Michigan & Congress, Chicago, IL 60604
Web: Taste of Chicago
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"Thanks to partnerships with merchants, the Taste of Chicago isn't just a place to eat: there's daily, free entertainment, as well as visits from local and national celebrities."
Tastes are ephemeral: they last for seconds, fade away, and beg to be replaced, leaving only vague memories of their flavors behind. Food festivals - led by the Taste of Chicago, the world's largest - cater to the desperate tongue in a novel way, letting patrons sample many different types of food at once, replacing one flavor from one restaurant with something completely different from another. We're mulling this as the plane we're taking to Illinois rocks to and fro, and the captain signals the flight attendants to be seated; will the slight taste of gin and tonic left on our cup's ice cubes will be the last taste we experience? Or the strong, citrus flavor we squeeze out of the lime wedge in the cup? Within a minute, that sour liquid is gone, our mouths only detecting bitter traces where it had been. Then the turbulence ends as quickly as it came - there was nothing to worry about, and we're 20 minutes from landing in Chicago. The fun is about to begin.
What is the Taste of Chicago? It's a one-street, four-block food festival on Columbus Drive with roughly 56 exhibiting restaurants and a number of non-restaurant vendors. Unlike the Taste of Buffalo - the second-largest food festival, a two-day mid-July affair with roughly 450,000 attendees - the Taste of Chicago runs for ten days and supposedly draws around 3.5 million people. We say supposedly because admission is free, there are no obvious attendance counters, and the crowds on day one didn't seem as dense as we've seen at Buffalo's event over the years. Yet we wouldn't doubt that this event draws more people given that it runs for five times as long, has been operating annually for 29 years, and has a number of things going for it - lessons that Buffalo could learn from, going forward.
Ticketing. Though admission is free, food tickets are required to purchase anything you want to eat or drink. Items range from 3 to 10 tickets in price, and have an on-site purchase value of 67 cents each - they're sold in bundles of 12 tickets for $8. Taste of Chicago achieves early buy-in from the community by making food tickets available at a discounted price of 12 for $6 (50 cents each) prior to the event, as well. Soft drink bottles and "taste" sized portions of specific items sell for 4 tickets, while full-sized entrees generally go for 8 or 9 tickets.
Big Restaurant Names and Foods. While many of Taste of Chicago's vendors are smaller - names outsiders and even many locals mightn't know - the event also draws some of the city's better-known businesses. There's a booth for the Billy Goat, immortalized in John Belushi's "cheeseburger, cheeseburger" sketches, the wonderful deep-dish pizzeria Lou Malnati's, Eli's Cheesecake, Harry Carey's, and a number of other Chicago mainstays. Chicago foods are similarly well-represented, with everything from hot dogs, sausages and pizzas found at multiple stands.
The Surrounding City. Located in Grant Park, right next to the astonishingly impressive Millennium Park, Taste of Chicago feels like it's surrounded by famous and semi-famous architecture. When you're not eating, you're walking past nice stretches of park grass, beautiful fountains, and a thriving area of the city. By contrast, the Taste of Buffalo mightn't be surrounded by quite as much metropolitan energy, but it does occupy a nice stretch of road and - occasional cranes aside - it's in a nice place.
Putting the Food Prep Out Where People Can See It. While it's not true of all of the vendors at the Taste of Chicago, quite a few do a good job of putting their cooks and preparatory processes out for the public to watch. It's fun to watch a big stack of jerk chicken cooking on a grill, ribs getting basted on site, or layered ice cream cones being assembled by hand. Fun dining is in part about the presentation, and some vendors do a better job than others of bringing patrons into the process.
Great-Looking Stands. Though it's hardly uniform - and probably weighted in the opposite direction - a number of vendors have obviously put money and time into developing stands that are more than temporary tents with simple signs. This investment in facade helps some restaurants stand out from the pack, though the outlay may make more sense for a ten-day festival, planned for re-use over multiple years, than for a two-day event. We've included an example of a more elaborate stand (Lou Malnati's) here; a photo of a more typical tent can be seen in part 3 of this report.
The State and City As Participants. The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois are obviously proud of this event, and rightfully so. Chicago's Transportation Authority makes and posts special extended Metra and bus hours for the Taste, the City has excellent informational and other booths set up at all of Grant Park's key entrances, and the State gets involved with booths such as an on-site Illinois Lottery stand. Major private sector sponsorships are also proudly touted at the event.
Something For the Foodies. Though we weren't totally blown away by the majority of the booths we visited - more on that in Parts 2 and 3 of this report - the Taste of Chicago offers an oversized booth called the Chef's Table, with a comparatively large set of dessert options that cater to pickier palates, selected by a food expert. Amongst the 12 choices were Zeppole, Panna Cotta, Sticky Rice with Mango, and Macaroons.
Going Beyond Just Eating. Thanks to partnerships with local and national merchants, the Taste of Chicago isn't just a place to eat: at least two bands seem to be playing at any given time on separate stages provided by Best Buy, all provided each day for free, alongside visits from local and national celebrities. Day one was set to include a cooking demonstration by Emeril Lagasse, while one of the Chicago Bears will appear on July 3, and a number of other chefs will perform throughout the Taste, as well. Some of the bands are well-known; all the music we heard was actually good.
In short, no matter what one thinks of the typical food stands, the Taste of Chicago has a lot to offer, and it was fun to attend. We'll discuss the highs and lows of the food in parts 2 and 3 of this report.