Eat Your Way Through Four Cities on This Epic Upstate New York Food Trail
After a simultaneously hectic and uneventful 2020, I was itching to do something fun in summer 2021. While I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to hop on a plane, I was more than willing to tackle a road trip. And luckily, the Upstate Eats Trail, a 225-mile food-fueled journey through upstate New York, just launched in May. So, I packed a bag, filled my gas tank and set off for six days of nonstop munchies. Here’s everything you need to know before hitting the road, from must-try eats to local activities.
What Is the Upstate Eats Trail?
It’s a self-guided food tour trail that connects four cities in Upstate New York: Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. There are 20 major eateries mapped out across all four cities that put hyper-local delicacies—like Rochester’s famous garbage plate, Binghamton’s chicken spiedies and Buffalo’s O.G. hot wings—in the spotlight. Restaurants range from roadside hot dog stands and corner taverns to scenic breweries and century-old ice cream parlors. Many echo the history of Western and Central New York, areas that were highly influenced by an influx of immigrants (many of whom were German, Irish and Italian) after the opening of the Erie Canal. There are also tons of additional landmarks and sites to check out between each city, like the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn, the Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum in Seneca, as well as breweries, vineyards, hiking trails and museums.
Your travel time and itinerary will vary depending on where you start your journey. I’m in northern New Jersey, so I started in Binghamton and ended in Buffalo. Binghamton is about two-and-a-half hours away from where I live and the drive back from Buffalo was about six hours, but you’ll never have to drive much longer than an hour between cities. To tackle the whole trail, we’d recommend spending five to six days on the road—that way, you’ll have a full day in each destination with a little extra wiggle room, plus a day for driving home.
Before you map out your stops, here are all the must-see spots in each city.
Stop 1: Binghamton
Binghamton was once dubbed the Valley of Opportunity, as it was home to major employers like IBM and Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory. Immigrants (many from Southern and Eastern Europe) settled there over time, infusing the culinary landscape with traditions from home. Today, it’s arguably most famous for Binghamton University. In fact, many business owners in the area credit flocks of college students with keeping the city’s businesses and entrepreneurial spirit thriving.
What to Eat
New York’s Southern Tier is most famous for spiedies, which are skewers of marinated meat that are grilled to perfection and served on a roll. You can also savor authentic Polish food like pierogi, kielbasa and golabki, or stuffed cabbage rolls (if you’re interested, make Podlasie Polish Restaurant your first stop) in Binghamton. Pizza is no doubt a popular choice, though you may hear Binghamton natives calling them hot pies. While many argue that it’s just an old-school term for the same dish, others speculate that hot pies often have thinner crust and use a cheese other than or in addition to mozzarella, like the provolone-topped pie at Consol’s. There are also a handful of Caribbean restaurants around Binghamton, and De Island Hut—a Trinidadian fusion spot famous for its fried dough balls stuffed with split peas called pholourie—is among the most beloved.
Breakfast: The Apple Dumpling Café at Apple Hills
If you only have time for one stop in Binghamton, make it Apple Hills. Not only will you get to savor a killer country breakfast with a view of the farm’s rolling meadows, but you can also rub elbows with farm animals, get lost in the corn maze and pick fresh produce if the season’s right. That’s what makes the menu at Apple Dumpling Café, which has been around for three decades, so special: The apples, blueberries and raspberries used in the food are typically grown on the property. (New York apple growers harvest nearly 30 million bushels a year, second only to Washington state.)
Joy Johnson, the farm’s fifth-generation owner, grew up on the grounds and has fond memories of her grandmother’s country cooking and admiring the Milky Way from the blueberry fields as a child (before the night sky was tainted by light pollution, that is). She lives in the same home her great-great-grandfather built on the property in the mid-19th century. After just one visit to Apple Hills, it’s apparent what a community cornerstone her farm is: Strangers will chat you up on the patio like they’ve known you for years, and Johnson credits many of her regulars for seeing her farm through the pandemic.
Head up in the late summer or fall for Joy’s famous apple pancakes, which are nine inches wide and made with Ida Red, Crispin and Honeycrisp apples when in season. (The grilled apple sandwich on house-made 12-grain bread is also a crowd favorite.) If you go earlier in the summer, keep an eye out for menu specials like decadently creamy strawberry soup and mouth-puckering raspberry applesauce.
Lunch: Lupo’s S&S Char-Pit
According to owner Steve Lupo, many New Yorkers have tried making spiedies a thing outside the Binghamton area to no avail. It seems these savory meat sammies are destined to be a local delicacy, and it’s only right: They have a long history in Endicott and the surrounding region. Italian immigrants who settled there are responsible for their invention, and Lupo’s family was one of the first to make a name for themselves in the spiedie category.
His family began selling raw, marinated lamb spiedies (chicken is most popular today, but lamb is the O.G.) at the local meat market in 1954 for customers to grill at home. That same recipe was used at the Lupos’ first restaurant that opened in the 1970s, and you can still taste it today at Lupo’s S&S Char-Pit. You can also get your hands on a bottle of Lupo’s marinade, which is made with oil, vinegar and dry spices, similar to Italian dressing. The lamb spiedies also get lemon in their marinade to soften their gaminess. Once the meat has marinated for three to four days, it’s skewered and charred on an open-flame grill, then served on Italian bread.
Spiedies can be made with steak, chicken, pork and beyond, but our favorite was hands-down the lamb, which was shockingly tender and almost buttery. If you can’t get enough of spiedies, head to Binghamton in early October for the annual Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally Expo.
Dinner: Little Venice Restaurant
Italian immigrants’ impact on the Binghamton area is no clearer than at Little Venice Restaurant. The eatery has been a staple since 1946, as has its sauce. Locals—many of whom were immigrants from Italy’s Abruzzo region—used to bring their own pots to the restaurant’s back door to buy it. Despite its popularity, only six people have ever had the privilege of preparing it themselves. Now that’s a secret recipe.
The dish to get is the spaghetti and meat logs, made with chewy, hand-cut-to-order pasta. The meat logs are a Binghamton delicacy, and are made just the way current owner Piero Lisio’s great aunt Carmella (one of Little Venice’s original cooks) liked it. She believed that traditional meatballs dried and hardened too easily, so she kept them juicy and tender by molding the ground beef into logs that resembled small sausages instead. Once the spaghetti and meat logs are plated, they’re drenched in Little Venice’s famous red sauce, which is sweet and smooth with minimal acidity and tomato chunks. If pizza’s more your thing, go for the white garlic, a simple mix of EVOO, fresh garlic and diced mozz.
Other Notable Stops
Walk off those spiedies in downtown Binghamton, which is chock-full of eclectic boutiques, cafés and shops. There’s also the Bundy Museum of History and Art that’s housed in a historic 19th-century home and the Phelps Mansion Museum, where you can learn about the Gilded Age. Binghamton is also known as the carousel capital of the world, as it’s home to six carousels that are nearly a century old.
Where to Stay: Holiday Inn Binghamton
It’s close to all the downtown excitement. There are tons of places within walking distance to grab a meal, drink or dessert.
Stop 2: Syracuse
Known as the Salt City, Syracuse drew tons of immigrants from Ireland and beyond to Onondaga County. It gets its nickname from the salt springs that line Onondaga Lake, which supplied salt to the rest of the U.S. through the early 20th century. An Erie Canal boomtown, Syracuse has tons of gorgeous neighborhoods to explore, each with a storied past and some with ethnic enclaves that go back generations.
What to Eat
Salt potatoes are Syracuse’s specialty, and they’re proof that simple dishes can be downright divine. Legend has it that Irish immigrants who worked in the salt mines would take the briny water home to cook potatoes in. Today, salt potatoes are boiled in very salty water, then served in melted butter. Of course, there are also tons of authentic Irish pubs in town slinging fish and chips among other staples, as well as barbecue joints like the famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Chicken riggies—a chicken-topped rigatoni dish made with peppers and spicy cream sauce that hails from nearby Utica—can also be found at various Syracuse establishments.
Breakfast: Funk’n Waffles
There were *tons* of fun breakfast spots to sift through in Syracuse. If you only have time for one, visit Funk ’n Waffles, a restaurant-music venue hybrid that’s decorated with cool artwork, avantgarde light fixtures and portraits of famous funk musicians. I ordered the All Shook Up—a bacon-stuffed buttermilk waffle topped with bananas, honey and peanut butter—but the chicken and waffles is arguably the most popular dish on the menu, at least since it was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Because I was only in Syracuse for one morning and I don’t mess around when it comes to breakfast, I also got a Get Shorty donut (a strawberry cake donut filled with vanilla buttercream and strawberry filling) from Glazed and Confused and a spicy everything bagel with scallion cream cheese from Water Street Bagel Co. Once I had all my spoils, I took them to nearby Green Lakes State Park to gorge myself in nature (but more on that later).
Lunch: Coleman’s Authentic Irish Pub
One step inside Coleman’s and you’ll be transported straight to Ireland. One bite of the food and you’ll go to heaven instead. Originally opened in 1933 as a saloon, then as a restaurant in the 1970s, Coleman’s is modeled after a pub in Cork, so its décor and menu are the real deal, from the dark oak bar to the stained glass windows. It’s also just steps away from a legendary traffic light that’s been reversed (with the green light at the top and red at the bottom) for nearly 100 years. Reports say that a group of kids in the Irish neighborhood smashed the “British” red light so many times that the city finally inverted it. (Keep an eye out for the tiny phone booth and leprechaun-sized entry at the front of the restaurant too.)
The fish and chips were flaky, salty and positively flawless, but the beef O’Flaherty truly blew me away. Think slow-roasted beef that’s drenched in homemade blue cheese dressing and broiled until browned. It’s so ridiculously decadent, funky, meaty, cheesy—I could go on and on. Coleman’s also has an impressive craft beer list, but there’s always Guinness if you’re stuck.
Dinner: Bull & Bear Roadhouse
Craving a next-level cocktail or souped-up American bar food? Look no further than Bull & Bear. I visited the Fayetteville location, which is housed in a nearly 200-year-old former stagecoach stop on one of New York’s original highways. The first location was opened nearly 20 years ago downtown as a stock market-themed pub, hence the name.
Owner Mark Bullis is responsible for one of the most iconic renditions of salt potatoes in the region, the Loaded Salt Potatoes, which are salt potatoes piled high with sweet pulled pork, bacon, cheddar cheese, sour cream and chives. They’re as tasty as they sound, but if you’re a newbie, ask your server for a side of plain salt potatoes to try for the first time. Another regional delicacy with a twist that you’ll find on the menu is the Rough Road Pasta, a smoky play on chicken riggies topped with Andouille sausage, roasted red peppers and Asiago cheese.
You’ll also want to start your meal with the head bangers, bacon-wrapped corn, cheese and jalapeño fritters served with house buttermilk ranch for dipping. Leave room for one of Bull & Bear’s monstrous burgers (and be sure to ask your server about the burger of the month) and wash it down with a prickly pear margarita, made with silver tequila and prickly pear vodka.
Other Notable Stops
Grab cannoli or gelato at Biscotti Café if you’re in the mood for something sweet, or head to Harrison Bakery for a half-moon (aka black-and-white) cookie that’s become a local staple since the establishment opened in 1948. Take in colorful, eclectic homes in the Tipperary Hill neighborhood, then explore downtown Syracuse (especially Salt City Market, an indoor food court serving a range of different international cuisines). On your way out, stop at Green Lakes State Park to marvel at two stunning blue-green glacial lakes.
Where to Stay: Marriott Syracuse Downtown
The lobby is gorgeous and sort of old-timey, as are the rooms. It’s also directly across the street from Salt City Market and within walking distance of the parking garage and plenty of local eateries.
Stop 3: Rochester
Rochester is New York’s third-largest city, and it’s been home to tons of trailblazers over the years, from Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony. Kodak was also founded there by George Eastman, and it’s home to the world’s first commercial photocopier. Centered around the Genesee River and bordering Lake Ontario, Rochester has a unique mix of regional specialties. As its food scene continues to grow, Rochester’s culinary landscape boasts hole-in-the-wall mainstays and Michelin-star restaurants alike.
What to Eat
First on your list should be the mighty garbage plate, which is traditionally a pile of chili-topped hot dogs, potatoes, baked beans and macaroni salad. You won’t see the hot dogs being called hot dogs though: In Rochester, they’re hots, courtesy of a 140-year-old institution called Zweigle’s. They make both red hots (pork and beef dogs) and white hots (an only-in-Rochester specialty made with pork, veal and spices). Burgers, also called ground rounds, can also substitute hots on a garbage plate.
Breakfast: Rochester Public Market
Its current facility has been serving the community since 1905, but the original Rochester Public Market opened in 1827, making it one of the oldest in U.S. history. Today, the market operates every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday year-round; local vendors sell fresh produce, seafood, baked goods, pantry items like jam, international specialties and more. The market is also smack-dab in the middle of a ton of cafés and shops, so feel free to explore those as well as the vendor stands. Just outside the market grounds is Railroad Street, which is home to a distillery, beer hall, kombucha bar and more.
Above is a mélange of edible treasures that I rounded up at the market and enjoyed on the balcony of my hotel room: potato focaccia and a sticky bun from Flour City Bread Co., assorted empanadas from Juan and Maria’s Empanada Stop and cold brew from Java’s Cafe. Be sure to bring a massive tote bag and cash for all your goodies.
Lunch: Nick Tahou Hots
Trash plates. Junkyard plates. Great plates. Plenty of Rochester eateries have their version of the local delicacy, but only one serves the original garbage plate: Nick Tahou Hots. Not only did Greek immigrant Alex Tahou invent the garbage plate, but he also trademarked it. It all started in 1918 at his first restaurant, which popularized the dish “hots and potatoes,” a generous helping of hot dogs, cold beans and home fries. Over time, it evolved to include macaroni salad, onion rings, hamburger meat and more. By the 1980s, college students on the hunt for a late-night bite after drinking would ask for a plate with “all that garbage” on it, and that’s how the dish got its official name.
Don’t let its modest appearance fool you: Nick Tahou Hots’ exterior and interior are both unassuming, but you only need one bite to know the garbage plate is worth the hype. To do it right, choose red hots as your protein and the home fries and macaroni salad as your sides. Ask for everything on it, meaning mustard, chopped onions and hot meat sauce. It comes with a side of Italian bread for soaking up all the extra chili and toppings.
Dinner: Genesee Brew House
Genesee Brew House is a restaurant dedicated to sharing the history of Genesee Brewery, New York’s longest-running brewery. Not only can you sip a rotating selection of Genesee beer’s indoors or on the outdoor patio overlooking the 96-foot-tall High Falls waterfalls (!) at the pub-style resto, but there are also a bunch of interactive exhibits and a pilot brewery to explore. (Back in the day, Genesee Brewery used the gorges and caverns on the Genesee River that the falls flow into as a dark, cool place to store its brews, BTW.)
The menu features a ton of dishes that use Genesee beer as an ingredient, from wing sauces to salad dressings. I’m partial to the Bavarian pretzels served with beer cheese sauce or beer mustard and the beer blush burrata-filled ravioli tossed in 12 Horse beer sauce. I also ordered the lemon-strawberry cream ale to drink because, you know, summer. If the weather’s right, ask for a seat outside (and you’ll definitely want to make a reservation instead of just walking in).
Other Notable Stops
Whether you go for a dip at Ontario Beach Park or walk along Lake Ontario’s shores at Port of Rochester Marina, there are plenty of chances to hang by the water in Rochester. I’d suggest going to Bill Gray’s for ground rounds (or a Great Plate with a cheeseburger and hot dog) then washing it down with ice cream from Abbott’s Custard (its Lake Avenue location has been operating since 1926). You can also get your steps in at the breathtaking Durand Eastman Park, or on Park Avenue, which features blocks on blocks of patio dining, pubs and shops. There are also a handful of museums to visit, like the George Eastman Museum, the Strong National Museum of Play and the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. But my favorite bonus attraction was Whispering Pines Miniature Golf in nearby Seabreeze, one of the oldest mini golf courses in the country.
Where to Stay: The Strathallan Rochester
I really can’t express how much I loved this hotel. There’s a roomy free parking lot in the back and many of the rooms have spacious balconies. Go for a dip in the indoor pool, hang at the outdoor firepits or break a sweat at the fitness facility.
Stop 4: Buffalo
Buffalo has *so* much more to do than visit the New York side of Niagara Falls (though if you haven’t been, work a visit into your trip—they’re pretty damn incredible). The waterfront city has stunning architecture, eclectic shops and eateries and a vibrant nightlife scene. If you’re familiar with Ithaca, New York, it’s a similar vibe, only ten times bigger. Whether you’re catching rays on a kayak at Canalside, grabbing a bite in Elmwood Village or shopping in North Park, Buffalo will keep you on your toes with interesting sites and next-level eats.
What to Eat
Of course, you’re familiar with Buffalo wings. But this city has tons more local grub to offer. Beef on weck, a roast beef sandwich on kummelweck bread, is an enduring symbol of Buffalo’s long-standing German population. Sponge candy, an airy caramelized sugar confection covered in chocolate, is basically impossible to find anywhere else (and it doesn’t ship very well since it’s very sensitive to climate), so we’d recommend stocking up on it while you’re there. Buffalo-style pizza is also a thing, and it’s typically made with an extra-thick crust, a ton of cheese and small pepperoni cups that char to perfection in the oven. And like Rochester, you’re never too far from the best charbroiled hot dog of your life.
Breakfast: Spot Coffee
Like Syracuse, it was tough picking just one spot to have breakfast at in Buffalo. But Spot Coffee was right by my hotel, so I went there for a bagel and a strawberry solstice tea. They also serve breakfast sandwiches, wraps, house-made granola, salad and pizza. If you’re willing to drive a few minutes in the morning, head to Buffalo’s Five Points neighborhood for an off-the-beaten-path meal. Remedy House is an all-day coffee bar that makes a mean iced pistachio-coconut latte, while Five Points Bakery will blow you away with its wide range of toasts made with house-made bread and local toppings (I went for the oatmeal toast topped with farmhouse cheese and plum-cherry jam).
Lunch: Anchor Bar
It’s one of 14 local pubs and taverns on the Buffalo wing trail, but the Anchor Bar is the most famous by a mile. It’s where the Buffalo wing was invented, after all. Legend has it that in 1964, co-owner Teressa Bellissimo made a late-night snack for her son and his friends by taking chicken wings destined for soup, frying them and tossing them in hot sauce. By the ’80s, Buffalo wings were a national treasure. The walls of the Anchor Bar are covered with signed photos from celebrity visitors, awards and articles about their hot wings.
The medium sauce is the closest to the original Buffalo wings, but there are nine sauces and three dry rubs to choose from on the menu. The Buffalo sauce is more vinegar-forward than you might expect, and less buttery than others I’ve had, but its acidity is just the match for creamy blue cheese dressing (ranch is sacrilege in Buffalo). And the wings themselves? So. Darn. Crispy.
Schwabl’s has been family-owned for generations. It was founded in 1837, just five years after Buffalo was, and its current location has been up and running since the 1940s. And not much has changed since then, from the recipes to the converted oil lamps hanging from the ceiling to the servers’ old-school uniforms.
Schwabl’s beef on weck has been called one of the tastiest sandwiches of all time. (Heck, it even impressed the late, great Anthony Bourdain.) It’s roast beef (order it on the rare side and thank me later) dipped in au jus, piled high on kummelweck bread (a salted hard roll with caraway seeds that originated in one of Buffalo’s German immigrant enclaves) and served with German potato salad, house pickles and pickled beets. With a scoop or two of sinus-clearing horseradish on top, it’s straight-up divine. The beef is hand-carved—often by owner Gene Staychock himself—from a 20-pound top round that’s slow-cooked overnight.
Other Notable Stops
Parkside Candy is plain iconic. It’s retro and gorgeous, just as it was when it opened in 1927 (you can still sit at the original soda fountain), and is a must for sponge candy, homemade lollipops and ice cream. For a slice, head to the Italian social club-turned-pizzeria, Bocce Club Pizza. For weenies, go to Ted’s Hot Dogs—and be sure to order it with “the works,” meaning with homemade hot chili, onions, mustard, relish and a pickle spear (and then wash it all down with loganberry, a sweet-tart drink that’s tough to find outside Buffalo). When the sun goes down, explore breweries and bars all over the city (Resurgence Brewery and Big Ditch Brewery are popular choices). If clubs are more your scene, visit Nietzsche’s, which has live music every night.
Where to Stay: Embassy Suites by Hilton Buffalo
If nightlife, breweries and restaurants are on your list, this hotel is near them all. (We’re talking minutes from a whole slew of bars.) Most importantly, it’s a few minutes away from The Chocolate Bar, a sweetery and bar that’s perfect for takeout dessert. Valet parking also eliminates the need to search for a spot on the street.
Tips for Going on Your First Post-Quarantine Road Trip
- Have sanitizing wipes (and a mask) handy when checking into hotels. I like to wipe everything down before settling into my room.
- Research the COVID rates in each of your destinations before hitting the road. All four cities had a lower number of daily cases at the time than where I live, which made me feel a bit safer ahead of arriving.
- Work some outdoor fun into your trip. All four cities have plenty to do outside, so split your time between restaurants (request outdoor seating when possible, too) and natural sites.
- Have hand sanitizer in the car and on your person. I put hand sanitizer on once the server takes my menu back at restaurants and again after I leave the restaurant. I also keep my mask on until I’m seated and put it back on to use the bathroom, walk through the lobby and when leaving the restaurant.
- Get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Not only will you be better protected, but you’ll also be showing compassion and consideration for the cities and people you’re about to meet.
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