“Are you just getting in from somewhere too?” a neighbour inquired in the elevator, “Yes, Rochester, how about you?” “Montreal” he responds ending the one-word phrase with a smirk to which I felt the need to pass an enquiring look: “Must be better than Rochester” he says with confidence “Actually, it was pretty great, we spent the weekend visiting craft breweries, eating out and exploring.” He seemed shocked and surprised, much like most other people who learned about my weekend plans in Upstate New York, but little do they know this city is on it’s way to becoming a major destination for foodies and weekend adventurers.
To make the most of the weekend a friend and I took Friday off and went on our way to Rochester by train. In a few pleasant hours we stepped out into a construction zone, “Please excuse the mess, we’re building a new train station” explained our host. Rochester, aka The ROC, comes together through a series of colourful neighbourhoods – East End, Neighbourhood of the Arts (NOTA), Park Avenue, East & Alexander – all quite close, running into each other and sharing the same lax attitude. In between the pockets of restaurants, bars and cultural stops the city consist of Victorian houses, Colonial Mansions, and factory buildings converted to other modern uses.
Our home for the weekend was The Strathallan Rochester, a recently renovated luxury hotel and a popular destination for cuisine and cocktails. The itinerary came together in a pretty simple pattern: start the day at the gallery or a museum and move on to the Rochester beverage trail sprinkled with restaurants and cocktail lounges. Yes, all in Rochester.
Day 1: From art to cocktails: Starved and warn out from the journey we begun our day on Park Avenue, a central mile-long neighbourhood for restaurants, antique dealers and gift shops. The strip is a popular destination for patio lovers and offers up a surprisingly wide variety of cuisine options from Ramen to Greek. A famous, and as we learned many people’s favourite, destination on the strip is Jines, a Greek-ish place with a fantastic relaxed lunch menu. While my friends opted in for meaty salads I went straight for Spanakopita and let me tell you, there were no regrets. Down the street for an afternoon delight we got introduced to a new type of ice cream: Abbott’s Frozen Custard – frozen custard is all the rage here and it comes in a variety of creamy, delicious flavours.
Across the street from The Strathallan is the Memorial Art Gallery. A century-old building with rich history the MAG, often lovingly called the mini-MET, is home to over 50 centuries of art and was at one time a university for women pioneered by the personal sacrifices of Susan B. Anthony (who will soon be on US currency, and it’s about time). The main floor features special exhibitions and a selection of MAG’s historic collection pieces while the second floor is occupied by Music, Mummies and Monet.
Tip: when you get to Mummies make sure to look at the bottom of the case, it’s a mirror reflecting the painted bottom of the mummy’s sarcophagus.
A brief walk from the gallery, through the Village gate, is the hub of NOTA where you will find more restaurants, patios and Nox Cocktail lounge – a beautiful library-inspired craft cocktail bar where spirit shelves run into the ceiling and can only be reached with a movable leader.
Tip: the names of the cocktails are as good as the cocktails themselves: Bukowaki, Hufflepuff, Daisy Buchanan…
For Friday night dinner we joined the Visit Rochester team at ORBS, a place that originally started as meatballs-only but has seen expanded their menu to accommodate the high demand for other items. But people still come here for the meatballs. All ingredients are local and seasonal, all meats are grounded fresh daily and if you need a doggy bag you will get a “ball sack”. The search for a nightcap took us back to The Strathallan: the rooftop cocktail lounge called Hattie’s, with a fantastic 360 view of the city and a fire pit to warm up by!
Day 2: From history to craft brews: Being our only full, travel-free day Saturday begun early at the Rochester Public Market. If I was to stay in the city longer this market exploration would have ended up with bags full of fresh fruits and a dozen watermelons but instead I had a breakfast sandwich that hardly fit into my hand and bacon for which was fried to order right in front of me in a tiny family-run walk up.
Rochester is home to the founder of Kodak, George Eastman, and therefore home to a wealth of photographic and film history. The scope of this coolness, however, didn’t sink in until we visited the George Eastman Museum. The building was Eastman’s 50-room Colonial Revival Mansion. Much of the house has been maintained as Eastman had designed and decorated it and over the years has been expanded to accommodate over 10 galleries and 2 new below-ground floors which now serve as preservation rooms and libraries for hundreds of thousands of images and some epic film collections (including Martin Scorsese and more recently Spike Lee’s).
The rest of the day was a brewery hop (which called for it’s own story) with lunch at the Genesee Brew House and dinner at Ox & Stone, a restaurant set in an 1880s mansion serving Latin-inspired cuisine and [more] craft cocktails. Directly across the street from the Ox is a short strip of bars including The Daily Refresher which maintains it’s vintage feel across two floors and serves, you guessed it, craft cocktails.
Tip: The ground floor patio has a window by which different food trucks pull up in the evening.
Day 3: From city brunch to games and butterflies: Every Sunday should start with a hearty breakfast, ours started with bacon and eggs at sunny and spacious Strath’s Char Steak & Lounge. After taking a break, a nap, and preparing for the road the day, obviously, called for brunch. At this point it was clear that Rochesterians like their food with a dash of luxury in between the street-meat and a good place to find some of that luxury is The Restaurant at the Armory (TRATA) – a multilevel restaurant with a ground and rooftop patio, colorful décor, friendly staff and refined innovative cuisine.
And because everyone has an inner child somewhere under the adult jobs we went to The Strong National Museum of Play: the largest children’s museum in the country where children get lost in classic life-size story replications and adults get all kinds of nostalgic wandering through the arcade exhibitions and rooms filled with some of the history’s most popular and interesting games and toys. There is also a butterfly garden with a ridiculous number of butterflies flattering around and a few 8-inch moths (contained in a cage because let’s be honest, those things are scary).
In full transparency it was the promise of craft beer, wine and cocktails that brought us to Rochester and regardless of our packed itinerary we ran out of time to see, do and try things. Needless to say The ROC proved itself a worthy destination and one I would undoubtedly return to whether it is to updated my beer fridge, to get lost in the film archives or for some of the nicest people I’ve ever seen gathered in one city.