There are times I think Buffalo wants its people to be alcoholics. People here learn about the relatively unique drinking culture of the city from earlier ages, and it becomes a major point of pride in Buffalo to walk around a grocery store in a different region wondering aloud where the beer is hidden. If we’re in a bar in a different state, we vocally express our shock about the early closing of the bar come the 2 AM last call.
The dominating grocery branches in western New York, Tops and Wegman’s, line shelves with beer. Last call in Buffalo is 4 AM all around. People from Buffalo are frequently given the impression that Buffalo is the only city on the planet that does things like this.
The day on which Buffalonians will stop acting shocked at 2 AM closing times will probably never come, but it should. By the time most of us get to the required 21 years of age to have our first alcoholic drink, we’ve already been drinking in Fort Erie or Niagara Falls for the preceding two years anyway because 19 is the drinking age in Canada. At that point, the shock at reaching 21 in Buffalo is that the bar does NOT close down at 2 AM.
The last call is Chicago is 2 AM, but that is simply the common closing time. When you consider the variety of people who migrate to Chicago and get into the culture, you begin to realize how absurd the idea of a city that size not having bars open until 4 AM absurd. Chicago did in fact have handfuls of 4 AM bars, as well as 6 AM bars and all night bars. Bragging about 4 AM closing times suddenly became pointless. Pulling an all-night bender in Chicago is perfectly possible once you know where everything is.
Buffalonians are also proud to have grocery stores which sell beer, but after setting foot in Chicago that boast is not only pointless but downright foolish. On my first trip to a grocery store after returning to Buffalo, I noticed a large section devoted to international beers. Most of the beer people buy from grocery stores in Buffalo is the popular stuff, and the grocery stores selling exotic beers is a new idea here. And taking the word “exotic” in context is important here. Yes, there are beers available from countless different countries, but they’re being sold to a populace which thinks of Ohio as exotic. Great Lakes beer, which is brewed in Cleveland, hasn’t been around in Buffalo for very long. In Jewel and Dominick’s – the respective Chicago versions of Tops and Wegman’s – these beers have been readily available for years.
The Illinois state government seems to have a more laissez-faire attitude toward alcohol sales in general than the New York state government, and this is more apparent in the grocery stores than anywhere else. The alcohol your average Chicago grocer is allowed to sell you isn’t limited to just beer. It isn’t actually limited at all, really. At the average Dominick’s, wine was both more prevalent and more available than beer, and the better known brands of whiskey, rum, Irish cream, and vodka were also available. Dominick’s even served samples of wine and beer, an act which in New York may be worth jail time outside of a speakeasy. If the alcohol stores in Chicago weren’t selling the more local brands, there wouldn’t be any need at all for them.
For all the ways Chicago bests Buffalo in its drinking, though, Buffalo does hold an advantage in a couple of areas which are key to anyone from a border city. For all of the foreign beer you can buy in Chicago, it would seem like Chicago’s attitude toward Canada is that Canada doesn’t count as foreign. My de facto first question upon walking into a new bar in Chicago quickly became “got anything Canadian?” when I figured out the bars never heard of my favorite beers. Even most of the bars with a lot of international beers I went to neglected to sell brands from the great white north. The very few that knew Canadian brands also treated them like foreign brands; they were more expensive and sold strictly by the bottle, concepts which are unacceptable in Buffalo.
Buffalo also falls under the same minimum drinking age as Chicago, but it has an important trump card: Canada. While the 4 AM last call time never did manage to stretch across the northern border, a Buffalo kid can drink legally at age 19 if he’s willing to drive a few extra miles. The Peace Bridge takes us to Fort Erie, and the Rainbow Bridge allows people to cross to the more urbane part of Niagara Falls. Clifton Hill has a lot of highly regarded nightclubs and drinking points, and Casino Niagara sits right at the end of the Rainbow Bridge. Buffalo residents have access to a special kind of driver’s license which allows easier navigation around those damned passport laws.
The most memorable alcohol boast a Buffalo kid can make in Chicago is being able to drink up at Niagara Falls. People take special trips to Niagara Falls for weddings and honeymoons, once in a lifetime events. They go to photograph the waterfalls in all their powerful majesty during globetrots. Niagara Falls is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, but in Buffalo, kids two years short of legal drinking treat it like just another hole in the wall.