Got a foodie fantasy? Consider planning a vacation around a city's spring or summer food festival, when dozens of local restaurants and chefs prepare small bites for smaller fees, often as little as $2 a taste. These festivals range from the casual (tents with street food and food carts) to the exclusive (gourmet restaurants with exquisitely prepared samples combined with perfectly paired wine). Whether you want to hobnob with culinary celebs in Los Angeles or chow down on Chicago street food, these festivals offer the perfect way to indulge in a city’s greatest restaurants without breaking the bank or stuffing yourself silly either.
After working up an appetite on a shop 'til you drop adventure along glitzy Rodeo Drive, indulge in a 4-day foodie extravaganza, “Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine’s THE TASTE.” The September 2011 event -- the first of its kind for the city -- brings out the City of Angels' hottest names in gastronomy, such as Food Network's Giada De Laurentiis, in a series of tastings, cooking demonstrations and seminars held in iconic spots such as the Paramount Picture Back Studio Lot. You’ll mix, mingle and chow down with the stars.
Food lovers striving to do good while they feast will be doubly sated at the non-profit New Orleans Food and Wine Experience. Held annually over Memorial Day weekend, the event's proceeds support local non-profits. In 2011 alone, the festival raised $6.5 million, says Liz Goliwas Bodet, the event's public relations manager. The 5-day festival features tastings from local restaurants, such as Brennan's Restaurant, home to New Orleans’ most famous brunch, and Arnaud's, a creole dining institution since 1918. Restaurants showcase their food alongside world-renowned winemakers such as Maison Louis Jadot and Napa Cellars. Whether you toss your tasting plates aside for hurricane glasses (or vice versa), we suggest you keep any beaded necklaces; you never know when you’ll need them in NoLa!
With delectable food tastings by Oregon-based restaurateurs, plus wines and microbrewed beers, the Bite of Oregon festival is 100 percent local, making it truly unique among US-based festivals, which often feature international beverages. Not surprisingly for a state that makes "green" living its unofficial motto, the 3-day festival aims to be a zero waste event, with eco-friendly compostable tasting plates. Take your pick from among small plates and meal-sized portions of burgers, shellfish, sushi and more. And catch a ride on one of the food world's hottest tasting trends: Portland's food carts. Keep an eye out for trucks offering Whiffies Fried Pies and the short rib taco from KOi Fusion PDX.
Chicago's food scene runs beyond its famed deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs. That’s clear at Taste of Chicago, one of America’s premier food festivals, held annually since 1980. With scenic Grant Park as a backdrop, the 10-day festival offers tastings from more than 50 local restaurants. It's almost impossible to sample every delightful nibble, but keep an eye out for the Banana Leaf restaurant's jerk chicken wings, and the turtle cheesecake from Eli's, a local cheesecake café. The festival also features free concerts, chef demonstrations, family activities (such as face painting) and even a 5K marathon to work off some of that delectable food.
For a very literal taste of the good life, foodies must visit Taste of Vail's food festival. This exclusive mountain resort town boasts some of America's best restaurants, and the 3-day food festival perfectly demonstrates upscale deliciousness. Festival events are held at various locations throughout town, and attract some 5,000 people. Among the most popular is the Colorado Lamb Cook-off and Apres Ski Tasting, which features a medley of lamb dishes and wine tastings. Another must-do event is the Mountaintop Picnic, set some 10,000 feet above sea level at the scenic Eagle's Nest on Vail Mountain, which features gourmet picnic fare such as elk sloppy Joes, beef tongue tacos and raspberry white chocolate s’mores in a remarkable outdoor setting.
A food festival offers city visitors and locals a chance to test their munching mettle with samplings from dozens of quality chefs and restaurants. So, get your appetite geared up as you plan your next food festival vacation.
Valerie Conners is a former senior interactive producer at the Travel Channel. She has written for Discovery Communications properties, including Curiosity.com, Discovery.com and Animalplanet.com as well as publications including the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Frommer's Travel Guides.