Words by Andrew Craig, illustrations by Joanna Stacy
When I was growing up in the Rochester area, my idea of "local food" was one of three things: beef on weck, sponge candy, or Pontillo's pizza.
Those are all well and good, sure, but there was nothing about them – or the rest of the local food scene as I knew it – that was particularly ambitious.
I moved to New York City in 2009, but every few months when I took a trip back upstate, it seemed like there were bigger, better and more delicious things happening.
Now, I almost don't recognize the place - in a good way.
And while there are many exciting food and drink ideas beginning to take shape, I've noticed a few, in particular, as key examples of the scene pushing further forward. They each have their own unique merits, but all speak to a broader idea: Rochester's culinary identity is very clearly changing for the better.
The Public Market, Evolved
The market itself has been in business continually since 1827, so it's safe to say this is not a new addition to the city's food scene. What is new, though, is a slew of food and drink spots that have popped up in the surrounding buildings.
Once you're done buying some fresh, cheap, local produce, you can head to Black Button Distilling for small-batch spirits. Or Flour City Bread Company for rustic baguettes and breakfast sandwiches. Or Fiorella for boundary-pushing pasta and pizza. Or Cure for elegant cocktails and French fare.
I don't think I visited the market once when I lived in town. After all, why bother when Wegmans was just down the street? Now, I make a point to go any time I'm back upstate, to see (and taste) how a small slice of Rochester history has grown into a small cross section of all the delicious things the city has to offer.
Fewer Chain Restaurants
I remember being very, very excited when Eastview Mall expanded in 2003, because that meant three new restaurants. They were all chain restaurants, sure, but that was par for the course in Rochester. It seemed like that was all the local restaurant scene had to offer back then.
Now, there are brand new, locally minded spots opening around town, instead of new expansions of uninspired franchises. Recently, The Playhouse // Swillburger opened in a reclaimed church on the border of South Wedge and Swillburg neighborhoods, with 18 craft beers, lots of cocktails, and a sea of arcade games. Last year (and on the other end of the formality spectrum), The Kitchen opened on Main Street in Pittsford, serving seasonal, seven course menus of artfully plated dishes.
Both places, and every new one in between them, are a welcome relief to the old restaurant sameness. And each new opening seems to be giving local chefs a stronger foothold to establish a more distinct culinary identity for upstate New York.
Finger Lakes Wine Taking Hold
The New York Times's wine critic, Eric Asimov, said in 2011 that the Finger Lakes had "begun to show its enormous potential." A few months ago, Bon Appétit said that Bellwether Wine Cellars on Cayuga Lake is making the best Riesling in the country. And even more recently, Saveur extolled Bloomer Creek's Cabernet Franc, produced just a stone's throw from Seneca Lake.
So while the region is already well-known locally, its nationally minded critics are starting to pick up on the area's promise as well. With luck, that'll lead to increased tourism, stronger sales, and a higher standard for the local wine scene.
More Inventive Dishes
Plates of pasta and bowls of salad have always been staples of any middle-of-the-road restaurant menu. But organic toasted farro-pumkin torelloni with shallot broth and peptic pangrattato? Chilled octopus salad with green olives, citrus, gigantic beans, and romanesco sauce? Those are new.
Those dishes - at Fiorella and Good Luck, respectively - and ones like them show Rochester chefs are becoming more comfortable going beyond what diners might expect in a menu. That's a good thing for everyone involved.
If you want to play it safe, you've still got upscale takes on classic dishes available, but the more forward-thinking, less traditional kind of cooking that's taking shape is bringing a world of new options to the table.
If you wanted to go out for a drink downtown just five years ago, your options were limited to a handful of bars serving a handful of the same spirits in so-so cocktails.
These days, it's different.
The Daily Refresher has 260 kinds of whiskey, 20 menu cocktails, and a bar staff that'll mix you a custom cocktail with expert creativity. Between that and the bar programs at other places like Cure, Good Luck and Cheshire, ordering a thoughtfully crafted drink downtown has never been easier.
That there are so many top quality bars mixing drinks in Rochester - and that there's a market strong enough to support all of them - is a testament to the city's expanding drink horizons.
With all of these boundaries being pushed, it seems that the city is on track for a mouthwatering future.
Next time I'm back, I'm sure it'll be more noticeable than ever.