BUFFALO, N.Y. — “I’m a journalist and I’m writing a travel article about how to spend a weekend in Buffalo.” With those words, I had managed to disarm a U.S. border guard, a young man who immediately stepped back from my car and took a seat on the stool inside his booth. He placed a hand on his shaved head and then swiped it down across his perspiring face.
“You’re going to say good things about the city, right?” he asked without any hint of authority. It was more of a plea.
“I have every intention of being fair,” I answered.
“Have you been to Buffalo before?” He fingered through my passport but didn’t appear all that interested in it.
“Just for hockey games and a couple of concerts a long time ago.”
“What are you going to be doing?” Having collected himself, he stood and once again walked closer to the car.
“The tourism board gave me some suggestions …”
That seemed to worry him. He became more concerned with who the tourism board might be and what potentially lame itinerary they’d set up than with the line of cars waiting to cross the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge on Friday night. “So, where are you going to be staying?”
“The Mansion on Delaware,” I said, totally delighted at this point that I’d found some warmth in a situation that can often be cold and without humanity.
“Good, good, that’s a good start.” He leaned in and tapped a thumb on the roof of the car while I searched for the agenda. “What else? Where’ve they got you going?”
“Dinner at Tempo …”
“Never been there, but heard good things. What else?”
“The Albright-Knox Gallery …”
“Ok, sure. Good. And?”
“A Spirit of Buffalo cruise, Shakespeare in the Park, drinks at some bars.”
“Oh, yeah.” That last bit crossed into familiar terrain for him and he asked, “Which ones?”
“Allen Street Hardware Café …”
“Yeah, so-so, in my opinion. You’re in Allentown, good area, but you should head up to Elmwood and Forest, and try Hertel.”
“There’s lots to do. I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head right now, though.”
“That’s ok. I’ve got a lot planned.”
“Buffalo doesn’t have a very good reputation.”
“I have to stand up for my city,” he said and handed back my passport. “Have a good time. Write something good about it.”
That ended the best conversation I’ve ever had at a border crossing and began a weekend in Buffalo full of charming encounters such as this.
For those of us in southern Ontario, picking on Buffalo and Buffalonians has been our guilty pleasure. We’ve laughed while fate dumps a torrent of snow on them; we’ve snickered at their failures, exchanging enough “wide right” jokes to keep us going straight on with our bias; and we’ve used their serious misfortunes — high crime rate, low prosperity — to make us feel superior about ourselves and where we live. It’s not very neighbourly, let alone Canadian.
I’ve done it, too often making fun of the city and — as I discovered this weekend — doing so without ever really getting to know it.
My previous experiences in Buffalo were always for an event: a hockey game, concert or wedding. I never lingered or explored. The routine was the Anchor Bar for chicken wings or a couple of beers at one of the tacky clubs on rowdy Chippewa Street and then back over the border in a bus or on to the hotel for the reception or party.
This time, I got to know the place and the people. Turns out, they like us, and they really want you, Toronto, to like them. Give them a chance and you will.
Check in at the Mansion on Delaware, a beautiful boutique hotel in a historic property with a complimentary cocktail hour nightly from 5-7 p.m. and free Land Rover shuttle service anywhere in the city up to midnight. Park the car and the staff will be happy to take you around and pick you up. It’s a terrific amenity and you’ll use it to go to the Darwin Martin House (a reconstructed Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece nearing completion) and the wonderfully rich Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Head to the Elmwood Village area, filled with recently opened shops and cafes, and take in the friendly, welcoming atmosphere that’s sure to tinker with your perception of the city. If you really want to be impressed, drop in on the year-old Blue Monk, which has an awesome beer list that includes 32 draft choices from Belgium wheats to Quebec ales to award-winning U.S. microbrews and loads of bottles, including more good stuff from places like Goose Island in Illinois that we can’t find in Canada.
For fine dining, go to Tempo, considered one of the best restaurants in the city, and hope chef Paul Jenkins is around to keep you laughing. Tempo’s wine list is fantastic, with more than 300 bottles and at reasonable prices for the quality. The 2007 California Pinot Noir options are particularly excellent.
For just a good time, head to the corner of Allen and College streets, near Elmwood Avenue. You’ll find bars with great music and down-to-earth people. I never made it to Hertel Avenue, the spot the border guard talked up, but I wasn’t disappointed in the places I ventured into.
When I told friends I was going to Buffalo for the weekend, they laughed and so did I. Facing a headache of a drive down the QEW on Friday night, I also had regrets. We were finally having a great weekend of weather and Toronto was spilling over with amazing activities: Luminato, the Taste of Little Italy, NXNE, the Wine and Spirit Festival. I told myself that Buffalo would pass the grade if I went there and it kept me interested and entertained enough to avert any longing for Toronto on the weekend.
To my surprise, it did. I had a blast and was amazed by the city’s stunning architecture, much of it built more than a century ago, when it was one of the wealthiest places in the world, with more millionaires than anywhere in the U.S.
Most of all, though, I was charmed by Buffalonians themselves. When I checked out of the Mansion, Genna, one of the young staff members, asked, “So, is Toronto going to like Buffalo?”
The sweetness in that question gets to your heart. Just about everyone I met in Buffalo wanted to know what I thought of the city, seeming genuinely hopeful it was leaving a good impression and also appearing to brace themselves for a smug Canadian dig. I’d encountered a similar insecurity in South Africa last year, as that country was preparing to host the World Cup amid ignorant charges that it wasn’t worthy or equipped in any way to cater to Brits, Germans and the French. South Africa wowed us all and is now viewed as a top destination on the planet.
Buffalo isn’t thinking so big as capturing the respect of the globe. Right now, it just wants you to stop picking on it and start coming over to say hi.
I want to believe that’ll happen, that writing sincerely about what I experienced will encourage one or two Canadians to give it a try. But we’ve got a prejudice against Buffalo that’s deep-rooted and that’s so not our nature. I actually felt like a Buffalonian when I crossed back over the border and spoke to a Canadian guard who asked what I did for the weekend.
“I’m writing an article on Buffalo as a travel destination,” I answered.
“What’s that? You’re writing an article on Buffalo as a terrible destination?” he said, leaning his ear closer from out of his booth.
“No, as a travel destination.”
“Oh, I must’ve had a Freudian slip,” he said, and went on to recall how his cop friends in Buffalo report that the city is so awful there are parts drivers shouldn’t even stop for red lights. While that may be true, it’s also not the full story of Buffalo. Far from it. There are more good parts than bad and lots more genuine kindness than you’d expect. It’s a fun and attractive place to spend a weekend — and that’s no joke.