Rule No. 1 when you’re eating wings in Buffalo: Never, ever ask for ranch. Bleu cheese is fine. Barbecue sauce? You might get a funny look, but go ahead. But ask for a side of ranch with your wings and you’ll be met with a chorus of food judgment usually reserved for people ordering steak well-done.
This is but one of the many lessons you’ll learn while traversing Buffalo’s new Wing Trail, a trek through Nickel City that takes you to some of its most iconic bars and restaurants tracing the history and advent of the Buffalo-style chicken wing. From blue-collar bars to Irish pubs, suburban restaurants to historic downtown hotels, the tour is the best way to experience the culture, food, and people that make Buffalo one of the most interesting places to visit in North America. And eat some of the best wings in the world along the way.
We had an opportunity to travel Buffalo’s Wing Trail, sampling wings deemed the top 12 in the city. They are all, in their own ways, fantastic and each stop offers its own little slice of what makes Buffalo so special. Every spot on the trail is as much about the experience of eating there as it is about the wings, but here are the 12 best in order of deliciousness.
12. Anchor Bar
What you’re getting: Suicide wings
For those not up on their food history, Anchor Bar is the birthplace of the Buffalo wing. The landmark original location on Main Street is the first stop on the trail, and a must-visit on any trip to Buffalo.
Of course, tell a Buffalonian you’re going here and they’ll roll their eyes and tell you 10 places that do wings better. But when you sell four million pounds of wings a year, you’re clearly doing something right. You’ll probably be tempted to try the original Franks Red Hot and butter-sauced wings that started it all. But they’re pretty bland. Go for the peppery suicide wings for a hot, flavorful wing that’s better than the original.
11. Doc Sullivan’s Pub
What you’re getting: Smitty Wings
This bar in heavily-Irish South Buffalo is the sort of place your bartender starts talking to the guy sitting next to you and within five minutes realizes the guy’s brother was best friends with his cousin. It’s a neighbourhood hangout where the tangy, smoky, tomato-rich sauce recipe has been handed down more than 40 years through different owners. And whatever changed in the bar and the city, the wings always remained the same.
10. Glen Park Tavern
What you’re getting: Sicilian wings
This tavern in the village of Williamsville has been around since 1887 and has the feel of an old historic inn you might find in Pennsylvania or more rural parts of New York. As the oldest bar on the trail it gives a sense of the role Buffalo played in the region’s development, an old rail stop on the way from Buffalo to Rochester, N.Y. Glen Park’s wings are the largest on the trail — big, meaty pieces covered in garlic, Parmesan cheese, basil and oregano. They’ve got hot wings, too, but the Sicilians are what this charming old tavern does best.
What you’re getting: Sweet chili gochujang wings
Elmwood Village has become the neighbourhood of choice for young professionals in Buffalo. So despite the sports and college memorabilia draped throughout the 84-year-old bar, you’ll find the crowd young and energetic, a place where professors and students from nearby Buffalo State College drink side-by-side talking sports, wings, or whatever else comes up.
While the classic wings might be your inclination to order, Coles’s chef worked in restaurants all over Asia before returning to Buffalo, and incorporates flavours from the entire region in his rotating specials. For modern takes on wings, this is the best spot on the trail.
8. Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub
What you’re getting: The South Buffalo wings
Deep in the heart of blue-collar South Buffalo you’ll find this bar where walls are literally covered in law enforcement patches from all over the world. The cops’ wings of choice are at Blackthorn’s, where you’ll find off-duty officers enjoying a plate of wings while regaling day-drinking locals with tales from the nightshift. Wisecracks and insults are the language spoken here, where you know you’re accepted when they make fun of the beer you order. (Labatt. Always order Labatt.)
The wings have an almost fruity flavour, with a hint of cinnamon and apple that taste like fall on a chicken wing. They might not be the spiciest wings on the trail, but they combine with the crowd to make Blackthorn the spot that feels the most like home.
7. Gene McCarthy’s
What you’re getting: The McCarthy’s style wing
Two of the coolest things about Buffalo are its repurposed grain silos and its neighbourhood taverns, which you’ll enjoy simultaneously at Gene McCarthy’s. This pub set in the Old First Ward neighbourhood is surrounded by early-20th century homes once owned by workers in the nearby grain mills, who’d all stop in at 4 a.m. for a nightcap after working the late shift. The silos now are Silo City, a place where people kayak between old silos in an eerie-yet-beautiful trip through the city’s past.
After your paddle, head here for wings tossed in a blend of traditional hot sauce and bleu cheese, a creamy, tangy, slightly-sour wing that’s unique to Gene McCarthy’s. Even if you’re not a big bleu-cheese fan you’ll be surprised by the smoothness of the flavour, and how the cheese beautifully offsets the heat.
6. Bar Bill Tavern
What you’re getting: Cajun honey butter BBQ wings
“The Bills are gonna take Josh Allen,” Bar Bill’s general manager Clark Crook told us over a nicely-fanned-out plate of wings the day before the National Football League draft. “Of all the guys they brought in for workouts, he was the only one they brought in here for wings. That’s their pick.” Clearly, the wing test is a good predictor
Many in Buffalo will call the wings at this neighbourhood restaurant in suburban East Aurora – not far from the Buffalo Bills’ stadium in Orchard Park – the best wings in Buffalo. Each wing is hand-painted with sauce before it’s served in a trademark presentation fanned out with celery and bleu cheese in the middle. The wings have a sweet-spicy flavour that some who queue up for hours here might call addictive. Take a minute to head in the back and watch the cooks paint the wings, literally making the food at Bar Bill a culinary work of art.
5. Elmo’s Bar and Restaurant
What you’re getting: Double-dipped wings with Cajun and hot sauces
Nobody’s confusing Buffalo with a college town, but to get a sampling of what university life is like here head to this nondescript strip mall across from the University at Buffalo’s football stadium. Inside you’ll find college students slamming cheap bear and scarfing wings, and during football games you can actually hear the noises from the stadium inside the bar.
Elmo’s was the first to employ the fried-then-grilled method, where wings are fried, tossed in one sauce, grilled, then tossed in another. It gives them a smoky flavour on top of whichever sauces you choose to mix and match. Do whatever strikes your fancy, but the smoky-sweet Cajun and hot sauce combo is our pick.
4. Lenox Grill
What you’re getting: Korean BBQ wings
The most historic spot on the trail is this basement bar set in the oldest continuously-operated hotel in Buffalo. Inside, the bartender will regale you with the roster of famous guests and stories about their stays there while pouring you one of more than 550 varieties of bottled beer. The best wings to pair with those beers are the Korean BBQ, which, while not a traditional wing, are a nice variation. And if you’re into beer, history, or both, this is a must-hit.
3. Gabriel’s Gate
What you’re getting: Hot wings
Allentown is one of the best drinking neighbourhoods in the United States, and bellying up to the bar at this one-time brick row house gives you the best window into the nightlife and friendly people that make Buffalo such a fun destination. Order a plate of wings and you’ll find yourself chatting with everyone from mill workers to young professionals under an ornate chandelier. All of whom will tell you these are the best wings in Buffalo, before possibly buying you a beer. If you’re looking for friends along the trail, this is your stop. The wings themselves are juicy and spicy, slightly hotter than most with just enough kick to keep you eating. Though the people you meet at Gabe’s will probably keep you around longer.
2. Mammoser’s Tavern
What you’re getting: Medium wings
The low ceilings in Mammoser’s give this tavern in suburban Hamburg the feel of a dark neighbourhood drinking den where the entire town goes to communally drink. And that’s not far off. The people inside are old Buffalo, folks who’ve lived out in this village for generations and can tell you the perils and spoils of living in a small town outside the city.
Mammoser’s wings are dry – they don’t drip in sauce like in most spots on the trail. But the clean eating makes the wings easier to down, and the sauce is a rush of pepper that, when mixed with hot sauce, doesn’t need to be ordered much above medium. If you’re into peppery flavours, these are the best wings in Buffalo.
What you’re getting: The hot wings
A great many things in life are overrated. The Mona Lisa. Cronuts. Pretty much all of New York City. One things that’s not are the wings at Duff’s. Buffalo natives’ overwhelming nomination for best wings doesn’t disappoint, with big, steaming wings covered in a sauce so potent it clears out your sinuses just by the smell. The heat isn’t as overwhelming as some would have you to believe; it doesn’t overpower the flavour but still makes your mouth tingle. Order them hot and you’ll get the best wings in the city. Though for a real adrenaline rush order the suicide wings. Just don’t hold us responsible.
The writer traveled as a guest of Visit Buffalo Niagara. It did not review or approve this article.