The Buffalo-style chicken wing has conquered the world, having been served on all seven continents, even Antarctica. In its birthplace, many diners expect restaurants to offer their take on the classic, just as dinner at an Amalfi Coast trattoria should include a pitcher of the local rustic red wine.
Wings are a piquantly sauced canary in the coal mine, because a kitchen that can fumble chicken wings it brags about is capable of producing the sort of spectacularly terrible meal whose sole redeeming value is as a story told at parties. Do it right, and it can become a beacon, drawing hungry crowds like the Sirens of Greek mythology lured ships. Or pickup trucks, in the case of the parking lot at 4206 Lake Ave., Lockport.
On a Wednesday night, when its smoked wings are 50 cents, the Hilltop Restaurant is the toughest table in town.
Formerly Manhattan’s, the refurbished bar and dining room have been the province of Anthony and Crystal Conrad since 2015. The Conrads are technically first-time owners, despite growing up in families with restaurants in Barker, Medina, Newfane and Albion.
On a recent Thursday night, the half-full dining room made conversation easy under a pop music soundtrack. A specials board propped on a chair clattered to the floor, providing a jolt of adrenaline, but it was serene otherwise.
We took the board’s suggestion of a bacon cheddar bread bowl ($9.99). A softball-sized roll was eviscerated, its excavated chunks toasted for dipping to make room for an abundance of cheese sauce. Despite pork nibs, it registered at Velveeta-esque, not cheddar-sharp or smoky.
When you read Buffalo Chicken Wing Soup, do you expect creamy soup, spiked with blue cheese and Frank’s hot sauce? At Hilltop it’s got Frank’s vinegary lash, but it’s brothy, like Manhattan clam chowder with chicken instead of clams.
Tony Conrad isn’t the first chef to smoke chicken wings. But he does it the right way, taking the time to fry the chicken digits off the smoker, tightening up the skin and bringing the crispy back.
For my 10 smoked wings ($12.99 on the menu, $13.99 on the bill), served with celery and blue cheese dressing, I passed up sweet chile, raspberry barbecue and honey-hot for mango habanero. Fruity fire, smoke and crunchy seasoned chicken skin made me check my calendar for Wednesday.
Besides the wings, the appetizer I would suggest is the potato chip poutine ($9.99). Housemade crinkle-cut potato chips get Velveeta-ish cheese sauce, fresh diced tomatoes, scallions, chopped onion, and noticeably smoky pulled pork. The extra crunch from the ripple-cut potatoes makes it better. It’s zero percent poutine, but 100 percent delicious. (A table of four ordering no other appetizers needs at least two orders, or there will be hard feelings.)
That brisket Reuben ($10.99), served with fries and Thousand Isles dressing, had a winsome heart of tender beef, though I wouldn’t have known it was smoked except the menu said so.
Pistachio-crusted salmon ($18.99) frequently disappoints, but Hilltop’s offered toasty crunch without turning the fish into salmon jerky. The mashed potatoes, wet coleslaw and garlicky green beans provided earnest support.
Chicken and waffles ($16.99) was a sandwich with a cornflake-crusted chicken breast between Belgian waffles. Pour the maple syrup over everything and go knife-and-fork, or go hand-to-hand and dunk handfuls between bites. Crunchy chicken amped with cool-spicy candied jalapeno coleslaw, and a side of sweet potato fries, made it engaging.
Fiesta shrimp salad with lime ($12.99) came with a zippy, aromatic lime dressing, but the well-cooked shrimp were salty. Pub steak and fries ($16.99) was a disappointment, as well. The 10-ounce peppercorn crusted ranch club steak arrived two levels past medium rare, more like medium well. The seasoned fries had cheddar beer sauce applied sparingly.
The Greek stuffed pepper ($13.49) was an unexpected vegetarian hit. Stuffing a bell pepper with rice and stewing it to tenderness is a solid diner move, but the stuffing put this one over with its fluffy chile-coated rice and plentiful clumps of feta cheese.
A side of retro macaroni and cheese ($3.25) here means that Velveeta-like cheese, not the old-fashioned baked bechamel version jacked with mustard, and extra sharp cheddar I was hoping for. The buttery bread crumbs were there, though.
Dessert included an assortment of cakes made off premises, which I declined in favor of a house-made cheesecake parfait ($7). Sporting layers of cherry, cream and graham cracker crumbs in a glass, it offered more visual appeal than flavorful finesse, though it would satisfy if you’re keen on canned pie filling and whipped topping.
There’s still plenty of reasons to put Hilltop on your map. Especially if you’re looking for smoked wings in Niagara County. Then it would all be downhill from here.
Hilltop Restaurant & Bar - 7 plates (out of 10)
4206 Lake Ave., north of downtown Lockport
Hours: 2 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: appetizers, $7.99-$13.99; sandwiches, $8.99-$12.99.
Atmosphere: popular music at modest volume.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten free options: pasta, wings and fries.