Several months ago, Raymond Castro and Ronald Fraser wandered into the Schupper House in South Buffalo. The pair was looking for meatloaf, and though it wasn’t on the menu, the owner asked them to come back the following week. Sure enough, a week later, “Ron and Ray’s Meatloaf Special” was displayed proudly on the chalkboard, and the friends enjoyed a savory, well-cooked meatloaf.
This is just one memory from Castro and Fraser’s quest to find the best meatloaf in Western New York, a project that’s taken them to nearly 30 eateries in Erie, southern Niagara and northern Cattaraugus counties. For the better part of the year, they visited corner bars, upscale establishments, microbreweries and chains, reviewing their findings at each stop.
The pair didn’t initially set out to document every variation of the classic dish available locally—they just wanted a good meatloaf. For Castro, a retired banker, the meal recalled memories of his days working downtown, when he’d trek over to McGinty’s for lunch to enjoy the meatloaf special with a cold beer. Meanwhile, Fraser, a freelance writer, grew up with meatloaf as a favorite in his mother’s rotation of home-cooked meals.
“Meatloaf just turned out to be something we both enjoyed—and something that we were afraid was disappearing,” said Castro, who met Fraser through their wives a few years ago.
Meatloaf’s history dates to the fifth century, though the present-day iteration became an American staple during the Great Depression as a way for families to stretch their limited resources. (“The one common denominator in all the recipes appears to be a propensity to put whatever is available in a pan and cook it,” Castro and Fraser wrote in their notes from the project.)
To try a local restaurant, their criteria were simple: Meatloaf had to be available at lunch and accompanied by beer. But finding a place? Decidedly less simple. Originally, they just started driving down various blocks and popping into every restaurant they saw to ask if meatloaf was on the menu. Eventually, they turned to Google when they started spending an hour or more scouring for lunch.
“It turned into an adventure,” Castro said. “Usually, (meatloaf) shows up as this kind of brown slab covered in this brown gravy with mashed potatoes and something resembling vegetables; sometimes, they’re nice vegetables, and sometimes, they’re overcooked peas. We never knew what we were going to get, but that’s part of the whole experience.”
The project has taken them from Niagara Falls to Akron, Springville to Lackawanna, and many places in between. Along the way, a bartender offered to open their beers with her teeth (they declined), and another restaurant served charcoal-grilled meatloaf with French fries—and a child from a nearby booth came over to snag a few bites. They lunched surrounded by Christmas decorations in springtime at Faso’s on Niagara Street, and watched country line dancing while eating meatloaf at Armor Inn in Hamburg.
“We were on a mission to save meatloaf,” Castro joked. “It became a reason to go out on Tuesdays.”
Craving meatloaf? Start here...
As they sampled meatloaf around the area, Ray Castro and Ron Fraser rated each from one to three, with one being the best. Fourteen restaurants earned their top rating, including the since-closed Papa Jake’s in Springville and Schupper House, where “Ron and Ray’s Meatloaf Special” is, sadly, not a standard menu item. Below are the remaining 12 spots they recommend for meatloaf in Western New York.
If you order meatloaf, at most places you’ll get a slice from a larger loaf. At Mason’s Grille 52 in Hamburg, you get small, personal bacon-wrapped meatloaf cooked fresh to order. Plus, quipped Fraser, “Meatloaf looks different on a cloth tablecloth than a Formica table.”
Castro and Fraser were surprised to learn the Cheesecake Factory not only has meatloaf—it’s top-notch, served with mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, grilled onions and corn succotash.
For sports fans
Enjoy a game and classic meatloaf at Gadawski’s on Falls Street in Niagara Falls—“a shrine to Notre Dame football,” Castro said. “There’s not a blank spot on the walls in the whole place,” Fraser added.
With a side of live music
Castro and Fraser made an exception to their lunch rule for Hamburg’s Armor Inn Tap Room, where they met for dinner with their wives. The restaurant regularly hosts live music and dancing, with open mic on Mondays, country night on Wednesdays and acoustic on Fridays.
Story topics: Food + Drink