. “We’ve lived downtown for the last seven years,” he says. “When we first moved in, Saturdays were the slowest day of the week. Now, with the influx of people living downtown, they’re looking for great experiences.”

Recent months have seen more than a dozen restaurant openings, including everything from a casual hot dog joint that serves lamb-based sausages and toppings like foie gras to pizzerias with deluxe drinks. One thing they all have in common is a robust beverage menu, with offerings including craft beer and cocktails.

Bourbon and Butter opened in September inside the Hotel @ The Lafayette. The restaurant is designed to be accessible to a broad range of diners and drinkers, with lower-priced entrées and beverages. Overseeing the bar is mixologist Tony Rials, who also makes sure the place is stocked with a variety of wine and spirits, including small-batch and single barrel Bourbons and craft beer.

Andrzejewski says Rials spends as much time in the kitchen creating infusions as he does at the bar. “I really call him a drink chef instead of a bartender,” he said. “He researches seasonal ingredients, looks at cookbooks for flavor pairings and goes outside the norm. He loves to change things up.”

In addition to classic and original cocktails, the beverage menu includes a wide variety of wine and spirits. Wine ranges from $9 to $11 a glass pour and $36 to $300 a 750-ml. bottle, while spirits include Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon ($10 a 2-ounce pour), Talisker 10-year-old single malt Scotch ($11) and Louis XIII de Rémy Martin Cognac ($145). The beer menu offers mainstream domestics, such as Labatt Blue Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon (both $4 a 12-ounce bottle) and craft brews like Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ ($6) and Green Flash West Coast IPA ($6). Local brands include Flying Bison Kölsch ($5).

“If you’re running a decent restaurant, you’re expected to offer something exciting and different,” Andrzejewski says. “There’s always room for a great Manhattan or a classic Martini, but now people want you to live up to something higher than the basics.”

Ristorante Lombardo, a Buffalo institution for almost 40 years, has created a sophisticated drinks program to appeal to a younger crowd.
Ristorante Lombardo, a Buffalo institution for almost 40 years, has created a sophisticated drinks program to appeal to a younger crowd. (Photo by Shawna Stanley)

Embracing Change

Established restaurants are also getting in on the action, finding a middle ground between keeping their traditional clients happy while bringing in a younger crowd with very different expectations. A prime example is Ristorante Lombardo, a 39-year-old Italian eatery on Hertel Avenue in one of the city’s more established neighborhoods. Owner and patriarch Tom Lombardo operates the venue with his son, Tommy Lombardo, who returned to Buffalo from New York City a few years ago with a slew of fresh ideas.

“Our city is growing by leaps and bounds right now, and our clientele has become much more sophisticated,” Tom Lombardo says. “There was a time when our wine sales had overtaken everything, but now people’s tastes are more sophisticated. The cocktail has come back in a huge way, and beer sales have risen too with all the new craft brews.”

Tommy Lombardo concurs. “When I returned here, there was a well-established beer culture in Buffalo and a burgeoning cocktail culture just starting to get established,” he says. “A well-run restaurant with an amazing food and cocktail program is not specific to New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco anymore. It’s also happening in small towns all around the country.”

Ristorante Lombardo’s cocktail menu includes such classics as the Aperol Spritz ($8), made with Lamberti Prosecco, Aperol aperitif, seltzer and a lemon twist, or the Bitter Orange ($10), a cocktail recipe borrowed from the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan that comprises Stolichnaya Ohranj vodka, Cointreau triple sec liqueur, Campari aperitif and grapefruit juice. The list also features house originals ($10) like the Honey Pig, a concoction of bacon-washed Four Roses Bourbon, black pepper-infused honey and lemon, and the Blanche Devereaux, made with Nolet’s Silver gin, Broadbent 5-year-old Madeira, Contratto Bianco vermouth, Regans’ orange bitters, orange juice, lime and lemon.

When it comes to wine, Ristorante Lombardo’s patrons are starting to go beyond specific varietals like Chardonnay or Merlot, instead trusting the bartender or sommelier to recommend something new. The restaurant offers a broad wine list, including 30 different varietals by the glass ($8 for the 2012 Sortesele Santi Pinot Grigio or 2012 Bodan Roan Pinot Noir to $48 for the 2000 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano di Abruzzo). Bottles range from $30 to $480. The father-and-son team recognizes the importance of having wines that will appeal to both longtime customers and newcomers looking for more diversity.

“We offer choices because I respect that some people don’t see value in a $16 glass of wine,” Tommy Lombardo says. “That’s totally acceptable. We have a plan, and we’re working on being a cross-generational restaurant. But anyone of any age can appreciate good food and good drink. It’s not generationally specific.”

The 100th Problem at Bourbon and Butter epitomizes Buffalo's burgeoning cocktail scene.
The 100th Problem at Bourbon and Butter epitomizes Buffalo's burgeoning cocktail scene. (Photo by KC Kratt Photography)

Drinks Movement

Sandy Stimers has worked in the wine and spirits business for more than a decade, including the past three years as a wholesale rep for the Upstate New York region at Frederick Wildman & Sons Ltd. “We’ve definitely seen a major shift into wine in recent years, and now we’re seeing a shift into the craft cocktail arena,” she says.

Stimers notes that restaurants are increasingly more attuned to identifying trends in other markets and adapting them to Buffalo. Venue operators are hiring specialists to create beverage programs and bring in different wine varietals to pair with the cuisine.

“Maybe a beverage menu isn’t all about craft cocktails, but it could be an element—such as talking about the way the drinks are made or the ingredients they use,” Stimers says, noting a proliferation of house-made products like tinctures. “Bartenders aren’t necessarily buying everything, but they have the knowledge to make these ingredients and create cocktails on their own.”

In addition to labels from national brands, many restaurants are carrying more local wines. Just to the north of the city lies the Niagara Wine Trail, which includes 20 wineries, as well as a brewery and a cidery. South of the city is Lake Erie Wine Country, a wine trail with more than two dozen wineries extending from New York’s Southern Tier into Pennsylvania.

Retailers, too, are taking note, with customers buying different kinds of spirits and more of them, says Jonathan Notarius, whose family owns Premier Wine & Spirits and two other beverage alcohol stores in the Buffalo area. “The trend with craft beer in the last five years has transferred over to small-batch spirits,” he explains. “They want to try something new and different, whereas in the past it was always more about brand loyalty. Things that were big at high-end cocktail bars in New York City a couple of years ago are starting to come here.”

Premier Wine & Spirits and its sister stores are also watching what’s on the menu at local restaurants and incorporating ingredients into their advertising for those who want to replicate craft cocktails at home. “We’ve highlighted different restaurants or bars and their signature cocktails with cross-marketing to catch a piece of the cocktail craze,” Notarius says. “We’re trying to make it easier for folks to feel comfortable buying unusual spirits.”

Community Beer works cofounder Rudy Watkins has helped bring local beer options to a city that already loved craft brews.
Community Beer works cofounder Rudy Watkins has helped bring local beer options to a city that already loved craft brews. (Photo by Dan Conley)

Brewing Renaissance

That’s not to say Buffalo doesn’t still love its beer. Since 1997, the city has enjoyed the home-brewed creations of Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, which has 17 microbrews on tap and operates sites like the Pan-American Grill & Brewery at the Hotel @ The Lafayette.

Then there’s Flying Bison Brewing Co., which opened in 2000 and is planning a major expansion into Buffalo’s Larkin District. The move will allow the company to increase production from 6,000 barrels to more than 10,000 annually, as well as add an indoor beer garden and tasting area. Recent years have seen growth in the beer market, along with cocktails and wine. A half-dozen breweries have opened or are in development, all joining the growing Buffalo Brewery District. And there’s more to come.

As recently as last year, the city was home to just four breweries and brewpubs, a number that has now risen to more than a dozen—enough to support the start of brewery tours and a 10-day beer festival in late September. It’s a return to Buffalo’s early 20th-century roots, when commerce from the Erie Canal brought thousands of residents to the city. At the time, more than two dozen breweries and distilleries were in operation, but many of them shut down due to Prohibition and later advances in manufacturing.

Among the recent entrants is Community Beer Works, which opened in 2012 and was named “Best New Brewer” in New York state by in 2013. The company bills itself as a nanobrewery on Buffalo’s West Side and makes eight types of craft beer. The lineup currently includes the American pale ale Frank, The IPA, seasonals like the summertime Belgian-style wheat Rutherford B. Haze and the Singularity series, a range of brews that each uses a single type of hops. The beers sells for $12 a 64-ounce growler or $7 a 32-ounce bottle.

Community Beer Works cofounder Ethan Cox says the company is among the new breed of craft brewers who grew up with lots of options. While the first generation of brewers may have worked to compete against Budweiser and Labatt Blue, it’s different for Community Beer Works. “For most of us at the brewery, there’s not much memory of a time before craft beer,” he says. “Our concern is luring away Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada drinkers. With the explosion of craft beer, the hardest part has already been done.” In the two years since Cox and his partner, Rudy Watkins, opened Community Beer Works, other breweries have emerged. Resurgence Brewing Co. is located just a few blocks away and includes indoor and outdoor beer gardens, while Big Ditch Brewing Co. launched in the downtown area in October. Looking ahead to 2016, there are plans for a Hofbräuhaus Brewpub franchise on the waterfront that will feature a 600-seat beer hall, live German music and a 300-seat traditional outdoor beer garden.

Cox says there’s a lot of room for expansion. Community Beer Works expects to produce 550 barrels this year, up from 420 barrels last year. “Buffalo is well below the country’s and even state’s average for market share of craft beer production—maybe 2.5 percent to 3 percent, versus 9 percent nationally,” he explains. “I think there’s plenty of growth still to come.”