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Exploring Buffalo: An art and food hot spot

What to do, where to eat and stay in this welcoming city on Lake Erie, all year-round.

Michelle Brent of Buffalo and Gianna Duguay of

Michelle Brent of Buffalo and Gianna Duguay of North Tonawanda, N.Y., eat at Root and Bloom Cafe in Buffalo. Photo Credit: For The Washington Post/Libby March

Ever since Johnny Carson made a running gag of the Blizzard of '77, Buffalo has been famous for its snow. The sports-loving city embraces the cold with activities such as ice skating and curling, but it also celebrates summer on its glistening Lake Erie waterfront. Buffalo is now a year-round hot spot. Here's a guide to the city's attractions, whatever the season.

WHAT TO DO

Local favorites. Buffalo's workaday ethic runs straight into its cultural and artistic flair in an unlikely spot: Silo City (silocity.com). The cluster of massive grain elevators stands on a gravelly lot along the once-overpolluted Buffalo River. Owner Rick Smith, a metal magnate, tried to start an ethanol business on the property before giving it over to art exhibitions and poetry readings. Today, it's creative enough that visual artist Nick Cave is basing himself there for a yearlong Buffalo residency. A bar and restaurant, Duende (duendesilocity.com), serves unique fare like vegetarian eggplant "wings."

Across the Buffalo River is a set of grain elevators with a different vibe, as evidenced by the half-dozen silos painted ultramarine like a six-pack of Labatt Blue. RiverWorks (buffaloriverworks.com) has a lot going on. In the warmer months, the complex is a boat-up brewery and restaurant that people can approach by water; powerboats, kayaks and kitschy floating tiki bars now dock along the recently cleaned-up river. A fresh zip-line course operates in the warmer months, and matchups in roller derby, ice hockey and martial arts happen at different times of the year.

Guidebook musts. Frank Lloyd Wright dotted the Midwest (and beyond) with his signature Prairie Style homes, but the Darwin D. Martin House (martinhouse.org) stands out as an early Wright masterwork. Bracingly modern and low-slung, the mansion spreads wide across a grand lawn amid the tall, prim, closely spaced Victorians of Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood. The house recently underwent a $50 million renovation, including a showpiece mosaic hearth, and a total landscape restoration will bloom come warm weather.

The smart money (some $155 million of it) might tell you to wait a couple of years to see the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (albrightknox.org) at its best. The modern and contemporary art museum is just beginning a dramatic expansion and will be re-christened the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. The Albright-Knox already holds a collection that rivals the Guggenheim's, with masterworks by Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keefe, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. A highlight of any tour is Nancy Rubins' wild outdoor suspension of 60-plus metal canoes on a pole, titled "Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here." 

WHERE TO EAT

Local Favorites. The antithesis to chowing down on all those chicken wings might be Buffalo's ethereal new vegan cafe, Root and Bloom (rootandbloomcafe.com). The macramé art of the '70s meets millennial pink walls in the dreamy, plant-filled interior space. Married duo Sarah Sendlebeck and James Ernst opened Root and Bloom last May; they offer a brunchy menu that includes jalapeño cornbread taco waffles and a "Rueben has" made with beet-brined seitan.

Chef Gonzalez's Buffalo spot, Las Puertas (laspuertas-buffalo.com), recently got him nominated for a James Beard Award for his next-level Mexican cuisine. The space, in a former home on Buffalo's diverse West Side, is mostly white and stark. Yet the welcome is familial; Parrilla's mother and sister help staff it. The food is as inventive as you'd imagine from a chef who had worked at Montreal's famous Au Pied de Cochon. We understood what to expect from "fall-spice brined chicken" and "brown-butter-roasted squash," but we didn't grasp what camote tetelas were. They turned out to be a kind of sweet-potato pastry with a soft almond crust, and the phrase "mezcal-laced coconut cream" told us just how decadent they'd be.

Guidebook Musts. The new Buffalo Wing Trail (visitbuffaloniagara.com) includes 12 classic spots for gnawing on Buffalo's immortal gift to the food gods. My pick is Duff's, at the original Sheridan Drive location. We sat under a 1946 black-and-white image showing when the place was the Sheridan Patio, a weed-edged stand for hamburgers and hot dogs. At the next table, visiting Pennsylvania college student Joshua Wanek went big by sampling his first-ever wing. "I didn't really have a bar to compare it to," he said. "The bar has been set. This is the bar."

The Erie Canal that ushered in Buffalo's heyday was derided early in its existence as New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton's "big ditch." Big Ditch Brewing (bigditchbrewing.com) swims in that history from its roaring downtown brewery. After launching in 2014, Big Ditch quickly won the Tap NY cup for Best Craft Brewery in New York state, and the taproom became a must-stop. 

WHERE TO STAY

Local favorite. The facts on the Hotel at the Lafayette (thehotellafayette.com): The masterwork of the country's first certified female architect, Louise Blanchard Bethune, was restored to its Art Moderne glory as one of Buffalo's first comeback-hotel projects. The building now hosts a brewery, lofts, shops, restaurants and countless weddings. My fresh opinion: The bright new space occupied by the coffee shop and all-day cafe Public Espresso (plus) Coffee has made the hotel one of the most energized spots in town. Inhale the rich scent of the beans roasted and the English muffins baked on-site and prepare, as I did, to get on line.

Guidebook must. The Hotel Henry (hotelhenry.com), an imposing double-towered building by architect H.H. Richardson, was once a psychiatric institution. Now, with the extra-wide corridors and flood of natural light recommended for patients back then, it's become a trendy "urban resort" for hotel guests today. The hotel was named one of 2018's three best preservation projects in the country by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

WHERE TO EXPLORE

Local favorites. Buffalo's former Little Italy business strip, Hertel Avenue, has been diversifying lately, with Caribbean and Middle Eastern immigrants opening restaurants, and trendy ice cream and taco joints setting up shop. Jumbled antiques shops sit alongside pricey designer-run home furniture stores, and classic dive bars near sleek cocktail lounges. Our ramble was pepped up by fresh public art along the avenue. 

Guidebook must. Laced with ample green parkways drawn out by landscape architect and Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Elmwood Village may be the most graceful neighborhood in Buffalo. We gawked at its painted-lady Victorian houses, whose ample porches seem to beckon visitors. The neighborhood's long main street, Elmwood Avenue, peddles products from books and toys to coffee and beer to — this being Buffalo — fleece. 

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