When foodies don’t have the pleasure of summer weather, finding good winter cuisine is even more important to the palate. But the same way a frosty wind drives people indoors, Chicago’s premiere food experience, The Taste of Chicago, is suffering in warmer climates.
During the sultry summer days, restaurants from all ends of the city gather in Grant Park for a highly anticipated one-stop dining experience. “The Taste,” as it’s known to locals, epitomizes Chicago’s identity as the ultimate foodie destination. But this year will bring changes to the Taste due to consistently declining attendance, cutting the length in half in hopes of maintaining profitability.
In the last 10 years an average of 3.3 million visitors attended the Taste of Chicago food festival during its 10- or 11-day run each year. This year the Taste will be cut in half, running only five days from July 11 through July 15, according to a press statement by Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events last month.
One of the largest food galas in the world, the Taste showcases classic Chicago food favorites including deep-dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, Maxwell Street Polish Sausage, barbecued ribs, Eli’s Cheesecake and various ethnic cuisines. It also features performances from local and international musicians, along with visits from players from the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs.
“Taste in the last few years has had some financial difficulties in terms of covering its expenses,” said Cindy Gatziolis, spokeswoman for Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, in a phone interview.
Adding days to the festival adds expenses, and the department is committed to be fiscally responsible of taxpayers’ money, Gatziolis said. “Additionally, we are also seeing this new model as possibly opening up the restaurant participation because certain restaurants may feel 10 days was a tough act to do.”
A deficit of $635.7 million in the city’s budget has resulted in spending cuts for many public programs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel defended the move to cut five days from the Taste this year: “I have all the confidence that people will continue to enjoy it,” he said in a press conference last week.
The first Taste was held on July 4, 1980. The event was greatly successful drawing an estimated 250,000, surpassing its modest goal of 75,000 people. The festival drew record attendance of nearly 3.7 million in 1999.
In the past, Grant Park fireworks have been a regular part of the Taste activities, drawing nearly a million people to the festival, Gatziolis said. Mayor Emanuel shelved the fireworks program in 2010, resulting in a drawdown of crowds. In contrast to the 2009 attendance of 3.4 million, crowds of 2.7 million and 2.4 million came to the Taste in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The whole idea of Taste is to market local Chicago restaurants and cuisines, Gatziolis said.
“Someone who never goes to south side might try mustard-fried catfish of a South-Side restaurant,” Gatziolis said.
Despite its shrinking attendance figures and fiscal difficulties, the Taste has become a unique feature of Chicago’s cultural life. It is a celebration of people that ignores social hierarchies and geographical boundaries, and seeks what is common to all people.
“I would be sad if they got rid of it,” said Amelia Mutso, a resident of Wrigleyville, who has attended the Taste for the past three years. “[The Taste] lets me try restaurants that are not from my neighborhood that I would never get a chance to try otherwise.”
As the first real signs of winter poke their heads out this week, the walk to the grocery store may seem that much further away.
But have no fear. There’s no longer any reason to risk life and limb braving the elements for a six-pack of beer or a last minute dinner. Through the magic of the Internet, a variety of online grocery and food delivery options are available to Chicago residents.
Yeah, there’s a delivery fee. And you might pay a little more than at the traditional store, but sometimes it’s cold, or you’re tired or you just don’t feel like leaving the house again. During these unavoidable times, online grocery delivery may be just the ticket. Customers order products online and then later that day or within a few days (depending on the service), your groceries are delivered to you at home.
Peapod.com is one of the oldest and biggest such sites. Founded in Evanston and now based out of Skokie, Peapod began partnering with Chicago-area Jewel-Osco Food Stores to make deliveries in 1990. By the time the Internet swung into full gear in 1996, it created its own website and began delivering independently. The same year Peapod was named to the Inc. 500 list of fast-growing privately held U.S. companies. As the largest of the Chicago-area delivery services, if you live in the city, they probably have you covered.
There are a few large national services such as netgrocer.com, which offers a full range of goods, including frozen foods, for delivery or Amazon Grocery, (through amazon.com) which will deliver a large variety of nonperishable goods to your home or apartment. Whole Foods delivers its prepared foods through wholefoodsmarket.com. The locations in the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park and South Loop areas deliver in the city.
Don’t forget about the little guy. Many local businesses have been able to use the online and home delivery models with success in the city. Karen Keane, co-owner of Newleaf Natural Grocery in Rogers Park, said her store has been able to expand its home delivery service of organic fruit and vegetable boxes as well as specialty goods.
“In the last nine to 10 years, the whole idea of expanding the business by moving beyond the brick and mortar and using the Internet and social media has really been amazing for us. To go from a tiny little place to having a deliver zone that runs from Wilmette in the north to UIC in the south. That’s huge for a little tiny place like ours.”
Newleaf sells an average of 200 to 250 boxes of organic fruits and vegetables per week during the summer and up to 350 in the winter and spring months when there is less access to fresh produce available.
“We deliver downtown to a lot of offices,” Keane said. “Instead of a 3 p.m. sugar fix they have fruit in their refrigerator.”
Local businesses offer specialty products and other amenities: in the case of Newleaf, a delivery driver who has been making the rounds for the last nine years.
“He won’t put your groceries in the refrigerator but some people will give him a key and want him to drop it inside the door, and he’s just that trustworthy and great,” Keane said.
If a quick dinner from you’re favorite restaurant is all you can think about on that train ride home, restaurant delivery services like grubhub.com or seamless.com will have a meal delivered to your door roughly about an hour after you place an order from your computer, smartphone or tablet device. Again, the dreaded delivery fee may come into play, but sometimes it’s worth the extra $2-3 to have dinner meet you at home.
First there were onion blossoms and Chicago-style hotdogs. Then, it was bite-sized tapas, coffee shops and food trucks. And for the last few years, Asian-influenced frozen yogurt shops, cupcakes the size of softballs and petite desserts tucked neatly into shot glasses have safely found their way into the consumer lexicon and most of our bellies.
Our hungry team of dedicated reporters scoured the streets of the city to bring you a few new food trends that may be next to capture the city’s imaginative food cravings.
If your standard BLT sandwiches just aren’t cutting it anymore, you may want to get in on the latest craze: Vietnamese sandwich shops. Light, airy bread, called banh mi, filled with grilled meat is sure to quell your cravings. Think cucumber slices, pickled carrots and oven-roasted pork belly or Vietnamese sausage. Or try soy options with fried eggs, cheese and tofu. Whatever your preference, these sauteed chicken, pork meatball or spicy chili sauce sandwiches are sure to replace your standard brown-bagged lunch.
Nhu Lan in Lincoln Square, Ravenswood
2612 W. Lawrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60625, Map
Bun Mi Express in Lakeview
3409 N. Broadway St.
Chicago, IL 60657, Map
Bon Bon Vietnamese Sandwiches in Wicker Park
2333 W. North Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647, Map
When you’re ready to give up on your New Year’s diet resolution, your local bakery (or should we say cupcakery) should be your first stop. We know cupcakes have been around for a while, but we’re okay with that. At Molly’s Cupcakes in Lincoln Park, a portion of their profits go straight to local schools. That means you’re giving in and giving back all in one bite. Sweet!
Molly’s Cupcakes in Lincoln Park
2536 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614, Map
Crumbs Bake Shop in the Loop
303 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60606, Map
Phoebe’s Cupcakes in Lakeview
3327 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657, Map
Bring Your Own Beer, or B.Y.O.B., sushi is a hip way to experience the eclectic compositions of Japanese cuisine and still enjoy that whole bottle of wine without paying an arm and a leg. Enjoy the invigorating coolness of raw fish with sharp-tasting patches of wasabi without thinking about paying for that spicy, big-flavored wine.
Toro Sushi in Lincoln Park
2546 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60614, Map
Seadog Sushi Bar in East Ukrainian Village
1500 W Division St
Chicago, IL 60642, Map
5143 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60640, Map
You can perhaps call it the most colorful treat in a city known for its indulgent foods. Self-serve frozen yogurt, or Froyo, is a new alternative for ice-cream. You can put many spins on your treat by mixing flavors and adding spice – or calories – to it with toppings of fruit, nuts and candies. You can fill your cup with as much or little yogurt as you want because the payment is based on weight.