5 Lessons Learned at Taste of Chicago, the World's Largest Outdoor Food Festival
A taste of rib tips from Robinson's No. 1 Ribs
Taste of Chicago, or The Taste as it's usually referred to, is one of the nation's best-known food events. It's been around since long before Food Network was a social force and kale was cool. For many, it's a summer tradition that's as cherished as any, and this year was the event's 34th anniversary. Despite a one-day closure (the first in the event's history) due to rain, more than one million people ate their way through Grant Park during the five-day fest.
For a food lover, it's a pilgrimage. The experience gave me a good perspective on what it takes to make a successful food event, but I won't lie, it also made me happier than ever to get to attend several of Phoenix's food fests.
Beyond those gates lies more food than you could ever eat in one day.
Biggest is definitely not always better.
The Taste is huge, both in physical size and scale. The five-day event (it used to be a week long) includes concerts, pop-up restaurants, fine dining-style dinners, and food trucks and spans the equivalent of several city blocks. The result is an experience that's overwhelming at best. I was faced with either the option to either go all-in and invest serious time and money in trying to see it all over a few days, or settle for experiencing whatever small portion I could manage during a single afternoon. After walking for about 45 minutes I longed for our own Scottsdale Culinary Festival, which seemed so conveniently manageable in comparison. I can't help feeling there's no point in having a festival that's too big for most attendees to really appreciate.
Focus is a good thing.
The food lineup -- at least on the day I attended, Sunday -- included two types of pizza, a handful of different burgers, and I-lost-count-of-how-many hot dogs and sausages. Throughout the event there were many variations of the same dish, as well as a pretty wide variety of cuisines ranging from Brazilian to classic pub fare. About halfway through a slice of famous Eli's Cheesecake, which had be proceeded by a slide of deep dish pizza and a perogi, I couldn't help but appreciate more focused food events that allow you to explore a single type of cuisine in-depth.
On the upside, Taste of Chicago really does live up to its name, providing diners a representative taste of some of the city's best-known restaurants. Personally, I'd go for depth over breadth.
Sometimes, food/drink tickets really do work.
I've gone to far too many food and drinks events where a complicated ticketing system has left me frustrated and in some unfortunate cases, hungry. As a result, any event where attendees are asked to exchange cash for tickets for food generally isn't my cup of tea. The Taste was a perfect example of how simple and effective ticket systems can be.
At the event attendees could buy a strip of a dozen tickets for $8.50 -- quite a reasonable amount to spend. Most food samples (or "taste" sized portions, as they were called) cost five tickets. And here's the genius part: the tickets were marked 50 cents, leading many a taster to assume, incorrectly, that the sample portions cost $2.50 each. Of course, mathematically each ticket actually cost somewhere around 70 cents, but the tickets effectively made spending your money just a little less painful since you weren't accurately aware of how much you were spending.
Quality should always come before quantity.
This sort of goes back to the whole bigger-isn't-better point, but aside from the size of the event, the sheer number of participating restaurants made me wonder if having many food options is really such a good thing. Rarely do events offer high-quality food and a lot of it (the only exception I can think of is Devoured). And not all restaurants are so good that they should be included in large events. I've been to plenty of festivals where I've walked away from a vendor wondering how they made it into the lineup of participants and my Taste experience solidified my belief that food events would be more fun if organizers were stricter about who could participate.
What you're really paying for is the experience.
This is the biggest takeaway of them all. When you're just heading down the road to go to an event that likely features local restaurants you've been to and food from chefs who's names you know, it's easy to feel disappointed. All too often I've found myself wondering, "Was this worth the time and more importantly, the money?" But when you travel to a new city to be a part of a food festival it's a great reminder that you're not paying money for the food, what you're paying for is the experience. The experience of being able to see and taste food from a number of different restaurants and chefs all in one place. That alone has inherent value, let alone the added entertainment and amenities that usual accompany large events.
The understanding that the unique forum any food or drink event offers has inherent value is one I'll be sure to remember next time I attend a festival in Phoenix any beyond.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.