A crooked icon of the Virgin and child watches over the kitchen, and off to the side, pillowy hot dog buns sit in thin plastic bags. Construction-site-sized trash cans are positioned near the walls. Easton Corbin’s “Baby Be My Love Song” leaks from a portable radio on the counter near a commercial-grade microwave that looks like it dates back to when the Kodak factory was one of Rochester’s biggest employers (i.e., the ’80s).
Behind the counter, cooks work as fast as they can to pile layers of macaroni salad, crisp home fries, and wet baked beans onto plates before the whole heap is then smothered in fragrant chopped onions, mustard, and a red, oily meat sauce somewhere between Tabasco, briny ragu, and the Skyline chili beloved by Ohioans. As soon as everything is piled on the plate, the ingredients start to slide into one another, melding into one. Then it’s crowned with the diner’s choice of protein. That’s when a heap of picnic sides becomes a Garbage Plate.
This is Nick Tahou Hots, and this is Western New York’s version of fast food. The Garbage Plate — the pride of Rochester, in Western New York’s Monroe County, for the past 100 years — is cheap, hot, and served up quick. Garbage Plate is actually a trademarked term: Nick Tahou Hots, Inc. received a U.S. trademark for the phrase in 1992; it refers very specifically to “prepared entrees consisting primarily of one of the following, hot dogs without buns, hamburgers without buns, steak, pork chops, sausage, ham, fish, or eggs and processed potatoes and processed beans.” Plates might go by many names, from “hots and potatoes” to “junkyard dog plates,” “compost plates” to even a “home plate” dish served at the stadium of the local baseball team, the Rochester Red Wings.
No matter what the name, Bill Kauffman, author and keeper of regional lore, argues the plate is best way to get to know the region. But “if you want to get to know Western New York,” he says, “you have to go to Nick Tahou’s.”
Everything at Nick Tahou’s, which has been open for 100 years, is arranged around a big open kitchen where cooks grill the bits and pieces and assemble the plates. Tile, stainless steel, and peeling gingham wallpaper now live inside the shell of what was once the grand terminal of the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railway. This was the end of the line for a network that carried Pennsylvania coal up to the Rust Belt boomtowns, where it burned in the likes of Hartman Manufacturing and Baldwin & Graham Stove Works. Now the building is home to fuel of a different sort — a powerful calorie delivery system that has sustained Rochester since it was known as the Flour (and Flower) City through the Kodak factory years.
In Rochester’s late 19th-century industrial heyday, the Garbage Plate was born out of necessity to a Greek immigrant, Alexander Tahou, who founded the restaurant in 1918 as West Main Texas Hots, naming it for one of the two main ingredients: “hots” and potatoes. The white hot is a pale, unsmoked sausage mainly found in these parts and other chilly Midwestern cities populated by German immigrants; the red hot is of similar origins, and its name doesn't refer to its level of spice, but distinguishes it by its ruddy color. At Tahou’s, the hots in question have long been made by the Rochester meat/sausage maker Zweigle's, which opened its doors in 1880.
Today, in addition to the hots, meat options at Tahou’s include a hamburger, a cheeseburger, chicken fingers, or ham served atop the pile of starch. Another solid choice is the fried fish — a necessary inclusion on the menu should the city’s Catholic quarter fancy a plate on Fridays. The rest is now pure Americana, and diners shouldn't be surprised to see hungry diners asking for a burger or two, or even multiple meats atop their plates.
“People are either amazed by garbage plates or disgusted,” says Ashley Elmore, who works at a Batavia joint called Bourbon & Burger Co., about a 45-minute drive east of Rochester. Out of regional loyalty, the bar will serve a version of the plate if you don’t fancy one of its gourmet burgers and whiskey pours.
There are plenty of places in Western New York that serve up plates — that’s the regional abbreviation. The gist of it is the same at any regional restaurant, but the details might shift — the size and shape of the home fries; the brand of the beans; the secret ingredients in the sauce.
The plate got Rochester through the boom years, and through the bust. Many a Rochesterian survived off hots and potatoes purchased for a few cents during the Great Depression. Alex Tahou’s son Nick added his name to the restaurant in the 1940s when he took over the family business. And in the 1980s, the plate got its current monicker when, according to legend, coeds started asking for “that plate with all the garbage on it.”
Naomi Silver, president of the minor league baseball team Rochester Red Wings, grew up in Rochester, and she knows firsthand how much this dish means to the city. “There aren’t many restaurants that have as long as history as Tahou’s, so growing up in Rochester, the plate has been a part of the lexicon forever,” she says. “Night shift workers eat them for breakfast, they’re perfect for lunch and dinner, at a ball game, and they’re a staple after an evening of partying. It’s not glamorous. It’s just good.”
If you hit up Nick Tahou’s in the ’80s and ’90s, you’ll remember a seedier side to the place than its current lunch menu vibes. In recent years, the restaurant has cleaned up its act. Onetime loyal customer Lou Cantalupo, who attended the Rochester Institute of Technology in the early ’90s, said that he and his roommates would get a plate two or three times a week, often after a round of heavy drinking. Over two decades after his years as a regular, “Nick’s still stands, yet it’s only open during the day, for reasons rumored to be that it was just getting too crazy to manage,” he says. Today, it still feeds the city’s police and firefighters, its suited lawyers, harried families, lovestruck teens, dusty construction workers, and each semester’s series of college students.
Not every Nick’s location has endured as well as the flagship, with one closing down in 2014 after just a four-year run, and one on Lyell Avenue bought out and remade into Steve T. Hots & Potatoes, complete with its own unique meat-sauce recipe, in 2007. In Rochester, that changing of the guard (Steve T. was Nick’s nephew) was a newsworthy and controversial occasion that put locals in a panic. Then there were the owner’s minor legal woes over fines for employee identification laws at Rochester’s beloved Lilac Festival. It’s not easy being an institution. But Western New Yorkers are a loyal bunch, and they keep coming back for more.
“The important part is all the people we’ve met,” says Alex Tahou. He’s the grandson of the founder and the current proprietor, and if you ask how long he’s been working there, he’ll tell you he’s been in the business since he was born. “You can buy a hot dog anywhere,” he explains. “But when you have customers that return year after year because of the experience they had, when they walk out the door and thank you, instead of the other way around, then you know you did a good job.”
The garbage plate is so beloved that the Rochester Red Wings celebrated the dish’s 100th birthday by playing a special one-night-only home game August 10 as the Rochester Plates. Special uniforms were made for the occasion, the shirts illustrated with the many layers of the garbage plate. The concessions team developed different themed entrees for each food stand at the stadium, including a Trash Can, featuring the standard Garbage Plate ingredients in miniature and layered in a clear plastic solo cup. According to reports, the theme night drew “near-record crowds.”
“We are a smaller city known for certain things,” says Dan Mason, general manager for the Red Wings. “Wegmans, Kodak, Xerox, Genesee Beer, Zweigle’s white hot dogs, the Red Wings and the Garbage Plate. As a community we take immense pride in things that are unique to our town and are staples in our community.”
The difference between things like New York cheesecake and Buffalo wings, which both translate well into other food communities, is that Rochester’s plate is so essentially a part of this place that they almost can’t be disconnected. Tahou says that diversity is this city’s strong suit. “There’s parks,” he explains. “Mountains, waterfalls. There’s a lake the size of the ocean. There’s canyons almost as big as the Grand Canyon. The Eastman house, built by the guy who founded Kodak. Eastman Theatre. For a small city, it offers a lot.”
Perhaps part of the secret to the restaurant’s enduring success is that, like Rochester itself, the garbage plate has a little bit of everything. Anywhere else this would be a disorganized mess, a picnic gone awry, a child chef’s attempt at alchemy. In Rochester, it’s home. So order a white hot atop your summer pile, and settle in. At Nick Tahou’s, you’re not just another walk-in. You’re a friend.
Meghan O’Dea is a writer, teacher, and compulsive traveler crafting a life in the foothills of Appalachia. Michael Hanlon is an editorial portrait and wedding photographer in Rochester NY.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley