Shuffle No More
Buffalo -- yes, Buffalo -- is now walking proud as a hip center of arts and performances. Plus, it's a cheap flight.
By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2003; Page C02
The gumbo was thick and delicious.
The kind my grandmother would make, if only she could afford to stock it
with so much sausage and shrimp.
And where was this
enticing bowl of gumbo? Buffalo -- a much-maligned city about 1,300 miles
from my Louisiana home town that I never thought I'd have any reason to be
in. Maybe I feared getting snowed in, even in July. Which sounds silly, yes
-- but I had heard rumors.
I was on my way back from Toronto, which I visit a lot because
my boyfriend lives there. I fly to Buffalo, then take a bus to downtown Toronto,
a "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" scheme that sometimes saves me hundreds
of dollars. In this case, on my way back to Washington, it also gave me about
four hours to entertain myself . . . in Buffalo. (Which by the way isn't
named after the shaggy beast. The city's name comes courtesy of early French
explorers, who fittingly dubbed the Niagara "Beau Fleuve," or beautiful river.)
I left the bus station and headed toward the tall buildings.
My first impression of Buffalo: inspiring architecture. Well, except the
public library, for which the designers should issue a public apology. For
penance, they should have to build three more like the gorgeous art deco
A five-minute walk led me to Main Street and the theater district.
The light rail runs along Main, and it appears to carry more traffic than
Sadly, the majority of the retail space on the bottom floors
of those grand multistory buildings, mostly home to banks and international
investment concerns, is empty. It was 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, and
the place was dead. I headed into the only spot that was open, taking a seat
at the bar of the Ya Ya Bayou Brewhouse. While I enjoyed my gumbo, a mammoth
muffuletta and several pints of locally brewed beer, the restaurant began
to fill up.
Students and professors from the University at Buffalo streamed
in. To my right, three grant writers discussed strategies for funding a theater
project. Behind me, a professor vented his frustrations with plagiarism in
the Internet Age. It was a lively crowd. I stepped out on Main Street at
about 6 o'clock to see hundreds of people milling around, queuing up for
shows at one of the half-dozen or so theaters within those few blocks.
Full of good food and probably a little too much beer, I was smitten with Buffalo.
A few weeks later, I returned. This time, just for Buffalo.
No side trips to Toronto, or even Niagara Falls, which is only a half-hour
away by bus or car. I stayed at the Hyatt downtown and vowed to see the city
by rail and foot. I didn't bother asking any of the dozens of people I know
who grew up in Upstate New York where I should go. They all claim to hate
Buffalo. Asking that bunch of Buffalo-bashers for guidance would be like
asking your new boyfriend's ex-wife how he likes to spend Sunday afternoons.
I would learn about Buffalo on my own -- or at least take advice only from
people who lived there.
My first stop was the brew pub I visited before. The bartender,
Johnny, remembered me. See, this is what I like in a town. I thumbed through
ArtVoice, the city's free weekly, looking for a way to fill the hours before
the Steve Earle concert that night, the only part of my trip I had planned
It didn't take long. Carol Adams was in town, hosting a book
signing at Talking Leaves, an indie bookworm's dream near UB's north campus.
About 10 people gathered to meet the influential ecofeminist writer, who
had just published "The Pornography of Meat." While Adams's writing is not
the sort of stuff I'd generally choose for vacation reading, I couldn't pass
up a chance to meet her: This was a fairly rare public appearance. Adams,
who now lives in Dallas, grew up near Buffalo and had scheduled the discussion
during a visit home. I hopped the quick, cheap light rail back to the theater
district just in time to run upstairs and catch the first notes of the Earle
show at the Tralf, one of the city's many venues for live music.
I'd seen Earle play roughly a half-dozen times, mostly in
Washington, but I'd never seen him greeted by such an enthusiastic crowd.
Indeed, when he sang about being "a union man" in "Harlan Man," the mostly
blue-collar male audience broke into cheers.
Other than alt-country, the only other thing I really need
to be happy is coffee. I found it the next morning at Spot Coffee on Delaware,
a couple of blocks from my hotel. The little chain serves as western New
York's Starbucks. And I'd say they make a better mocha. Properly caffeinated,
I headed out, following a map a helpful Talking Leaves clerk drew for me.
I walked 10 minutes to Allentown, a funky neighborhood that
reminded me of a quieter version of Philadelphia's South Street. Need a tattoo?
A secondhand copy of Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch"? A place to test
your new earplugs on screeching punk rock? This is it.
I spent most of the morning wandering in and out of the eclectic
shops along Allen Street, including the very hip, very helpful Rust Belt
Elmwood Avenue, which also runs through Allentown, is home
to many of the city's galleries and upscale shops. I ducked into Uncommon
Grounds for a healthy lunch (no Buffalo wings!) and spent the afternoon moseying
up the avenue, mostly window shopping.
After doing some real shopping at Don Apparel, a vintage clothing
store, I headed back downtown to meet my boyfriend at the bus station and
pick up our last-minute theater tickets. Pre-show, we filled our wing consumption
quota at Hemingway's and sipped wine at Bacchus, a new tapas bar that seems
a little too slick (and expensive) for comfortably shabby Chippewa Street.
"The Full Monty" at Shea's Performing Arts Center was top-notch.
The movie, about unemployed English steelworkers who turn to stripping, was
reset in Buffalo in Terrence McNally's American stage version.
The audience was filled with college students, facetiously
bored teenagers and blue-haired ladies (one of whom unironically made a snide
remark about my own hair, which was dyed pink). They all cheered wildly at
the play's finale, chanting "Buffalo boys go all the way!," goading the male
actors to the play's, um, revealing conclusion.
The real star, though, was Shea's itself. The interior, dating
back to 1926 and designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, is breathtaking. Nonprofit
efforts to restore the theater to its former glory, including refurbishing
the 15-foot Tiffany crystal chandeliers, are impressive.
After the show, we joined the other theater patrons spilling
into the bars on Chippewa Street. We found one with an Irish name on the
sign, bad '80s music piped through the speakers and cheap drafts at the bar.
The perfect end to my visit.
So it turns out that Buffalo's got more than piles of snow
and spicy chicken wings. It also has character and spunk, plus four Frank
Lloyd Wright houses and a park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted,
which I didn't have time to visit.
I'm already planning my next layover.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Buffalo
for as little as $49 each way on Southwest, if you catch the airline's "fun
fares" specials. The 20-minute cab ride downtown costs nearly $25. A better
deal is the 204, a bus that makes the trip in the same amount of time for
GETTING AROUND: Excellent bus and light rail systems
make a car unnecessary if you're sticking to the city. Get bus and rail maps
and schedules at www.nfta.com/metro. Light rail is free to riders in the theater district.
THE ART: Surprise! Art and performances are the
best reasons to visit Buffalo. For gallery and theater listings, check the
city's free weekly, ArtVoice, www.artvoice.com. Some promising examples: Shea's Performing Arts Center (646 Main St., 716-847-0850, www.sheas.org), for first-run musicals, opera, dance and concerts; Albright Knox Art Gallery (1285 Elmwood Ave., 716-882-8700, www.albrightknox.org), for mostly postwar American and European art; Kleinhans Music Hall (370 Pennsylvania St., 800-699-3168, www.bpo.org), home of the Buffalo Philharmonic; and the Tralf (622 Main St., 716-851- 8725, www.tralf.com), for live music from jazz to jams.
STAYING: The Mansion on Delaware Avenue (414 Delaware Ave., 716-886-3300, www.mansionondelaware.com)is downtown and swank; package deals start at $135 a night. Rooms can be hard to come by. The Hyatt (2
Fountain Plaza, 716-856-1234, about $100 a night) is scruffy by usual Hyatt
standards but is very convenient to theater attractions.
EATING: The Anchor Bar (1047 Main St), which claims to be the original home of Buffalo wings; Ya Ya Bayou Brewhouse (617 Main St.), where Cajun entrees average $15; and Bacchus (56 W. Chippewa St.), a tapas and wine bar, with dishes about $8.
INFO: Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-BUFFALO, www.buffalocvb.org.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company