For me, 2014 was the Year of the Small City. Chattanooga. Raleigh. Buffalo.

Last month, we went even smaller. On a trip through western New York, we stopped in the small town (they prefer “village” actually) of Medina. It’s not the stereotypical “one stop light” town, but it’s close. For me, that makes it all the more interesting. I love small towns and the people in them. I’m fascinated by them: how they live, where they eat, what they do.

While we only stayed the night, we left the next day bummed and wishing we’d planned for a few more days to explore. We were shocked at how cool of a town (er, village) it was and just how much there was to see and do!

Here are seven of our favorite reasons to visit Medina …

#1: The Quintessential Small Town Main Street

Main Street Clock in Medina, New York
© Mike Richard

The pint-sized “downtown” core of Medina spans just 12 acres from the Erie Canal to the railroad tracks. But, like many quintessential small town main streets, it’s packed with history (in 1995 it was designated a historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places), beautiful architecture, friendly people, and a smattering of small town shops. It’s easy to wile away half a day exploring Main Street alone.

ellen j goods in Medina
ellen j goods in Medina © ellen j goods

At ellen j goods, owners Lynne and JR offer repurposed and refinished furniture and accessories that range in style from Soft Industrial to French Country and Farmhouse Cottage to Retro Cool. The Book Shoppe (with an “e”) is a classic small town bookstore with just the right amount of classics, new releases, and even a back room kids area.

Della’s Chocolates offers handmade artisan chocolates, including truffles, chocolate patties, and holiday candies. And The English Rose Tea Shoppe (again with an “e”) is a British-inspired tea-ery complete with British music and lace window treatments. They offer an assortment of loose leaf and bagged teas, as well as tea-centric accessories.

#2: … and the Quintessential Small Town Mayor

Andrew Meier, Mayor of Medina, New York
Andrew Meier (right), Mayor of Medina, New York © Kelsie Withey

Yes, Mayor Andrew Meier is worthy of his own reason to visit Medina. Because, not only is he the village mayor, but also the church organist, lawyer, hotelier, historian … and all-around awesome guy. As a born and raised Medinan (that sounds right), he’s leading the charge for the village’s current revitalization efforts.

He turned a beautiful, historic shirt factory into a boutique hotel, cafe, and meadery (more on that below). He’s now focusing his efforts on restoring the crown jewel of the village’s history – a Civil War-era opera house.

The best part? You can often find him tooling around town or at his Hart House hotel, where he’s happy to greet new visitors to the village he loves.

#3: The Shirt Factory Building

Mayor Meier (how perfect is that name?) has spent considerable time restoring the town’s historic Shirt Factory Building. Built in 1876, the R. H. Newell Building was originally designed for use as a hotel. It could be said that this building and its restoration represent the model for Medina’s way forward. Fully embracing its rich, small town history with an eye towards carefully repurposing its most important buildings and architecture for modern day uses.

Shirt Factory Building in Medina, New York
Shirt Factory Building in Medina, New York © Preservation Studios

Medina’s Coolest Digs: Hart House Hotel

The RHN Building was converted to use as a factory before Meier purchased it this century and re-converted it back into, among other things, a hotel. In particular, the Hart House Hotel.

Churchill Room at Hart House Hotel in Medina
Churchill Room at Hart House Hotel in Medina, New York © Kelsie Withey

This surprisingly modern design seems perfectly suited to a boutique hotel in Brooklyn or San Francisco. Meier designed much of the interior himself and each room is uniquely outfitted in an urban, loft-inspired decor. It goes without saying that it’s the coolest accommodations in Medina.

Shirt Factory Cafe in Medina, NY
Shirt Factory Cafe in Medina, NY © Mike Richard

Shirt Factory Cafe

Downstairs, in the Shirt Factory Building, the appropriately named Shirt Factory Cafe offers great, made-to-order food and breakfast served all day. The Cufflinks Coffee – standard iced coffee with a vanilla ice cream base – was an interesting, just-sweet-enough surprise. As we enjoyed our breakfast at a leisurely pace, a steady stream of locals came and went, all exchanging pleasantries and first names.

#4: The Original, Civil War-era Opera House

Bent's Opera House in Medina, New York
Bent's Opera House in Medina © Mike Richard

Historians will find enough reason to visit Medina in Bent’s Opera House. This stunning, Civil War-era theater was constructed in 1865 and remains largely intact.

For many decades, Bent’s Opera House was a prominent venue in Medina for concerts, plays, shows, commencements, elections, and other public functions. P. T. Barnum and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody were among the hundreds of touring performers who brought their talents to the Bent’s stage.

As motion pictures and other forms of entertainment became popular in the twentieth century, the Opera House fell into disuse. Yet its legacy was not completely forgotten, as Bent’s Hall was included as a contributing property to Medina’s Main Street Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Mayor Meier is overseeing its reconstruction with the help of generous donations from locals and sympathetic tourists. The project is still in its early stages with a long road to full restoration ahead. But touring it now, in its raw and most original form, is among the most fascinating experiences I’ve had in the U.S. It’s literally a step back in time through American history.

#5: The Beginning/End of the Niagara Wine Trail

Western New York’s Niagara Wine Trail is shaped like a giant apostrophe. So, depending how you map it, Medina is likely your first or last stop (assuming you sample each one and, really, why wouldn’t you?). You’re forgiven if your first reaction to finding good wine in western New York is, “Huh?”

Believe it or not, the Greater Niagara region is one of the fasting growing wine regions in the state. It also boasts its own American Viticultural Area (or AVA). Leonard Oakes explains:

The signature terroir of the region is defined by the soil structure and topography carved out by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. The natural escarpment, fertile soils rich with deltaic glacial deposits, and the moderating effects of Lake Ontario create a lush macroclimate for the vineyards …

Bottle at Leonard Oakes Winery in Medina, NY

This means the wines of western NY have a strong minerality and earthiness. You can literally taste the region’s rock, dirt, and soil in every glass. And that’s a good thing. I found some of the best white wines I’ve tasted in the eastern U.S. here.

Medina’s own Leonard Oakes Winery boasts a cool, modern tasting room that’s entirely unexpected among the simple homes and rustic farmhouses of rural Route 104.

As an added bonus, Leonard Oakes also offers a unique Steampunk Cider. That any rural winery is hip enough to get the steampunk reference is a testament to how cool this place is.

#6: The Rare Meadery: Meadworks

810 Meadworks in Medina, New York
810 Meadworks in Medina © 810 Meadworks

Outside of America’s major cities, meaderies have begun quietly peppering the country’s map. They’re on the rise but still enough under the radar that you feel as though you’re sampling something special. Medina’s newly opened 810 Meadworks is among a select few in western New York and quite surprising for a town of just 6,000 people.

The meadery is so named for the Bible verse Nehemiah 8:10:

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Any business that places god and booze in the same context is a-ok in my book. Aside from mead tastings, Meadworks also offers mead by the glass and bottle, handcrafted chocolates, hot tea and honey soda, and
local handcrafts and products for sale.

#7: The Upscale Comfort Food at Zambistro

I’m not qualified to say that Zambistro is the best meal in western New York. But it has to be pretty close. It’s among the best food I’ve eaten in a long, long time. At one point during our meal, Mrs. Vagabondish questioned, “Is it inappropriate if I lick the plate?” It was that good.

Zambistro Restaurant in Medina, New York
Scallops at Zambistro in Medina

They specialize in upscale comfort food, the kind that could care less about silly phrases like “heart healthy” and “carb conscious”. Think: crispy risotto balls with marinara and herbed cream sauce. And lobster pasta – an insanely rich blend of fettuccine, lobster claw meat, asparagus, mushrooms, and brandy cream sauce topped with shaved Romano cheese.

I was shocked to find one of my all-time favorite dishes on the menu: espresso-rubbed steak. Naturally it’s topped with brown butter smashed potatoes and Gouda spinach, topped with crispy onion strings. Talk about gilding the lily.

We capped it off with their creamy, richer-than-normal espresso creme brulee with a subtle coffee flavoring that complemented the dish nicely.

After only one day, we were sad to leave Medina. It’s a rare destination that’s managed to embrace its historical roots and small town charm, while still looking to the future. All while staying largely off the tourist radar. Which is to say: get there before everyone else does.

27 Responses

  1. Dawn Meland

    So glad you enjoyed coming to my hometown. It is truly a gem worth sharing. There are so many other delights you missed that I hope you plan on coming back to see them all!

    Reply
    • Mike Richard

      Thanks, Dawn!

      We’re already talking about a return trip in late summer/early fall next year. We were floored by how much there was to see and do there!

      Reply
      • Carol Oswald

        Make sure you stop at Nice Farms on Knowlesville Rd., outside of Medina, when you are there in late summer/early fall. You will find no better place to taste the best tasting produce right off the trees. They have a little farm stand and the Nice family has been running this farm for the past 70+ years. My grandfather bought it and ran it, my uncles and cousins have lived there all their lives. They make maple syrup from the syrup trees and grow all kinds of produce including blueberries, raspberries and apples. I don’t know what will be in season while you are there, but if the Jonagolds are ripe and ready, pick one off the tree and take a bite and you will know that you are tasting the best apple in the world.

  2. Marcy Boyce

    Wonderful article!! I enjoyed reading an outsider’s take on our wonderful little town!!

    Reply
    • Mike Richard

      Thanks, Marcy!

      As an outsider to almost every destination I visit, I really try to understand and appreciate each of them from a local’s perspective. So it means a lot to know that a local liked what I had to say =)

      Reply
  3. Geri Adkins Licata

    I am so proud of this piece. Medina is my home town. You surely made it shine. You should see it now, all dressed up for the holidays. Thank you from this small town girl.

    Reply
    • Mike Richard

      It wasn’t hard, I promise =)

      Someone just sent me a pic of the town lit up for the holidays and I’m a little bummed we missed it. It looks absolutely beautiful!

      Reply
  4. Cynthia

    i hope it is,due to autocorrect that the Shirt Factory Cafe was a “t shirt factory”. On the contrary, the Newell Shirt Factory produced exquisite custom dress shirts for very famous people, including Presidents of the United States. They were very expensive and a far cry from a “t shirt”.

    Reply
      • Nancy

        Thank you for the wonderful view of our Medina! Just wanted to add that the “Shirt Factory” made shirts for Johnny Carson and Roy Rogers to mention a few. We are proud of our little town and don’t want it to change!!!

  5. Cheryl Vaicys

    What a great article about my hometown, Medina. I moved away about 36 years ago, but my husband and I return at least once a year to visit family and friends. Your list includes a few places I have never visited….and will be sure to do so during my next visit. I wasn’t even aware that Medina had a Civil War-era opera house. How exciting! Thanks for your wonderful article.

    Reply
    • Mike Richard

      Thanks, Cheryl! I’m thrilled you enjoyed it!

      I think Bent’s Opera House has flown a bit under the radar. It’s not really evident from the outside what it is. So I think you almost have to *know* that it’s there, otherwise you’d assume it’s just another Main St. building. They’re doing great things with it. The restoration project still has a long way to go, but I think it’ll be worth it in the end. It’s a rare, historical treasure!

      Reply
      • Carolyn

        I love Medina, too, but never thought it possible to go into the old opera house. Who can I contact about arranging this?

  6. Linda Thompson Garrett

    I enjoyed your article – made me quite nostalgic! I moved away from Medina in ’74 and have only been back twice – but quite often I wish I had never left!!

    Reply
  7. Vicky

    we lived in Western New York about 15 years ago. We had two daughter and used to take them to a shop in Medina once or twice a year for their good dresses. There was a shop that specialized in dressy clothes for girls there. It was a fun time. I wonder if that shop is still there.

    Reply
  8. Lindsay Welsh

    What a nice article! I haven’t been home in a few years, but you sure made sound wonderful. After living in the big cities for awhile it sure would be nice to get back to the ‘village’. Thanks again:)

    Reply
  9. Barb

    Thank you for the wonderful article. Having moved here over 40 years ago, I have seen many changes. So many of the good things happening here can be attributed to the dedication and inspiration of the “younger generation.” We are very lucky. (And you are so right about the food at Zambistro! ) Try to come for our “Wine About Winter” the first Saturday of February.

    Reply
    • Mike Richard

      Thanks, Barb!

      Zambistro was truly fantastic! After reading a bunch of reviews, it seems that many NY-ers feel the same way. It’s a real gem!

      And thank you for your tip about “Wine About Winter”. I hope we can be there in February to check it out. We saw only the smallest piece of the wine trail too so it’d be great to get back and see the rest.

      Reply
  10. Chris Zambito

    Mike, as you can see from my e-mail, I am a Zambito! I now live in Portland, OR, but I was raised in Elba, NY, (another small NY town and it Doesn’t have a stoplight!) along with my numerous Zambito cousins, not far from Medina. Zambistro’s is owned and run by my cousin’s son! Thanks for the “shout-out” for him and his restaurant, and glad you enjoyed your meal–I always have enjoyed it when I get to go on visits back!

    Reply
    • Mike Richard

      Right on – you’re very welcome, Chris!

      It truly was one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time. It was a real surprise, especially in such a small town. Seriously rivals any “big city” meal I’ve ever had!

      Reply
  11. Richard Ehrenreich

    What a wonderful article. I grew up in a small town about eight miles from Medina, population 776 and no stop lights, Lyndonville. Medina was the “big city” where my family did all of their shopping, except for fresh produce and milk. For those items, we went to Nice Farms (also mentioned in these replies), in Knowlesville. I moved away in 1967, was in the Army and hardly ever got back to WNY except for rare occasions to visit family. I did recently stay in the Hart House Hotel and eat at the Shirt Factory Cafe. For one of your meals, you have to step across the street from there to Rudy’s, another great Medina eatery. Thank you for letting others know of the magic in Orleans County, NY.

    Reply

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