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Tuesday, July 3, 2007 06:20 am

Some Tastes are better than others

Springfield’s version is friendlier and tastier

Taste of Chicago may have gotten too successful to be fun.
Untitled Document We’d wanted to do it for years, but the timing just never was right — but then one year my family and I finally took the plunge. Taste of Chicago is billed as the Midwest’s largest summer festival and the world’s largest food festival. Started in 1980 as a one-day replacement for Chicagofest, it has grown into a behemoth, a 10-day event that last year attracted more than 3.5 million visitors. Taste of Chicago has more than 70 food vendors and headline music acts such as John Mayer, Los Lonely Boys, the Black Crowes, and Cheap Trick.
By almost all counts, Taste of Chicago has been wildly successful. It’s a big tourist draw, and the revenues it brings in for the vendors and businesses in Chicago’s Loop are outstanding. Unfortunately, as one of my dentist husband’s mentors used to say, success often breeds failure. His point was that dentists who push hard for a high-volume practice often do well initially but after a while, when it’s difficult to get an appointment and the dentist and staff are too rushed and preoccupied to make their patients’ comfort a priority or listen to their concerns, many patients go elsewhere. That was pretty much our experience at Taste of Chicago. Heading for Grant Park with high expectations and high spirits, we were ready for a good time. We’d been to jazz and blues festivals in the Windy City and always had a lot of fun. This time, however, our anticipation soon turned into disenchantment. It was scorchingly hot — no surprise in July in the Midwest, but the concrete expanses shimmered with the heat. What really made the heat oppressive, though, was the press of bodies — way too much flesh-to-flesh contact with way too many people. Trying to keep our family together proved frustrating and almost impossible, especially because we all kept simultaneously wanting to try things different at different stands, all of which had horrifyingly long lines filled with increasingly surly people. Then there was the cost. Though none of the individual items was particularly expensive, the cost/value ratio was awfully high. If the food had been outstanding, that might have been OK, but most of what we had was merely mediocre. That’s probably not a fair assessment, because we didn’t even come close to sampling everything available, but after two hours we’d blown through the substantial amount of cash we’d brought and no one was even close to being full. At that time our three kids were old enough to have adult appetites but not old enough to have lost their ability to whine. We’d planned to spend the entire day there, but shortly after those two hours we were unanimously in favor of leaving to enjoy some of Chicago’s many other attractions and foods. Taste of Chicago has spawned similar festivals in other American cities, such as Detroit, Dallas . . . and Springfield. That less-than-wonderful experience in Chicago made me less than eager to attend Springfield’s Taste of Downtown for its first years. I should have known that its smaller size, along with Springfield’s small-city ambience, would yield a much friendlier, relaxed ambience. “I know just what you mean,” says Megan Derrig-Green, event coordinator for Downtown Springfield Inc., when I told her about my Taste of Chicago experience. “I went once, and it was almost frightening. People were pushing and shoving; it was hard to breathe.”
Perhaps because her Chicago experience was similar to mine, Derrig-Green, with her fellow Taste of Downtown planners, is always looking for ways to ensure everyone’s comfort and enjoyment. This year there will be extra space between the food concessions to avoid crowding.
The planners have made sure that the pricing is easy to understand, too. Part of the reason it’s easy to overspend at Taste of Chicago is that the food tickets sold are not an even exchange, so keeping track of what’s being spent is difficult. At the Springfield event, a dollar ticket buys a dollar’s worth of food or drink. The prices are reasonable, too, ranging from $1 to $6, and the items at the higher end all contain ingredients such as seafood. This July 7 will be the eighth annual Taste of Downtown Springfield. The lineup of roots music will be headlined by the Romantics, a Detroit-based group that in the late 1970s and ’80s had several hits, including “What I Like About You.” The event has grown to include 22 food vendors. Perennial favorites will be returning, as well as six newcomers: August, an Italian spin-off of Augie’s Front Burner; Salute; Terry’s Lunch Box; the Walleye Wagon Café; the Pasfield House; and Café Rémoulade, a restaurant so new it hasn’t opened yet. Michael Taylor, formerly of the Bayou Grill, is in final negotiations for the venture’s location, but he decided to preview his new restaurant, which will feature Creole and Cajun cuisine, at the Taste.
Springfield’s signature dish, the horseshoe, shows up both as a spicy pony shoe (Alamo), and its classic sauce will be served with both nachos (Boone’s Uptown Grill) and addictive housemade potato chips (Maldaner’s). Springfield’s other claim to culinary fame, chilli (that’s the traditional spelling hereabouts) is less well represented, though Augie’s Front Burner does offer a chilli dog. Less adventurous tastes can be satisfied with offerings of hot dogs, hamburgers, walleye, and pizza, and those wanting to walk on the wilder side can explore such items as jerk-chicken tacos (Café Brio), chili-lime-brisket tacos (Sebastian’s Hideout), crawfish etouffée (Café Remoulade), and corn-and-chorizo chowder (El Presidente Burritos). Various forms of barbecue can be found at several stands. There are interesting sweets and drinks both spiked and soft. Taste of Downtown Springfield will run noon to midnight along Fifth Street between Jefferson and Adams streets. Patrons can enter the gated area on Fifth and Washington streets at the intersections with Adams, Fourth, Sixth, and Jefferson streets. Parking will be available until 1 a.m. in the Old State Capitol underground garage. 

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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