Walking through the doors of Schwabl’s in Buffalo, New York, feels like stepping back into 1942. Soft jazz music plays as waitresses wearing white dresses, white nylons, and white shoes deliver food to hungry patrons. Bartenders in white shirts, ties, and white coats chat with locals and sling traditional drinks. Meat carvers at carving stations are careful to keep their coats clean as they slice into round cuts of beef.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the kitchen staff plates Schwabl’s famous German potato salad, pickled beets, and coleslaw to accompany the restaurant’s most common order: the beef on weck. To make the beef on weck sandwich, a Buffalo icon, a chef removes the big slab of beef from the oven, roasted until it’s medium rare on the inside with charred crispy bits on the outside. The beef is sliced and placed atop a salty, caraway seed-topped bun, made especially for Schwabl’s by a local bakery. A dab of horseradish is the finishing touch.
Although it’s unclear who first sold the beef on weck in Buffalo, the history of the sandwich leads back to a man named William Wahr, a German baker from Bavaria, who brought the kummelweck roll with him to the states in the late 1800s. The kummelweck differentiates a beef on weck from any other sliced roast beef sandwich: The bread roll is hard-shelled but soft on the inside, slightly salty, and topped with caraway seeds (“kummel” in German means caraway). Schwabl’s — named after founder Sebastian Schwabl, a German immigrant — has been around since 1837, serving beef sandwiches on kummelweck rolls. There aren’t concrete records that affiliate Wahr with the restaurant, but Schwabl’s own lore is quick to claim the title of Buffalo’s original roast beef on kummelweck.
“We can’t say that we invented it because we don’t know for sure, but we suspect we did,” says Schwabl’s current owner, Cheryl Staychock. At the very least, memorabilia — much of it now displayed around the restaurant — confirms the sandwich has been on the menu for more than 100 years. “Schwabl’s was even serving customers at one of Buffalo’s most historic events, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901,” Staychock says, noting that at the time, the item was sold for just 15 cents.
Staychock started working at Schwabl’s in 1990, waitressing for then-owner Ray Schwabl at just 14 years old; she and her husband Gene would go on to buy the restaurant from him. “He knew wholeheartedly that we wouldn’t change anything, and we would keep their long-standing traditions alive,” Cheryl Staychock says. They still serve the restaurant’s fish fries, Hungarian goulash on Saturdays, and, of course, countless beef on weck sandwiches.
Buffalonians are proud to introduce visitors to a plate of Buffalo delicacies. Buffalo wings date back to 1964, when they were invented by Teressa Bellissimo at the Anchor Bar. The origins of sponge candy remain a mystery, but Fowler’s has been making it since 1901, the year entrepreneur Joseph A. Fowler made and sold the sweets at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. But the beef on weck predates these — it’s Buffalo’s original culinary specialty.
Although Schwabl’s is a top destination for beef on weck, and Alton Brown’s favorite, it’s not the only place known for perfecting the sandwich. Charlie Roesch has become a local celebrity thanks to the beef on weck sandwiches he serves at Charlie the Butcher, about eight miles away from Schwabl’s. The shop has been around since 1914, and Roesch is the third generation to lead the business, following the path his father and grandfather (both also named Charles E. Roesch) paved before him. But the beef on weck tradition truly began with Roesch’s great-grandfather, Jacob Roesch, who had his own stand inside the Washington Market in the heart of Buffalo in the late 1800s, where his beef on weck was a smash hit from the get-go.
Better known for its wings, Bar Bill Tavern also serves beef on weck (a combo meal allows guests to try both Buffalo specialties at the same time). In fact, when Barb and Bill Korzelius opened the tavern in East Aurora, New York, beef on weck was the only item on the menu. In 1977, Joe Giafaglione purchased the bar with a plan to change that, adding the wings and a selection of wing sauces that attracted visitors from all over the country.
“From a Bar Bill perspective, what’s unique is ... delivering the best of Buffalo fare together in one sitting,” explains current owner Clark Crook. Although the wings get much of the visitor attention, Clark takes pride in the way the restaurant prepares its beef. “We trim it before it goes into the oven, when it comes out of the oven, and before it goes into your mouth to make sure you’re only getting the perfect slices of tender beef on the sandwich.”
While businesses like Schwabl’s and Charlie the Butcher have been serving traditional beef on weck for generations, some Buffalo chefs are putting their own spins on the sandwich. Buffalo restaurant and caterer Local Kitchen & Beer Bar serves a beef on weck egg roll that packs thinly sliced beef and cheddar cheese into an egg roll wrapper. It comes topped with salt and caraway seeds and with a side of “horsey” horseradish sauce.
Mike Andrzejewski, owner of downtown Buffalo sushi restaurant Seabar, turned the beef on weck into a sushi roll. One night, after a tasting at the restaurant, Andrzejewski and his team started snacking on some of the leftover components of a few of the courses. “One of the dishes was a carpaccio-style preparation, and we had some of the trimmings and scraps of raw tenderloin left, and another course involved sushi rice, so we started picking up a pile of rice with beef scraps,” Andrzejewski says. Seabar’s sous chef, Eddie O’Donnell, grabbed some horseradish from the pantry, and the combination’s resemblance to beef on weck became clear.
Linda Lund, owner of Babcia’s Pierogi, which offers more than 23 pierogi varieties, includes a beef on weck pierogi, filled with shaved roast beef and served with horseradish jus, as part of her “Buffalo Trio.” “Since Buffalo is known for its beef on weck sandwiches, it seemed like a match made in heaven,” Lund says. “One bite and you’d swear you were eating a beef on weck sandwich.”
Beef on weck is now more than a sandwich — Dwyer’s Irish Pub even offers beef on weck wings with a horseradish batter base, tossed in caraway seeds and coarse salt. Whether it’s cheering on the beef on weck mascot at a Buffalo Bison’s Baseball Game or chowing down on sushi, Buffalonians have fully integrated the specialty into life in Buffalo. For visitors to the city of good neighbors, trying this piece of Buffalo history is essential — and so is saving some room for the spinoffs.
Jessica Kelly is a food and travel writer based in Buffalo, New York.