uring its 35 years, Taste of Cincinnati has become not only the nation’s longest running culinary festival, but also the best.
As the story goes, Karen Maier, vice president of Frisch’s marketing and the Godmother of the Taste, during the late ’70s read about New York City’s Taste of the Big Apple food festival, a celebration of the city’s food scene. Inspired by the fest, she decided she could produce a version in Cincinnati, and thus our Taste was born in 1979.
The first Taste was held for one day in Piatt Park but then grew to two days a couple years later before blossoming into a three-day fest by the mid-’80s. The fest relocated from Piatt to Central Parkway and then to the revamped Fountain Square in 2007 where the three-day Memorial Day Weekend fest is currently held along Fifth Street.
Pat Sheeran, vice president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber (they also organize Oktoberfest and Party in the Park), has headed up the Taste for more than a decade and has been integral to its progress. Along the way, our Taste learned from another fest’s problems.
“I noticed that they [Taste of Chicago] were losing attendance in part because their food quality had gone down, and they really had become reliant on the big name bands,” Sheeran says. “That’s a very cost prohibitive model. …We changed our emphasis that the entertainment is the food. We really just try to emphasize food quality and variety, and I think that’s why our event continues to be more popular than ever before.”
That’s exactly why 2013’s Taste broke attendance records when 550,000 hungry people descended upon downtown over the course of three days. This year, 43 restaurants (at least seven new ones) and nine food trucks will participate, with more than 250 food options total (the most ever), ranging from Asian cuisine to barbecue.
“If you can’t find it at taste, it doesn’t exist,” says Lance Barry, the Chamber’s public relations manager.
A relatively new feature called the Taste Experience, which launched last year, provides more gourmand options for festival-goers.
“It really answered some of the issues that boutique-type restaurants and higher-quality restaurants have in that their food really doesn’t translate well to a three-day street festival, either from a staffing standpoint or from a quality food standpoint,” Sheeran says. “This is the best of both worlds. It allows those restaurants to participate in the Taste without it being too taxing on their staff and they’re still able to produce the caliber of food that they want.”
Eateries like Orchids, Prime 47, Local 127 and Aglamesis Brothers ice cream will dole out fancy dishes for foodies to sample inside a white tent that’s situated in the P&G Gardens. They’ll rotate in three-hour increments throughout the day. The success of the Experience demonstrates how the Taste develops along with Cincinnati’s food trends and how Cincinnatians are craving higher-end food and beer options, even at fests.
Besides the food, another main attraction is the live entertainment. More than 70 local musical and comedy acts perform on stages scattered throughout the Taste, and all performances, like admission the Taste, are free.
“If you’re just a music buff and you want to come down and check out the acts, grab a seat and listen to them,” Barry says. “How often can you say that there’s this much going on that’s free anymore?”
The only money you’ll need is for the food dishes, most of which cost $2-$5. Best of Taste awards were announced ahead of the fest, which allows the winning vendors to make more food and helps customers to plan their itinerary.
This year, Hyde Park’s Italian-Argentine eatery Alfio’s BuonCibo took first place in three of the five categories: their veal short rib ravioli won Best Entrée; their spinach empanada won the Best Appetizer award; and their chocolate caramel tiramisu won Best Dessert. Healthier options also have started to appear at the Taste, especially with P&G’s health program Go Vibrant encouraging restaurants to serve heart-conscious dishes. (There are awards for healthy dishes, too.)
“The reality is food is now more present in our lives than ever before — the dining experience — and you have more new, young chefs that are doing creative things that have never been done before,” Sheeran says. “You’re watching the lines go out the door to get into these unique special places. I think this is the heyday, the golden age of the food scene, and I think it’s going to continue.”
It’s unclear what the Taste will be like when it hits 40 years, but Sheeran and his indefatigable team promise to keep it fresh.
“You have our pledge that we’re going to continue to work to make this the best food and taste festival in the nation and we won’t rest until we get there,” Sheeran says.
The Taste takes place on Fifth Street, from Race Street to Broadway. Download the fest’s app at tasteofcincinnati.com.
TASTE OF CINCINNATI takes place 11 a.m.-midnight Saturday and Sunday and 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday along Fifth Street from Race to Broadway. For more information, including a list of vendors, entertainment and a map, visit tasteofcincinnati.com.