Whether you’re coming from the East Coast, Midwest, or Canada, half a day’s drive will land you in the lush hills of Central New York and the serene region known as the Finger Lakes. Packed with restaurants, farmers markets, fishing lakes, and cozy B&Bs, it’s a place where farm-to-table dining is (and has always been) just the status quo. For years, it has also been a regional haven for high-quality vineyards growing riesling, chardonnay, and cabernet franc, making it a go-to spot for NYC residents escaping the city and giving it a not-so-quiet “if you know, you know” reputation among oenophiles.
These days, the secret seems to be out. Chefs, farmers, craft food purveyors, distillers, brewers, and winemakers have flocked to the Finger Lakes for the convenient location, bounty of natural resources, and lower housing and commercial rents. The COVID-19 pandemic kicked the trend into overdrive, shutting down centers of hospitality in major cities nearby and inspiring enterprising food expats to head for Central New York. While the area has always had its fair share of culinary pride, the recent growth has given the largely rural region a booming food scene to rival West Coast wine destinations.
Lake houses fill in the summer and farmers markets overflow with fresh produce in the spring (the ski slopes of the Catskills still have a lock on winter vacations). But the Finger Lakes really flourish in the fall, when the air is crisp, the lakeshores offer gorgeous views of changing foliage, fresh apples plop off trees at local orchards, and vineyards spring to life for the autumn harvest.
A trip to Central New York, and the Finger Lakes in particular, hits the sweet spot between “super active” and “indulgently lazy.” You can book a guided wine tour at your indie B&B or sit around with a gourmet breakfast spread; fish for your dinner in the namesake lakes or grab a bite from a pop-up food stand; stay on trend with buzzy new arrivals or fall back into the region’s long-time favorite haunts. There’s plenty to see and plenty to do. From Seneca to Skaneateles, Cayuga to Canandaigua, here’s all you need to know about dining through the Finger Lakes.
What are the Finger Lakes?
Depending on how you count, there are 11 eponymous lakes that give the region its name; the spindly, parallel bodies of water in western New York state look a bit like claw marks on a map. From east to west, they’re named Otisco, Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock, and Conesus. Together, they define a huge chunk of the state, tying together a ragtag bunch of quaint towns, a sneaky-good cold-weather wine region, and a vibe that oscillates between pastoral repose and artistic flair.
The region is roughly bounded by three midsize cities: Rochester to the west, Syracuse to the east, and Ithaca to the south. The quintessential boho college town, Ithaca is home to Cornell University, Ithaca College, and all of the bars and lively restaurants that go along with them, plus lots of international cuisines. Rochester is the third-largest city in New York, not far behind Buffalo, providing a great compromise between upscale and everyday staples, including the garbage plate, the city’s greatest culinary contribution to the national food dialogue (more on that below). Syracuse gets a lot of love for its affordable restaurants that make the most of local ingredients. It’s home to the original location of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which still slings the pulled-pork sandwiches and unique sauces that helped the chain rampage across the state.
Then there are all the smaller towns that make the Finger Lakes so darn bucolic. Syracuse residents often make day trips to nearby waterfront hamlet Skaneateles to boat, fish, and dine on things that others fished from boats at mainstays like Doug’s Fish Fry. Watkins Glen in the center of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail delivers on the quaint vibes with idyllic wineries, charming restaurants, and cutesy ice cream parlors — when NASCAR fans aren’t crowding into Watkins Glen International for a race. A few miles away, Penn Yan and Hammondsport are jam-packed with wineries, restaurants, and B&Bs. Don’t miss the riesling at Kemmeter Wines (or Malaysian restaurant Sans Dumplings, which pops up inside) or the Windmill farmers market. Aurora, on Cayuga Lake, is beloved for its vineyards, historic homes, and the Inns of Aurora, a huge player in local hospitality. Finally, on the northern end of Seneca Lake, you’ll find the town of Geneva, a favorite for beverage enthusiasts, who gather at the Microclimate Wine Bar and relax with international beers at Beef and Brew.
What to know before you go
If you want to get the most out of FLX (that’s short for Finger Lakes), commit these regional essentials to memory, from signature dishes to events not to miss.
Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc: You’ll find a lot of different grapes as you drink your way through the Finger Lakes vineyards, but you’ll run into riesling, chardonnay, and cabernet franc over and over. All three grow easily in the region’s cool climate, which has growing conditions similar to the Mosel region of Germany.
Naples Grape Festival: The Finger Lakes host no shortage of festivals, but Naples lays claim to the quirkiest event each fall. The celebration honors locally grown grapes with wine tasting tents, food vendors slinging grape-based treats, and the highly competitive Grape Pie Contest.
Garbage Plate: Rochester residents swear by this surefire hangover antidote and hearty midnight snack, which inevitably comes up in any conversation about Central New York cuisine. The iconic treat from Rochester institution Nick Tahou Hots consists of a heaping pile of fried potatoes topped with baked beans, macaroni salad, choice of proteins (hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage, chicken tenders, fried eggs, or any number of other options), and a crown of onions, mustard, and spicy beef chili.
Moosewood Restaurant: Ithaca takes vegetarian cuisine very seriously, an obsession that started at Moosewood. The restaurant and culinary collective, founded in 1973, quickly became famous for its commitment to plant-based cooking, especially after collective member Mollie Katzen published the Moosewood Cookbook, a now-iconic text.
Trout Fishing: Trout is a big deal in Central New York. Every fall, avid fishers from all over flock to the area, especially Skaneateles and Cayuga lakes, where the cool shallows make the fish easy pickings.
Where to eat
Locals love a classic American tavern, and you’ll find plenty of the restaurants sporting wood-paneled walls, big beer lists, and burgers. But many FLX towns and cities also provide options for international and fine dining. The through line is a tireless commitment to “living off the land” by using local produce and products.
Syracuse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a finer example of the classic American tavern than Riley’s, a legendary Syracuse pub with a great tap list, juicy sirloin burgers, and nightly selection of massive blue plate specials. Red Chili nails both the sheer spiciness and depth of flavor of Sichuan cuisine. Steadfast local fans often go for the hot pots, which can be customized with meat, vegetarian, and seafood options. Ignore the whimsical name of Pastabilities; the trattoria inspires reverence among Syracuse residents with homemade pastas and a cult-favorite spicy tomato oil.
Ithaca: Gimme Coffee had a major footprint in Brooklyn for many years before closing down their NYC locations during the pandemic. New Yorkers visiting the Finger Lakes can still get their fix of the classic Ithaca coffee roastery at one of the company’s four cafes. Fans of mixology will find plenty to love about Bar Argos, a classy hotel watering hole with carefully crafted cocktails (including several featuring New York spirits) and light snacks. Mia Tapas Bar, a pan-Asian spin on Spanish tapas, offers enough creativity and engaging flavors to satisfy the town’s youthful diners. Lotus fritters, duck samosas, and smoked tofu buns are among the restaurant’s hits, but there are also plenty of plant-based options for the vegetarian and vegan crowd.
Geneva: A Seneca Lake institution since 1994, Ports Cafe presents New American cuisine with global twists. The space was once an ice cream stand and burger shack, and the owners have added some polish without erasing the rustic, breezy attitude. Helmed by both Finger Lakes natives and skilled transplants, Kindred Fare focuses on local produce, meats, and dairy in an inventive, ever-changing menu. A Monday-only $40 chef’s choice prix fixe includes some of the freshest seasonal dishes in town for an unbeatable price. Finally, there are several strong contenders from FLX Hospitality group, which has locations across Dundee, Rochester, and Corning, all led by chef and master sommelier Christopher Bates and general manager Isabel Bogadke. In Geneva, F.L.X. Table offers a chef’s table and communal dining, F.L.X. Fry Bird serves fried chicken with fancy milkshakes and boozy slushies, and F.L.X. Provisions sells artisanal groceries.
Lodi: With all of the cool-climate European wines around, the Finger Lakes makes the perfect setting for an Austro-German bistro like Dano’s Heuriger on Seneca Lake. The Viennese menu centers around popular dishes like knockwurst, Wiener schnitzel, and goulash, paired with German-style riesling, gewurztraminer, and lemberger.
Hector: Fine dining techniques meet local ingredients and beverages at Stonecat Cafe. The tavern pays homage to New York’s European influences with dishes like gravlax and risotto, but also leans into American classics like cornmeal catfish and smoked pulled pork.
Rochester: Mini-chain Schaller’s has been a local drive-thru institution since the mid-1950s, serving perfectly greasy cheeseburgers, loaded chili cheese fries, crispy onion rings, and thick milkshakes. Atlas Eats gets well-deserved credit for its homemade baked goods, including flatbreads, cookies, tarts, pizzas, and macarons. But Rochester natives know the beloved bakery also serves an internationally influenced brunch on weekends and five-course tasting menus on Friday and Saturday nights, including dishes like chorizo-stuffed quail and shrimp a la plancha with house-smoked pork belly.
Skaneateles: Lively little bistro Gilda’s serves flavor-packed pizzas covered with toppings like soppressata, burrata, cremini mushrooms, and roasted Fresno peppers alongside a selection of craft beers.
Watkins Glen: Watkins Glen has no shortage of spots to grab a bite and a glass of local wine, but Graft Wine + Cider Bar consistently stands out as a must-visit for their well-edited beverage list and charcuterie boards. If you drive down the main drag of Franklin Street, you’ll have your choice of ice cream stands and parlors. Head for the Great Escape, which has managed to hold its own for nearly four decades with house-made hard ice cream, gelato, and vegan ice cream, including seasonal flavors like sweet corn or pumpkin.
Hammondsport The Park Inn, a chic bistro located in a historic building, has recruited a team of top-tier chefs, sommeliers, and managers from New York City, San Francisco, Napa Valley, and D.C. The metropolitan polish is obvious in the decor, curated beverage list, and mega-seasonal menu, but it’s all counterbalanced by a relaxed atmosphere and a dedication to local ingredients: cheeses from FLX dairies, veggies from FLX farms, and, of course, wines from FLX vineyards.
Where to drink
While the region is a thriving hotbed for German grape varietals like riesling, gewurztraminer, blaufrankisch, and lemberger, FLX wineries plant a wide range of European vines, including lively chardonnays, subtle pinot noirs, spicy cabernet francs, and plenty of others. The vino-averse, meanwhile, can happily drink through the Finger Lakes’ breweries, cideries, and distilleries.
Wineries: Originally from Bernkastel, Germany, an area renowned for riesling, Hermann Wiemer and his team at the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard & Winery in Dundee have made some of the Finger Lakes’ most beloved cool-weather wine varieties since founding the winery in 1979. Konstantin Frank earned his PhD in viticulture in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1930, before immigrating to New York and setting up his own winery in the ’50s. A few generations later, and his family at the Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery produces excellent rieslings, chardonnays, and famous Champagne dupes. Like everybody else in Penn Yxan, Red Tail Ridge Winery makes popular rieslings and chardonnays, but they also produce lesser-known Germanic varietals like dornfelder, blaufrankisch, and sekt (Germany’s answer to Champagne). At Bloomer Creek Vineyard in Hector, winemakers Kim and Debra Engle recreate Old World wines, including beautifully balanced and food-friendly rieslings, gruner Veltliners, chardonnays, and cabernet francs. Heart & Hands Wine Company in Union Springs sits on a bedrock of limestone, which infuses the soil with an appealing minerality that results in fantastic pinot noir and crisp dry riesling.
Breweries: Located just outside of downtown Syracuse, Heritage Hill regularly tops lists of the best local breweries for their American lagers, New England IPAs and poutine, among other seasonal beers and bar food. Ithaca Beer (in guess where) has made a name for itself outside of the Finger Lakes, but even though fans can get the beer elsewhere, visitors to the Ithaca headquarters will find an impressive taproom and beer garden. Alongside evergreen options like Flower Power IPA and Lakeside Lager, the taproom serves seasonal releases, like their famous pumpkin ale, along with appetizers, pizzas, and burgers.
Distilleries: Grapes are good for more than just wine; at Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, they become brandy, grappa, and vodka. The distillery also makes McKenzie-brand whiskeys and gins, and a line of fruit liqueurs, all of which tour visitors can sample in various flights and cocktails. For a truly one-of-a-kind spirits adventure, head to Mushroom Spirits in Seneca Falls, a small craft distillery renowned for earthy, nuanced vodkas infused with mushrooms harvested in the Finger Lakes.
Where to stock up
There’s no shortage of proud independent farmers in the Finger Lakes. You can find them staking out space at farmers markets, sharing their haul with their neighbors and any fortunate vacationers passing through.
Penn Yan’s small-town charm peaks at Apple Barrel Orchards. The top-notch farmstand offers a wide range of fruits and berries in the spring and summer, but really hits its stride in autumn, when visitors heed the siren call of pick-your-own apples and grapes. Canandaigua Farmers Market in the northern Finger Lakes has been going strong for 20 years, thanks to its excellent selection of local produce, jarred jams and pickles, and other treats. Farmers, craftspeople, food trucks, and local artists convene every weekend at the Ithaca Farmers Market, the largest market in the region. Along with local ingredients, you’ll find a range of international cuisines among the prepared foods, including Cambodian, Jamaican, Cuban, and Chinese. The creamery equivalent of a U-pick orchard, Sunset View Creamery in Odessa lets guests pet and cuddle the cows that provide the raw milk, cheese, and butter on sale.
Where to stay
You’re not coming to the Finger Lakes for the luxuries of a Super 8. Embrace the region’s rural charm with a stay at one of the small, independently owned B&Bs or inns, which offer gourmet breakfasts, quirky architecture, and guided tours and activities. If you prefer privacy with a view, snap up one of the bazillion lake houses on Airbnb (you can find them on the major primary lakes like Cayuga and Seneca, and on smaller ones like Waneta too).
Lilly and Greg DeForest-Campbell, a pair of NYC hospitality vets (and certified sommeliers), recently took over 1897 Beekman House Bed and Breakfast, a renovated Victorian manor in Dundee (where rooms start at $165 per night). After a night in one of the manor’s picturesque rooms, guests are treated to a three-course breakfast, including homemade breads and pastries, before guided tours of local vineyards. Vegan travelers often struggle with dining at B&Bs, but they can rest easy at Black Sheep Inn in Hammondsport (rooms start at $189 per night). The charming lodging serves an entirely vegan breakfast menu with options like sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches, or crepes with fresh seasonal fruit. If that’s not enough to ease your mind, visit the on-site spa for Swedish, hot stone, and deep tissue massages. A luxury spin on the typical woodsy cabin, the Chalet of Canandaigua is geared toward outdoorsy travelers looking to hike a few trails and explore Canandaigua Lake (rooms start at $255 per night). Or stay at the most famous resort in the Finger Lakes, the Inns of Aurora, where rooms are spread across several historic buildings (rates starting at $350 per night).
Taylor Tobin is a freelance food & beverage writer (with bylines at HuffPost, Insider, Observer, Allrecipes, and Wine Enthusiast, among others) who spent many years as a resident of New York state before recently relocating to Austin. Luckily, that big move didn’t stop her from revisiting her beloved Finger Lakes several times this year to enjoy the great food, impressive wine, and perfectly laidback vibes.