789 Center Rd., West Seneca, NY 14224
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American Beef on Weck West Seneca
"A local truism has it that that great food and sights are always only 15 minutes away; if Bourdain's willing to come back to town, we'll show him enough to fill an entire episode."
Western New Yorkers know from experience what out-of-town TV crews are looking to film here: they show up when there's snowy weather, a football game, or the occasional tragedy like the crash of Continental 3407, but rarely if ever depict our numerous benefits - fantastic food, friendly people, Niagara Falls, and housing that bucked both the insane inflation of the last two decades and the rapid collapse of the past two years. So when noted chef and author Anthony Bourdain announced plans to visit the area for his television show No Reservations, we were concerned. He decided before he arrived that Buffalo was going to be depicted in a three-city "Rust Belt" special, filmed as a homage to directors who have portrayed the grittier sides of Baltimore, Buffalo, and Detroit. Was he coming here to show his audience this area's numerous culinary offerings, or was he planning something shallow and brief with snowy visuals and an upbeat spin - a "Buffalo, from the little I saw before rushing out, you're great" segment?
How concerned were we? Back in December, we wrote Bourdain and his production company a letter, detailing the numerous positive options that might merit his attention, and asking him to "do the city justice;" there was no response. Then, in January, he arrived in town, and local photographers watched as he visited a very old but otherwise forgettable German restaurant called Ulrich's, and the nightclub Nietzsche's. At the time, word had it that Bourdain was focusing on Beef on Weck sandwiches, but since Ulrich's weren't anything special, we wondered what he would think. And why of all places he went there.
Today, there's an answer: The Buffalo News is reporting that Bourdain's Buffalo segment contains the obligatory snowmobile scene and visits to Ulrich's and Nietzsche's, but focuses on the Beef on Weck at Schwabl's, another really old restaurant - this one's 172 years old and located in what feels like a converted house in West Seneca. According to Bourdain, the show picked Schwabl's because “most people here agree” that it's the best place for Beef on Weck in the area. Au contraire, Monsieur Bourdain. It's a nice place to get a kummelweck bun - one made at the Clinton Street bakery Pumpernick 'N Pastry, for what it's worth - but the beef's nothing special; in fact, it's not even in the same league with the meat served at Charlie the Butcher's, Eckl's, or a number of other area restaurants we've visited. Even our local TV critic knows well enough to question that claim. But in anticipation of the airing of the Bourdain episode next Monday, we revisited Schwabl's this week just so that we could specifically detail what the place is, and what it isn't, in anticipation of what are sure to be questions resulting from its portrayal on TV.
Much like Ulrich's, the first thing you'll likely notice about Schwabl's is its dated appearance: the neon sign out front looks like a relic of the 1950's, and the walk-up entrance from its parking lot reminds us of visits to grandma's house ten or twenty years ago. Though the business dates back to 1837, Schwabl's has actually only been in this location since 1946, and it bears the look of a place that hasn't updated much save the paint, wallpaper, and carpeting since then. At the top of a small staircase is a dining room with rear seating capacity for perhaps 50 people, a short bar, and front tables for maybe 25 more, all covered in red plastic tablecloths. To call the place cramped is fair, perhaps generous, as it's obvious that the proprietors are making the most of every bit of space. We're seated literally so close to an old-fashioned radiator that our table would be on fire if it wasn't July, and the idea of getting up from our seats for anything but necessity has left our minds. There's a wait to use the restroom, a longer wait to get menus, and another wait to pay our bill. Our server is nice but overwhelmed, and like the other servers, is dressed in an old-fashioned nurse's uniform, right down to the white shoes. The median age of patrons appears to be roughly 60 during our visit, and mid-week at lunchtime, all of the tables are full.
As on a prior visit, we order two of the menu's Roast Beef Sandwiches - one medium rare, the other medium. They're listed alongside very few choices, and presented here in a number of different variations. There's the standard $8.50 version on Kummelweck, Roast Beef on Bread with Gravy ($9.45), Sliced Roast Beef Alone ($10.50), "Special" versions with sides ($10.75), and so on. Because the restaurant also touts its fresh seafood, we order a Combination Seafood Plate that lets us sample three different items - scallops, shrimp, and yellow pike - for $17. It comes with potatoes - we pick mashed - and either German cole slaw or pickled beets. We go with the beets and add some french fries, besides. We're so close to other tables that we can hear and see their orders; most seem to be for some variation on the Roast Beef.
After a plate with three slices of fresh, legitimately good rye bread arrive, their soft texture and mild flavor pleasing even the one of us who normally doesn't like rye, the sandwiches show up, each sliced once down the center. They're not especially attractive, as the wide buns are like the ones at Eckl's, and the meat is piled wide rather than high, with a single slice of pickle on each plate. Bite one is noteworthy, our teeth mostly grabbing the Pumpernick 'N Pastry roll, which is something close to great - just the right amount of caraway seeds, salt, soft interior, and flaky exterior. On bites two, three, and so on, however, we get the meat, which is truly nothing special - chewy, with little fatty strings, modestly flavored, and even less impressive cooked medium than medium rare. We realize by bite three that our dogs have had better leftover scraps from Charlie the Butcher's beef than this. Taken as a whole, Schwabl's Beef on Weck strikes us both as better than okay thanks to that roll, but neither of us thinks it's worth a drive out to West Seneca or sitting sardine-style besides a radiator.
The Combination Seafood Plate is less impressive. Here, the actual meats are all good - the shrimp and scallops are surprisingly plump, and like the yellow pike they're all coated in a cornmeal batter and deep-fried. "All of our seafood," notes the menu, "is lightly breaded and deep fried in a cholesterol free, zero trans fat, soybean oil." But between the blandness of the batter and significant oil residue inside each piece of seafood, it's hard to get past the taste of soybean grease to actually enjoy any of the items on this plate. A large included lemon slice doesn't cut through the oil at all. While the mashed potatoes are plain, at least they're not greasy; the crinkle-cut fries are fresh out of the fryer and hot when they arrive, soon thereafter yielding a similarly oily taste. If this is what healthy frying tastes like, we'll risk the heart attack, thanks. The beets were probably the healthiest thing at the table, fresh, surprisingly sugary, and served with tiny sweet pickles; if we were bigger fans of beets, we'd have been more excited by them.
By the end of our meal, which like our prior experience a year and a half ago at Schwabl's left us shrugging rather than thrilled, we know for certain that the hype's just hype - while the rolls here are good enough to wow tourists and locals alike, there are a half-dozen places off the top of our heads that serve better overall Beef on Weck sandwiches, and Bourdain's visit to this particular location seems to have more to do with his Rust Belt theme than anything else. He apparently came to Western New York in January looking for old, working class haunts and snow, and not surprisingly, he found them. So while it's nice that Buffalo's going to receive some semi-positive coverage on a national television program, understand this much up front: it's just a TV show, and one predictably filmed during winter, as part of a show with a theme that was selected before the crew had even arrived. Thankfully, everyone who lives here knows that Western New York isn't defined by its weather or its rust, but by its people and its outstanding array of foods and drinks. There's good reason for the local truism that great food and sights are always only 15 minutes away; if Anthony Bourdain's willing to come back to town, we'll show him enough to fill an entire episode.