With a slogan like “Chow Down in Upstate,” you know you’re going to be in for some seriously good food when you head out to explore New York’s Upstate Eats Trail. This 225-mile journey includes about two dozen stops, plus many more delicious good eats nearby. Some dishes are world-famous treats, but most are true local loves that are little known outside the region.
This DIY adventure (which I recently experienced as part of a press trip) is organized into five different areas. There are the main anchors of Binghamton, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, as well as “road bites,” or small-town stops that make your drive all the more delicious. Here are some of the most notable plates and places to check out along Upstate Eats Trail.
Lupo’s S&S Char Pit, Binghamton
A spiedie is a simple dish with a complex taste. For nearly 100 years, this concoction of cubed, marinated, grilled meat has been a Binghamton staple. Though spiedies were originally made with beef, lamb, or pork, the team at Lupo’s S&S Char Pit introduced a chicken spiedie to the area, convinced that it was the perfect medium to showcase their marinade of oil, spices, and vinegar. They were right! Now their chicken spiedie (cubed, grilled chicken that’s been marinated for a minimum of two days and served on a local bakery roll) is a best seller.
2. Beef On Weck
Schwabl’s has the distinction of being one of Buffalo’s oldest restaurants. It dates to 1837, just 5 years after Buffalo was incorporated as a city. Not long after, it began serving up a regional delicacy that reflects the culinary roots of the city’s German community. The restaurant’s signature beef on weck places hand-carved, au jus–dipped roast beef on a hard, salty bread roll studded with caraway seeds, known as a kummelweck. Legend has it that the tasty sandwich was served in order to encourage patrons to order more beer to wash it down, but today’s customers are just as likely to request their beef on weck with a side of German potato salad.
Pro Tip: From Columbus Day to St. Patrick’s Day, Schwabl’s serves a “Tom & Jerry,” a hot alcoholic drink featuring rum, brandy, egg white batter, and spices.
3. Garbage Plate
Nick Tahou Hots, Rochester
If you take an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to dining, you’re going to love the hilariously titled Garbage Plates at Nick Tahou Hots.
The noteworthy name can be traced all the way to 1918, when the restaurant on West Main was serving up working class-friendly dishes of home fries, hot dogs, and beans. Slowly, the number of ingredients and possible combinations grew until, in the 1980s, college students started to ask for a plate “with all that garbage on it.” From there, a legend grew!
Today, you can get just about any theme for your Garbage Plate you can imagine, but I think the original is as good as they come. You choose a protein, two to four sides, and whether you want your meat sauce, mustard, and chopped onions spread over the top or on the side (I always opt for having them on the side, so I can get some things super-saucy and others plainer). If you’re not sure where to start, ordering two cheeseburger patties, home fries, and macaroni salad is the most popular combo.
4. Frozen Custard
Abbott’s Frozen Custard, Rochester
Anytime you hear that a dessert is made with a 120-year-old recipe, you know it’s going to be a sensation, and Abbott’s absolutely delivers with its frozen custard.
This delightful spot next to Lake Ontario is a lovely spot to grab some homemade frozen custard and take a stroll along the waterfront. During my visit, the people ahead of me couldn’t decide on their order — a good thing, as I was equally indecisive. They politely waved me ahead, and I panicked, saying I was just as bamboozled as they were! In the end, we all chose the same thing: the famous hot fudge sundae. If you love old-fashioned novelties and sweets, this classic sundae will absolutely meet your approval.
5. Fish Fry
Doug’s Fish Fry, Skaneateles
If there’s such a thing as a travel writer’s hall of fame, you might just find it at Doug’s Fish Fry in Skaneateles. Every time this beloved casual eatery is mentioned in the newspaper or a travel magazine, the clipping makes it onto the wall, along with letters and postcards from devoted fans. You better believe that I’m going to send them a copy of this piece!
But what exactly makes this particular restaurant so noteworthy in a region famed for its fish fries? Doug’s commitment to fresh ingredients is legendary, so much so that some menu items are limited to certain days of the week. If you want clams, you better show up on Tuesday, and lobster bisque is a Friday-only treat!
The team puts equal care into the non-fish items, and the homemade onion rings and coleslaw are menu highlights. Portions are generous, but you’ll want to save some room for dessert. As any local can tell you, the real star of the show is the seasonal soft-serve ice cream sundae. During my visit, the apple version had just hit the menu, and it was the creamiest, most comforting treat imaginable.
Pro Tip: There is a large paid parking lot behind the restaurant, but some free spots are reserved for Doug’s customers by the back door.
6. The Salt Potato
Bull & Bear Roadhouse, Fayetteville
If you love the delicate flavor of a small, early summer potato with its translucent skin and creamy flesh, you will fall in love with a Syracuse-style salt potato. This simple dish takes beautiful baby potatoes and gently boils them in very salty water, a fitting method considering Syracuse’s legacy of salt mining. If you were to do nothing but snack on the potatoes as they were, you’d be happy, but at the Bull & Bear Roadhouse, this humble dish is elevated to an entirely new level. The salt potatoes are loaded with shredded cheese, pulled pork, crispy bacon, and tangy sour cream and chives. Amazing!
Pro Tip: The waitress shared that she loved Bull & Bear’s tacos, so of course, I had to give them a try. She was right!
7. Syracuse-Style Barbecue
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Syracuse
Step aside, Texas and Kansas City. If you love barbeque, you have to go to Syracuse’s Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. The amazing flavor coming from dishes like the 14-hour brisket reflects founder John Stage’s year-long motorcycle quest to discover the country’s different barbeque traditions. The result is a local sensation where service is no-nonsense, portions are generous, and the sauces are out of this world.
I asked around for menu recommendations, and some dishes were mentioned again and again. The fried green tomatoes were salty, crunchy, and sweet, beautifully paired with a homemade buttermilk ranch sauce. The K-Pow Korean jumbo barbecued chicken wings were sensationally good (and proof that you don’t need your wings hot for them to be a knockout). But the best thing of all was dessert! I heard from many folks that the scratch-made desserts at Dinosaur are their best-kept secret, and they might just be right. The key lime pie I tried was, without exaggeration, the finest I’ve ever had (and my delight soon convinced a neighboring booth to order some for themselves).
With dozens of delicious destinations along the trail, it’s impossible to list them all. While I haven’t necessarily tried the following selections, their flavors are beloved in the area. Look out for these extra essentials:
8. Root Beer Float
Mac’s Drive-In, Waterloo; Richardson Root Beer, Rochester
If you love this refreshing treat as much as I do, the Upstate Eats Trail is perfect for you. Mac’s Drive-In (near Waterloo, open seasonally) serves up Rochester’s Richardson Root Beer in a creamy float made with soft serve ice cream.
9. Grape Pie
Cindy’s Pies And Monica’s Pies, Naples
Upstate New York isn’t just a foodie destination — it’s a wine one as well! But not all grapes here are turned into tasty tipples. Near the village of Naples, both Cindy’s Pies and Monica’s Pies utilize fruit from the nearby vineyards to create homemade grape pies.
10. Sponge Candy
Alethea’s Chocolates, Williamsville
Alethea’s Chocolates has been making chocolate-coated sponge candy (a crunchy, golden, lightly toasted toffee) for more than 70 years.
11. Snappy Griller
Heid’s Of Liverpool
Also known as a white coney, this spicy, juicy hot dog at Heid’s of Liverpool is served in a New England-style roll, split at the top instead of the side, and is ideally served with nothing but homemade brown spicy mustard.
12. Buffalo Wings
The Anchor Bar, Buffalo
You didn’t think I’d forget New York’s most famous dish, did you? True, everyone has heard of Buffalo wings, so they’re not exactly a groundbreaking foodie discovery but you can’t come to Upstate New York and not try some. Head to The Anchor Bar in Buffalo, where they were invented in 1964, to get your fix.