Talk about a place with low self-esteem.
The city of Buffalo, whose name suggests oxen and whose dominant winter acces-sory is the snowbank, isn't big on promotion.
Grab a taxi outside the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and ask the driver, "Say, what's there to do in Buffalo?"
"Go to Niagara Falls" is probably what you'll hear.
Never mind that Niagara Falls isn't in Buffalo -- half of it isn't even in this country.
Reasonable people from more southerly climates might ask, Why visit Buffalo, especially in the dead of winter?
The answer is the billboard on I-95 in Baltimore advertising Southwest Airlines' new nonstop service from BWI -- $44 each way (prices have since climbed to $46).
Why Buffalo? At these prices, why not?
I asked my friend Stacey to join me for an adventure. She didn't share my conviction that western New York would make for an exciting winter weekend, but she agreed to go anyway. We were determined to have fun -- and we had no plans to see Niagara Falls.
It's not easy to get the goods on Buffalo when Buffalonians seem conditioned to send tourists northward. We couldn't even get a straight answer from people about how the city got its name.
But if you're persistent, you will discover the city's world-class architecture and its five homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. You will discover the Albright-Knox Gallery's outstanding collection of modern art. And maybe most importantly, you will discover that the Buffalo wing was invented here, and continues to carry on a grand and spicy tradition.
It was 33 degrees and snowing when we landed at the airport on a Friday night in January, and we learned it had snowed every day for the past three weeks. Neither Stacey nor I is a cold-weather person. Stacey recently moved to Baltimore from North Carolina. I spent the '90s in Florida.
There were huge snowbanks on the side of the road, and it looked as though only decades of global warming could melt them.
We asked our taxi driver about the snow.
"We've had over 100 inches this year," he said. Most of it was from a blizzard Nov. 20 that dumped 2 feet of snow on the city and required the National Guard to dig everyone out.
The driver had a little wooden buffalo affixed to his dashboard. He told us he moved here from India 15 years ago. I figured he knew the area pretty well.
So I dropped the question: "What's there to do in Buffalo?"
"If you really want to do something," he said, "go to Niagara Falls. Ten minutes from here, you're in Canada."
"But what's there to do in Buffalo?" I asked.
He laughed. "Just stay in the hotel."
Fine points of Buffalo
This city of about 300,000 people -- roughly half the size of Baltimore -- once thrived on steel and other heavy industry. Now it's largely supported by auto-parts makers and the grain industry. General Mills has a major Cheerios cereal plant here.
The city is home to the University of Buffalo, a handful of Catholic universities, the Buffalo Bills football team and the Buffalo Sabres hockey team. The downtown area has interesting architecture, and its share of tall office buildings and hotels that make the snowdrifts look tiny, which is a feat.
The Hotel Lafayette on Washington Street was opened in 1904 in French Renaissance style designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune, a graduate of Buffalo University who is said to be America's first licensed female architect.
Nearby in Niagara Square, the main government hub, stands the McKinley Monument, a 62-foot white marble obelisk dedicated in 1907 to President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 while attending the Pan-American Exposition here.
Next door is Buffalo City Hall, an impressive 30-story 1931 art deco building with ornate decoration. There is also the 22-story Liberty Building on Main Street, built in 1925 to house the Liberty Bank of Buffalo. Twin statues of Liberty crown the building and are replicas of the original in the New York Harbor. Their torches, we were told, once blinked at night but had to be extinguished because they interfered with air traffic control.
We were staying at the 486-room Adam's Mark hotel on Church Street downtown, not far from the Peace bridge, which connects Buffalo to Canada. I picked the place because it was $79 a night.
When we got to the check-in desk, it was so quiet we found ourselves whispering. The clerk told us the hotel was 15 percent full.
We asked Bradd, the twenty-something bellhop, to call us a taxi. He scurried off and before we knew it, he pulled around front with the Adam's Mark van.
When things are slow, he told us, the hotel offers free shuttles. As it turned out, it was so slow that the Adam's Mark bellhops would be our personal chauffeurs all weekend, for free. Points for Buffalo.
We asked Bradd to take us to the nearby entertainment district on Chippewa Street. It's a wide street filled with lively bars, jazz clubs, cafes, restaurants and street vendors selling $2 hot dogs and pizza next to the snowbanks.
Despite an 85-percent vacancy at the hotel, there was a lot of action on Chippewa Street, and young people everywhere were scurrying from bar to bar. Many of them were college-age -- probably from the nearby University of Buffalo -- and in party mode, meaning women were wearing tank tops and short shirts under their coats, and many of the men weren't wearing jackets at all. The cold didn't seem to bother them. Maybe it was the alcohol.
Bradd dropped us at the Calumet, a jazz club, bar and restaurant. The Calumet building, built in 1906 in an art nouveau style, was closed for years, and reopened as a restaurant and bar in 1990. It was the pioneer in the revival of seedy Chippewa Street, now the center of Buffalo's nightlife.
Urban-looking and hip with exposed brick walls, the Calumet was a good introduction to the city. There were some couples and families eating at the restaurant. A few of the moms were either wearing or toting snow boots.
Later, as midnight approached, the place was packed. We sat at the bar and chatted with a bartender named Mike. We told him we were visiting -- for no other reason than to get to know Buffalo. We were not going to Niagara Falls, we said.
At first he didn't believe us, then he put a shot glass down in front of both of us, which meant he would give us a free drink when we were ready. Mike said the bars didn't close until 4 a.m. More points for Buffalo.
He told us we should try some of the city's coffee shops and go to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. And he told us we had to taste sponge candy, a chocolate-covered Buffalo specialty.
Mike said that Buffalo got its name from the French who settled here in the 1700s. They saw the Niagara River, he said, and named the place beau fleuve -- beautiful flowing river. (It's pronounced boh, like the Baltimore beer, and fluv, which isn't like any English word I know. The closest I can think of is love with an f in the front.)
The name stuck, and somehow mutated into Buffalo, he explained. Now, everywhere you look in the city, there are replicas of bison in various forms, hanging out in shops, bars and street corners.
The beau fleuve theory made sense to us, but we decided to get a second opinion.
We asked two native Buffalonians sitting next to us. They had never heard of the beau fleuve theory.
Outside, it was less than 20 degrees, and there were puddles of dirty, slushy snow on the street and sidewalk, which made for wet walking.
After the Calumet, the next best spot was Barristers because it had a fireplace. It was decorated with huge velvet chairs, leather couches and red drapes. There was a life-sized plastic buffalo in the fireplace room with a mustache, hat and glasses.
By the time we stumbled back to the hotel about 2 a.m., we had decided the people were all right in Buffalo.
A tour in the snow
In the morning, we went to the bellhop stand, hoping the van wasn't being used.
We met a bellhop named Jeff, who said he'd be happy to take us to Broadway Market, which we had read about online.
The market is a bustling open space with stalls selling meats, produce, sandwiches, candy, jewelry and knick-knacks. It reminded us of a small version of Baltimore's Lexington market. It's the kind of place where you can get half a bologna sandwich for $2.75.
Jeff said he'd wait while we shopped. I bought a pair of fur-lined black gloves for $5, then Jeff took us through the Allentown Art District, where there were antiques shops, art galleries and colorful, quaint houses with inviting wooden porches.
We decided against a guided tour of the Martin House Complex and other Frank Lloyd Wright homes, but they're available if you call ahead for reservations.
Did I mention it was snowing?
We also drove by Delaware Avenue, once christened "Millionaires' Row," which is still lined with stately turn-of-the-20th-century mansions, many converted into restaurants, apartments, corporate offices and shops.
Jeff explained that Buffalo was once a thriving Rust Belt town and that the city was anchored by Bethlehem Steel. When the plant closed 25 years ago, some 30,000 people left the city, and it never recovered from the blow, he said.
We told him Baltimore also lost a lot of industry but has flowed with the times, and old factories have been converted to dot-com offices and apartments.
Buffalo is still waiting for that, Jeff said.
We asked him how Buffalo got its name.
"One thing's for sure, the buffalo never roamed here," he said. "I think it came from the white men who came here. They met an Indian who they thought reminded them of a buffalo because he was big and strong."
We were on our way to Solid Grounds on Elmwood Avenue, a cozy coffee shop with hardwood floors and funky art hanging from the walls. Some of the ceiling tiles were painted in bright colors by local artists.
After a relaxing breakfast, we walked up the street and stopped at Sweet Tooth to try sponge candy, which we found out is not exclusive to Buffalo, although the city seems to have taken it as its own. In the airport and hotel tourist shops, you will find bags of sponge candy for sale next to wing sauce and little chocolates shaped like bison.
We bought four pieces for $1.04. It was hard, not soft like a wet sponge, and disappointing. It was supposed to melt in your mouth. Instead, it got stuck in our teeth.
We spent the rest of the day shopping along Elmwood Avenue in the snow, trying to avoid the drifts. The street has a Pier 1 Imports, some small jewelry and gift shops and several antiques stores.
Also on Elmwood is Benjamin's Art Gallery, a delightful, three- story converted house that has modern and classical paintings, drawings and decorated objects covering all available wall space and some of the floor. Even the bathroom on the second floor was packed with art.
As we walked around the city, we noticed life-size buffalo statues everywhere, which we later learned were part of a citywide art contest to raise money for charity. New York City and Chicago had similar contests with cows.
We ended up at Spot Coffee, a 24-hour coffee shop that has fantastic coffee-themed murals painted on the walls. We were booted out 15 minutes after we got there because of an employee staff meeting. None of the customers was happy about it, especially the men in the corner playing chess. Some of them walked across the street to Starbucks.
That Buffalo taste
That night, it was time to try Buffalo wings. Bradd took us in the van to the bar where wings were said to have been invented.
Frank and Teressa's Anchor Bar, on Main Street, is a down-home place with dark wood, neon signs, anchors hanging everywhere and a friendly wait staff. There were lots of people eating wings.
The menu says that in 1964, Teressa was in the kitchen and her husband Frank was in the restaurant greeting people. Their son "Rooster" came into the restaurant with a group of hungry friends. Teressa came out of the kitchen with two plates of chicken wings, ready to put them in a stock pot for soup.
It was a shame to put such beautiful wings in a stock pot, she declared, and told Rooster and his friends to dig in. The rest is history.
Teressa and Frank have since passed away, but the business has stayed in the family. Anchor Bar now ships wings and sauce all over the world.
Former Buffalo mayor Stanley M. Makowski proclaimed Friday, July 29, 1977, as "Chicken Wing Day" because "The city of Buffalo was the first city in the United States in which 'Chicken Wings' were sold as a tasty snack food in and of themselves."
Stacey is a vegetarian, so I was in charge of the wings. I ordered 10, medium-hot. When the waitress set them in front of us, they smelled so good that Stacey reached out and grabbed one. I couldn't believe it.
We scarfed them down fast -- the waitress must have thought we had been on a starvation diet. I looked over at Stacey, who hadn't eaten meat in months, and noticed a smirk on her face.
I guess it was the sauce.
We also ate mozzarella sticks and drank beer and hung out at the bar talking to friendly Buffalonians.
One guy told us he thought Buffalo got its name because bison used to roam the land.
Hmmm. That's not what Jeff said.
(We settled the name issue later, when we called the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Beau fleuve is the theory we use most often," said Mary Summers, communications director. "It's the most agreed-upon, and the most romantic.")
Are you reading that?
Our last day in Buffalo, we went to the Albright-Knox Gallery on Elmwood Avenue. This was the best thing Buffalo had to offer, even considering the wings.
We wandered around the mu-seum for hours, delighted at the whimsical, wacky artwork. We found pieces by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. There was a pastel Marilyn Monroe-esque Warhol painting of a serious-looking Seymour H. Knox, the patron for whom the gallery is named.
Most memorable was the Mirror Room, an 8-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, 10-foot-tall room made of mirrors. You must take off your shoes to enter this piece of art, and, inside, you feel as though you're in a carnival funhouse.
After the Albright-Knox, we made our way to the Fountain Plaza near Chippewa Street, for some ice skating. In the summer it's a reflecting pool surrounded by office buildings; in the winter it's an ice rink. It's pleasantly crowded on Sunday, and skate rentals cost $2 before 2 p.m. Lively music adds to the fun atmosphere.
Later, to escape the snow, we settled into a comfortable couch at Spot Coffee and bought the Buffalo News and the New York Times. (During the weekend, we had learned that Samuel Clemens -- better known as Mark Twain -- was the editor of a Buffalo paper in the 1870s.)
As we sipped our coffee and noshed on giant cookies, a steady stream of people approached us and asked if we were finished with our newspapers. One woman asked twice. We heard another couple talking about our papers and eyeing them. We finally gave our funnies to a guy who asked for them.
Strange. Or maybe not. Maybe friendly newspaper poaching is a Buffalo thing, like wings and sponge candy and bison statues and upside-down shot glasses and beck-and-call bellhops.
With all that, who needs Niagara Falls?
AN IDEAL DAY
9:30 a.m.: Start your day with breakfast at Solid Ground. As you sip your coffee, check out the decorated ceiling tiles.
10:30 a.m.: Walk along Elmwood Avenue, try sponge candy, browse the art galleries and antiques shops. Sidestep the snow drifts.
1 p.m.: Visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and wander through room after room of whimsical modern art.
3:30 p.m.: Take a spin around the ice skating rink at Rotary Rink in Fountain Plaza. Work up an appetite for wings.
7 p.m.: Have a hearty plate of Buffalo wings (vegetarians welcome) and a beer at Frank and Teressa's Anchor Bar. Be sure to read the entire menu, which offers plenty of Buffalo wing history and chicken trivia.
10 p.m.: Stop in the Calumet on Chippewa Street to listen to jazz music in a hip, urban setting. Glance out the window and check out the partyers running from bar to bar wearing summer-like clothes or no jackets. Cold weather does not get in their way. They are Buffalonians.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: Southwest Airlines offers $46 fares each way from Baltimore to Buffalo. Buy seven days in advance, or they'll tack on an extra $21 each way. US Airways also has cheap fares, $51.75 each way with seven-day advance purchase ($19 extra for last-minute buyers). Be advised, though, that these are all subject to change without notice.
Adam's Mark Buffalo, 120 Church St.
Online: www.adamsmark.com / buffalo
Rates: Weekend special, $79
A comfortable, conventional hotel located near shops and restaurants
Beau Fleuve Bed and Breakfast Inn, 242 Linwood Ave.
Rates: $75 to $125, includes breakfast; five rooms available
A short walk from Elmwood Avenue's antiques shops, boutiques and restaurants
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays
Cost: $4 adults, $3 students and seniors; free admission Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The museum has one of the finest collections of modern art in the country.
Frank and Teressa's Anchor Bar, 1047 Main St.
Home of the original Buffalo wing
Rotary Rink, Fountain Plaza, downtown, just past Chippewa and Main Street
Free ice skating (rentals cost $2 before 2 p.m.)
Frank Lloyd Wright house tours
Tours run Saturday at 10 a.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. Group tours are available by reservation only.
Information: Buffalo Con- vention & Visitors Bureau, 617 Main St., Suite 400