Paul Wilson: Anchor Bar wing war – Hamilton vs. Buffalo

We've had an Anchor Bar for a few months. In Buffalo, the famed house of chicken wings has been around for nearly 80 years. Can the new Hamilton outpost measure up? We do a cross-border taste test.
Ivano Toscani, general manager and executive chef at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, welcomes Chris Wilson to the birthplace of the wing. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

A front-page story in the Buffalo News on the weekend told of hordes of Americans who regularly drive to Canada for a fix of Swiss Chalet chicken. "I have a couple that comes once a week from Rochester, an hour and a half drive," said the manager of the chain’s outlet on Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls.

They must be nuts. Then again, I’m reading that story in Buffalo, having just crossed the Peace Bridge to eat chicken in the U.S.

A few months ago, Hamilton got an Anchor Bar. It’s downtown, in Jackson Square. It is the only Canadian outlet of the famous Anchor Bar in Buffalo, which has been around since 1935.

There, Mother Bellissimo did something different one Friday night. Instead of tossing the chicken wings in the stock pot for soup, she placed them into the fryer, coated them with a secret sauce and served them with celery and blue cheese dip. Now they sell a thousand pounds of wings a day.

Back in August, I wrote about the Anchor Bar coming to Hamilton. I talked to Ivano Toscani, general manager and executive chef of the Buffalo Anchor operation.

I had asked him why an expansion to Rochester a few years earlier didn’t work. "They had their own way of doing things there," he explained.

Do exactly like we do

Hamilton can succeed, he said then, if it’s done right. "If they copy us, if they do exactly like we do, it will work."

So it’s time for some research, the finger-licking kind. Who’s better, Hamilton or Buffalo?

You don’t conduct a study like this alone. Son Chris agreed to sign on.

The two of us did Buffalo once before. That was 20 years ago this spring, when he was nine. I wrote about it, and just reread that piece.

The Buffalo destination had been his idea. He wanted to see the States. We had a little talk about Rust Belt cities and I told him Buffalo was hurting – like Hamilton, only worse.

We walked Main Street and saw where the big department stores used to be – Sibley’s, Hens and Kelly’s, AM&A’s. We saw giant robotic bugs at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

And we went to the Anchor Bar. The bill for a large order of wings, pepperoni pizza, two beers, large Coke, with taxes and tip, was $20.

A good team

So that’s the history. We are a good taste-testing team. Last Tuesday evening, we went to the Anchor Bar in Jackson Square.

The roof-top patio isn’t open quite yet, so we head inside. It is six o’clock and the restaurant is maybe half full.

We get a double order of medium wings – 16 for $23. And an eight-slice 12-inch cheese and pepperoni pizza. It’s $15.

The wings are great. Crispy, with sauce that’s just right. And that chicken’s fresh – server Alicia says there’s no frozen product here. The pizza is terrific too, fairly thin crust with nice crunch, prepared in a wood-fired oven. We left not a morsel.   Saturday, it’s off to Buffalo. For this second father-son trek, Chris drives – his car is much nicer than mine.

It’s nearly six at the Anchor. There’s a line-up. Keeping an eye on it all is manager Toscani.

Turns out he’s been to the Hamilton restaurant. And the wings there? "Very good. Almost the same as here."

Both sides of the border

I ask if he’s heard from people who’ve done the Anchor on both sides of the border. He has.

And which do they like? "They say it’s better here, but that’s because we’re the original."

Chris and I duplicate the Hamilton order. Except here the double order of wings has 20 on the plate, not 16. And it costs $20, not $23. The pizza is cheaper too – $11, instead of $15.

Kari sets down a platter of golden wings that truly glisten. They look plumper. Throw in the fact there are more of them, and a double for two becomes downright daunting – but in a good way. Absolutely succulent.

In Buffalo, they don’t have the wood-fired pizza oven. These are old-school pies. The crust is chewier, almost sweet. There’s more cheese, and it’s gooey.

And the U.S. pepperoni is different. The edges of each little piece rise to form a small cup that’s laden with juices. OK, I guess that would be fat. But if you’re making wings and pizza your healthy meal, you’re in trouble.

The judges rule that Buffalo wins this one. All that history does matter.

That said, the Hamilton outpost can stand tall. But if you do decide to make a south-of-the-border chicken run, there is a way to defray costs. Apparently Americans will pay handsomely for a tub of smuggled barbecue sauce from Swiss Chalet. |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.