July 09 to July 13, 2014
Grant Park, Chicago
By Megan Eileen McDonough
Chicago may earn its “Windy City” nickname when the cold weather strikes but that’s hardly the case during the sunny summer months. Kicking off on July 9th is the city’s 34th annual Taste of Chicago, a five day extravaganza that brings food lovers, musical acts and up-and-coming artisans together. Although this is one huge festival, it’s actually quite manageable once you understand the basic structure of the event. From tips and tricks on getting the best concert seats to scoring samples from the most talked about chefs, here’s our ultimate guide to the 2014 Taste of Chicago.
Taste of Chicago is hosted in the spacious and quite picturesque Grant Park, located at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Columbus Drive. Things kick off on Wednesday and continue through Sunday evening. Gates open at 11 am and close at 9 pm at night on the weekdays. However, on Saturday and Sunday, the festival opens an hour earlier so make sure to get a jumpstart to your day.
Unless you're familiar with the area, play it safe and plan ample time to reach Grant Park, as thousands of other people will be headed there too. If traveling by public transportation, there are a few options. The closest stops on the Chicago rapid transit system – the "L" are Adams/Wabash (hop on the Brown, Purple, Green, Orange or Pink lines) Jackson (Red line) and Jackson (Blue line). Alternatively, many busses stop there as well, including 3, 4 and 6. Anyone who’s planning to drive up should consider buying a $30 package that includes free all-day parking. It’s never a bad idea to think ahead and this is one of those cases. Otherwise, the regular rate for one hour of parking hovers around $13.
What and Where to Eat:
Now that the logistics are out of the way, it’s time to focus on what this festival is really all about – food. While entrance into the festival is completely free of charge, attendees must purchase tickets to sample food from the vendors. Food and Beverage tickets are sold in packs of 12 tickets for $8 (includes $2 amenity fee) and according to the festival's official website, smaller "Taste of Portions" require 1-5 tickets. Attendees can purchase tickets until 8:30 pm every evening.
Since cuisine is star of the show, there’s really no wrong choice when it comes to picking a place to eat. Based on previous years, food options range from traditional restaurants and pop-up restaurants to food trucks and everything in between. Food trucks were first introduced to the festival last year and due to their massive appeal, will play a much larger role at this year’s Taste of Chicago. Among the most popular food trucks were The Fat Shallot, Beavers Coffee & Donuts, Giordano's, The Jerk, Taquero Fusion and Ice Cubed.
Food trucks aside, there’s something for every price point and preference. Those who want to taste the cream of the crop so to speak can do so by splurging on a fancy $45 three-course celebrity-chef prepared meal. Besides a delicious meal inside an air-conditioned tent, it’s a chance to unwind after a hectic day of tastings. Health-conscious eaters should keep an eye out for the green-apple icons, which means that the item has met the Humana Healthier Choices guidelines.
There’s always something new to try each year at the festival but attendees can still count on sampling innovative dishes from veteran vendors. Among the most beloved restaurants are Lou Malnati's, Carbon Mexican Grill, BJ's Market & Bakery and Eli's Cheesecake to name a few. Bombay Spice Grill and Lao Ma La made their debut in 2013 and received high praise.
New This Year:
In total, 66 restaurants are participating in this year's Taste of Chicago, 22 of which are newcomers to the event. With seven new five-day restaurants, eight new Pop-Ups and seven new food trucks, guests have plenty of flavorful options. Among the new exhibitors are The Big Cheese Poutinerie, Brazilian Bowl Grill, Chicago Lunchbox, The Savoy and Ms. Tittle’s Cupcakes. In the Kitchen with Mariano's, one of the new five-day restaurants, will feature a cooking demonstration area where customers can experience Mariano's philosophy of Shop Well, Eat Well, Live Well.
Also new this year is the First Annual Made in Chicago Pop-up Shopping Event. Organized by The Chicago Department Cultural Affairs and Special Events, this is the perfect opportunity to put the fork down and discover some of Chicago’s talented up-and-coming and established artisans selling everything from clothing and jewelry to artwork. The vendors on the weekdays are different than those on the weekends so if you’re in town for the entire five-day event, swing by twice to view all 20 designers.
Food may be the the star of this summer festival but music plays a central character as well. There are two main stages to choose from – the Bud Light Stage located at the south end of the park and the Petrillo Music Shell, which is where all the headliners perform. Concerts are free of charge unless you want a spot in the seated section of Petrillo. These tickets cost about $25 on average.
Headliners confirmed for this year's festivities include AWOLNATION, Janelle Monáe, Nickel Creek, Jeff Tweedy and Aloe Blacc. Tickets for the seating area of Petrillo Music Shell are currently scheduled to go on sale May 22 so be prepared to snatch these up fast. For a slightly more laid-back atmosphere, head to the Bud Light Stage to hear local talent and up-and-coming musical acts.
Tips and Tricks:
Like any highly-anticipated festival, planning ahead is a good strategy for tackling Taste of Chicago. Those who are interested in snagging tickets to the popular Chef du Jour tent experience, should act fast. Space fills up fast so the sooner you reserve a spot, the better. Another thing to remember is that this is not the catwalk so dress comfortably. Leave the maxi skirts and white t-shirts at home, just in case you have an ice-cream spill and swap large bags for over-the-shoulder purses and small tote bags. The festival grounds are very crowded and oversized bags will likely bump into passerby.
Even spur-of-the-moment travelers will benefit from planning as much as possible in advance. Not only will it allow you to enjoy the festival stress-free but it will likely save you money in the long run. There’s really nothing worse than overpaying for flights and accommodations or worse not having any options left at all. If your travel dates are flexible, consider stopping by the festival during the weekdays rather than the weekends, which are far more crowded.