Even with former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration delaying it in March to make way for the NASCAR Street Race, Taste of Chicago is returning for 2023 on September 8 through September 10 at its customary home in Grant Park, but with a slimmed-down lineup.
At one point earlier this year, rumors spread that the Taste would be canceled or moved to Navy Pier. On Wednesday morning, the city announced the event’s participants with more than 35 vendors, 15 food trucks, and a new area for beer, wine, and boozy frozen drinks. It’s a lineup that includes spots like Eli’s Cheesecake, Arun’s Thai Restaurant, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, Josephine’s Cooking, and Connie’s Pizza — well-known spots mixed in with a few independent restaurants — many of them serving global cuisine like Tandoor Char House and JJ’s Thai Street Food.
It’s a big departure from past years of Taste when the number of vendors approached 100 during late June and early July. The musical headliner is Doug E. Fresh, KRS One, and Slick Rick, all part of the Masters of the Mic: Hip Hop 50 tour.
The festival, founded in 1980, still draws tens of thousands, which is why the city hasn’t pulled the plug. But the crowds are getting smaller. Locals love to wax poetic about attending when they were younger, but few, if any, have expressed that they actually missed Taste over this year’s Fourth of July holiday. Privately, city officials tell Eater that there’s potential for a successful event that showcases the city’s restaurants and draws large crowds. But not in its current state; the event needs a revamp. There are two main objectives: To give Chicago an approachable event where anyone, regardless of tastes, can have fun. Another component is to showcase the city as an exciting and safe place to gather. But officials aren’t sure how to achieve cultural and civic relevance.
The city’s reputation on the national stage has been bolstered by other, perhaps more updated forms of entertainment. In June, Virtue chef Erick Williams invited guests to Hyde Park for a James Beard Awards afterparty to help showcase the South Side. Likewise, Lightfoot engaged with NASCAR as a way to help repair the city’s reputation for gun violence often reinforced by right-wing media by catering to the race car franchise’s largely Southern, conservative fanbase. The city ensured broadcast partner NBC was well positioned to show beautiful images of Downtown Chicago and to showcase the city to a national audience.
Though food critics will occasionally argue about Chicago’s place when it comes to culinary innovation, the city is the home of the James Beard Awards, and a hit TV show, The Bear, showcases the city’s restaurants to a broader audience. By comparison, Taste seems to have little if any impact on how the country perceives Chicago’s restaurants, though it brings local value as a large gathering that draws people from all around Chicago, not just folks who regularly dine out or care about the Michelin Guide or Beard Awards. It also serves as a gateway to a wider swatch of Chicago cuisines and a rite of passage for many youngsters.
Tony Hu, the prolific restaurant owner behind Lao Sze Chuan and others, used the festival in the ’90s to introduce regional Chinese cuisine to locals through bites of dry-chili chicken. “It was a great way to show people different cultures and great food, to bring everyone together to enjoy the summertime,” he says.
As Chicago’s profile as a world-class dining city grew, Taste attempted to keep up. Organizers recruited food trucks and star chefs to hold pop-ups, essentially splitting off from the main event in Grant Park.
But Taste has lagged behind more recent premiere culinary events around the country, such as Smorgasburg, an open-air market festival showcasing top culinary talent that’s held weekly in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.
Elsewhere, music festivals have also managed to assemble killer food lineups. David Choi is the founder of Seoul Taco, one of Taste’s vendors. He helped curate the food lineup for Summer Smash, the hip-hop fest held this year in Bridgeview. Choi leveraged professional relationships to tether a food vendor lineup that included Chicago favorites Harold’s Chicken and the Tamale Guy, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants like Kasama and Esme. Many of those names will appear this weekend at Lollapalooza in Millennium Park.
Choi tells Eater he’d like to see Taste waive the “ridiculous fees.” Beyond the costs of insurance, the vendor fee over three days is $3,000. Restaurant owners tell Eater that the cost and the challenge in staffing have kept them away from most festival tents. Still, Choi says there’s a need for a curated food festival that’s accessible in Chicago. He’d like to host a proper Asian night market; a few have attempted such an event in Chicago, but Choi says they could improve the effort. As with all festivals in Chicago, the challenge is finding an adequate venue. Folks already grumbled about NASCAR shutting down major downtown arteries, and a festival does that on a smaller scale.
As the city and new Mayor Brandon Johnson ponder the Taste’s future. Here’s this year’s food lineup.
- Cumin Club Indian Kitchen
- Sapori Trattoria
- Arun’s Thai Restaurant
- The Original Rainbow Cone
- Healthy Substance Kitchen
- LC Pho Restaurant
- Yum Dum
- Churro Factory (Xurro)
- African Food Palace
- The Eli’s Cheesecake Company
- Robinson No. 1 Ribs
- Classic Cobbler Baked Goods Company
- JJ Thai Street Food
- Doom Street Eats
- Badou Senegalese Cuisine
- Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
- Billy Goat Tavern
- Chicago Eats
- Gaby’s Funnel Cakes
- Frannie’s Café
- Prime Tacos
- The Sole Ingredient Catering
- BJ’s Market & Bakery
- Connie’s Pizza
- Seoul Taco Chicago
- Chicago’s Doghouse
- Tandoor Char House
- Pies of London
- Mr. E Chef Catering
- Josephine’s Cooking
- Yvolina’s Tamales
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