The chicken wing is a great symbol of American hope. Every year, during the Super Bowl playoffs, well over a billion chicken wings are consumed in the U.S.A. It’s usually time to clasp one’s sticky, tangerine-tinted hands together and wish for a win. And the tradition makes perfect sense, not only are they fantastic finger food and perennial pal to the pint, but their very origin appears to angle on the American Dream. The tale goes, in 1964, Teressa Bellissimo, an Italian-American restaurateur at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, needed to cook a dish in a pinch for some impromptu customers. She used whatever was on-hand, taking leftover poultry—the cheap and highly underrated wings, at the time—frying them, and then tossing them in a buttery hot sauce, before serving them with blue cheese and celery.
The treasured quality of making something fantastic out of limited resources underlines Buffalo as the hot wing capital of the world, a destination now famous for its hot wing trail and wing-eating competitions. But when I arrived in Buffalo, back in 2021, I quickly realised hard times had hit the home of the hot wing.
The reasons for America’s chicken wing shortage and subsequent price increase, which peaked in 2021 and has continued into this year, are manifold: including previous oversupply, climate change, and pandemic-related labour shortages. Buffalo, the country’s premiere hot wing eating destination, has been dealt a rough blow through this period. Yet the price hike of wings is not the only problem the city is enduring. Walking around its downtown, I observed empty streets and abandoned buildings that pointed to Buffalo being one of America’s most rapidly shrinking cities; once a boomtown with a post-war population of nearly 600,000, these days that number has halved at well under 300,000, underscoring the city’s high unemployment rate. Google search Buffalo, and the results prompt the question, “Is Buffalo a dying city?”
I first dined at Anchor Bar—the popularised origin of the Buffalo hot wing —and I sipped beer with a couple who came for medical tourism, currently Buffalo’s largest out-of-towner draw after Niagara Falls. A large swathe of these medical institutes sit on the edge of Main Street, near Anchor Bar, and act as buffer zone between a largely black neighbourhood to the east and the more affluent commercial and residential, mostly white, area to the west: a sign of the sixth most segregated city in America. Many believe the legend of the hot wing plays into this legacy of disenfranchisement, with multiple credible local sources asserting the hot wing’s prominence in Buffalo was actually anchored by a black business owner named John Young— largely left out of the mainstream narrative.
But as I spent three days eating hot wings, three times a day, in other restaurants largely filled by locals, I found a sense of rugged optimism that I wasn’t expecting. As one hot wing-hawking bartender put it, “A lot of tourists ask about the weather here… I guess if you can survive the winter (here), you can get through a lot.” I couldn’t help but root for better days in Buffalo.
Two of the oldest and most famous hot wing joints in Buffalo, the original Anchor Bar and Duff’s, are also the most tourist-centered of the 14 joints on the hot wing trail; and they pale in comparison to the rest of the city’s ample options.
The city’s suburbs hold some of the best wings on the trail, and a big reason for that is their unique approach to making them. Mammoser’s, a 1940s-era tavern that lives in the refurbished bones of a 19th-century stable, char-broils their wings and doesn’t use butter, thus making a drier wing—not the meat but the sauce—and uses an in-house sauce that uses four different types of chillies. Another classic suburban spot serving superlative wings is Elmo’s, a plain-looking strip mall bar that opens up to a dark den decked out in dim neon signs and ice hockey insignia. They serve double-dipped wings, which means they are fried and sauced normally, but then are re-sauced and grilled. A popular choice are their blackened Cajun-style wings with a double-dipped add-on of honey mustard—though their regular hot wings are not to be missed either.
Allentown, a neighbourhood adjacent to Downtown Buffalo that features far more foot traffic, is another convenient place to grab wings in the city. Gabriel’s Gate, a 19th-century antique shop which was converted into a restaurant decades ago, is the place to go. In addition to the riot of taxidermied beasts and well-preserved brass ceilings, this eatery is often packed to the gills, serving some of the most scrumptious and classic hot wings in town. Nearby lies the Lenox Grill, a basement bar of the Lenox Hotel thought to have been a prohibition speakeasy. The Lenox Grill has one of the finest Belgian Beer selections in the country and also serves some of the most sought-after wings by locals, Korean BBQ. “There’s no Korean chef, no real backstory,” the bartender tells me when I ask about how the wings got on the menu. “One day the cook just decided to do it, and they were bad**s. I eat them all the time,” he concludes with an affirming pat to his belly.
In addition to its large Italian-American heritage, sizable percentages of the city identify as either Irish-American or German-American, each around 12 per cent of the local population. So head over to Doc Sullivan’s for Smitty Wings, a style marking the delectable addition of a special spice mix added to the hot sauce, the name a tribute to the former owners of the pub. Another Irish pub, Blackthorn, is perhaps the most Irish of the lot. The day I visited I was greeted by the blaring bagpipes of a large funeral wake for a cop of Irish heritage, the entire bar overflowing with dozens of uniformed cops and firefighters. The upstairs holds the Blackthorn Club, an institution over a century old, with many of its interiors brought over from Ireland. Their wings are served with an in-house blue cheese that is worth a visit.
I went to Bar-Bill Tavern for their classic, and delicious, hot wings, but was blown away by its nod to the region’s German influence, represented by an outstanding version of Beef on Weck–a hometown roast beef sandwich. Hand-carved and assembled in the far corner of the bar, from the melt-in-your-mouth beef and sinfully succulent jus, to the nose-tingling horseradish and soft kummelweck roll (caraway seed bun), it hit the spot.
Also Read Where to Find the Best Wings in Buffalo
Buffalo has a food scene largely propelled by ethnic identity. To taste Italian influences, stop by Mother’s, a fine-dining establishment whose eclectic bistro menu always features a handful of Italian-influenced, a la carte creations. Think spaghetti squash with prosciutto, fresh sage, and asiago or pan-seared scallops served with squid ink fettuccine and a saffron cream sauce.
Visit the 1837, German immigrant-established Schwabl’s for their famously succulent hand-carved roast beef on kummelweck roll—the patron sandwich of Buffalo—along with classics like potato salad, roast turkey, and Hungarian goulash and dumplings.
Corned Beef Hash is as about as Anglo-Irish as you can get in the U.S.A., and Swan Street Diner, a restored railroad dining car manufactured in 1937, serves perhaps the most formidable House Hash in Buffalo, a mongo plateful of tender meat and potatoes with two eggs any way you like them.
And if you’re seeking out soul food, Margie’s offers up delectable smothered pork chops, freshly fried chicken, oxtail, and strawberry banana pudding.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.