Long known for spicy chicken wings, Buffalo is now earning a reputation for a broader menu, thanks to an independent restaurant community that has gained serious traction in recent years. Getting a taste of the area’s eateries has joined gawking at Niagara Falls as a must-do item on visitors’ itineraries; locals, thrilled by all the new options, are getting into the act too.
Buffalo News food critic Andrew Galarneau sat down with four UB alumni who are local restaurant owners for the dish on how our city’s restaurant scene has grown and where it’s headed.
Andrew Galarneau: When did the Buffalo restaurant scene start to evolve, and why?
Jim Guarino: For many years, Buffalo had very standardized restaurants. There was an owner, there was a chef, there was supporting staff. Chef-owned, chef-driven restaurants began to emerge around 2005, which is when we opened Shango. Instead of conforming to the rules or budget of owners, chefs had more freedom to create their own menus, bring in the products they wanted, hire the staff they wanted. At the same time, the Food Network was starting to crank, and that created greater expectations from guests. For years they were OK with getting the same canned slop on a plate. But as they watched all this cool new food programming, their expectations changed.
Chris Dorsaneo: When we were getting started in 2010, there was already a buzz going. Christa Glennie Seychew [a local food writer and entrepreneur] launched the Foodie-to-Farm tours in 2008 and started the Nickel City Chef culinary competition a year later. The Buffalo scene was starting to get interested in where our food was coming from. And Buffalo itself was changing—people were starting to invest in the city again.
Dan Hagen: Not just business investments. There were houses on the West Side vacant for years that people started buying and renovating. People who had moved out of the city 15 years ago were moving back in, because it’s a thing again. That brings more people into the city who are going out in the city. That turns into restaurants.
AG: Do you think we compare pretty well to other cities at this point?
CD: I think we are well on our way. We have a lot of farm-to-table places now, places that are thinking more “terroir.” Considering our size, I think we compare well to our closest competitors.
JG: There are also a lot of new ethnic choices that didn’t exist five years ago.
AG: Is there anything that makes us stand out?
Marc Adler: I’ve had customers who aren’t from here tell me Buffalo dining is all about the neighborhoods. Whether it’s Hertel or Allentown or Elmwood or Larkinville, we have these neighborhoods that people find and say, “This is really cool. I can go to a few places here.”
JG: At Oshun, we get a lot of business travelers, because it’s convenient to the hotels. The vast majority of them are sort of amazed at Buffalo. I was talking to a banker who travels something like 200 days a year. He said, “I have to be honest, I was not looking forward to coming to Buffalo for the week. Then I came, I ate five great meals, walked around downtown. This is really happening here.”
MA: One recent customer said to me, “In the city, you don’t find the chains. You get locally owned establishments.” That doesn’t happen everywhere.
CD: I don’t think we’re ever going to break that stigma of wings and weck. That’s OK. But when people do come here, it’s the experiences they’re having at all these places that sets us apart. We do a better job than a lot of places I’ve traveled to. We give better customer service, we’re friendlier, and that supersedes the one food or restaurant we might be known for.
AG: What do you think we’re still missing or could use more of?
CD: I’ve got an old one: a better distribution chain to simplify the process of getting produce from farms to restaurants.
DH: We could all say that ride-sharing is needed.
JG: The development of more neighborhood restaurants. You’re starting to see Black Rock make this resurgence. Some of the other older areas could use something like that.
DH: And yet I’m a firm believer in the bars that have been there for 50 years. I would hate to see those replaced by restaurants. I would like to see a little bit of both. Brick Bar and The Pink have been here for 30-plus years, and I’m this 25-seat restaurant immediately across the street that is the polar opposite. The Dapper Goose in Black Rock, a gorgeous little new place with a great menu, is immediately across from Casey’s, which has been there forever.
AG: Not to rain on the parade, but do you ever wonder how long this growth can last? Like maybe there’s a restaurant bubble?
CD: I think there is, and it’s country-wide. I was just visiting Hawaii and it’s the same thing: a ton of restaurants opening, and they’re struggling to find trained employees.
DH: I think the same forces that created this restaurant buzz, which Jim mentioned earlier and which are a good thing—the Food Network and everything—has a flip side. More places are trying to do more because people are expecting more. It becomes a hamster wheel, and with the media, the pressure is constant.
CD: We were talking about the difference more educated customers are making, but operators have to be more educated too. The bubble is going to affect people stuck in the stone age of restaurants who can’t adapt.
AG: And even then, you can do everything right, get all the right stuff in your coolers and all the right people working for you, and then it snows.
DH: Actually, when you run a restaurant in a residential neighborhood, snow nights can turn out pretty well. Those people eating at the bar? They’re not going to go to Wegmans in a snowstorm, and we’re there for them.
Marc Adler (MA ’83, MBA ’82, BA ’79) helped bring poutine (that’s gravy-and-cheese-drenched french fries, for the uninitiated) over the border from Canada to Allentown—specifically, to Allen Street Poutine Company— and upped its game with a variety of inventive toppings. A second location, Hertel Avenue Poutine & Cream, brought something sweet into the mix.
Chris Dorsaneo (BS ’03) co-founded Lloyd Taco, the progenitor of Buffalo’s food-truck boom, in 2010. Now with four trucks, a catering operation, two brick-and-mortar locations (one on Hertel Avenue and another opening this summer in Williamsville) and a soft-serve ice cream annex, Lloyd has become a Buffalo mainstay for fun yet wholesome street-style eats.
Jim Guarino (BA ’93) worked at his family’s Coffee Bean Café in University Heights before transforming it into Shango Bistro and Wine Bar in 2005, a neighborhood hotspot featuring upscale New Orleans-style fare. His downtown seafood house, Oshun, opened in 2014. [Ed. note: At press time, we learned that Guarino closed Oshun to focus on Shango.]
Dan Hagen (BS ’14), a longtime Buffalo bartender, opened Billy Club with a partner in 2016. The small but savvy Allentown eatery (whose name recalls the building’s history as an illegal speakeasy during Prohibition) specializes in creative takes on traditional bar food, custom craft cocktails and a surprising selection of canned microbrews.