The Austin Food & Wine Festival returns to Auditorium Shores this weekend, and with great spring weather in the forecast, the crowd should be in great spirits. Like South by Southwest and ACL Music Festival, those looking to attend Austin's massive food festival have the best success if they arrive with a plan of attack.
Now in year eight (though one was canceled due to weather), the food event seems to have found its formula: the daytime events are filled with bites from the best Texas chefs and cooking/wine demonstrations from notable talent, while the VIP evening events feature Tim Love’s grilling seminar (Friday) and an array of national visitors (Saturday’s taco competition).
A few changes to note this year:
- Wine and spirits classes are now shortened to a compact 30 minutes rather than the previous 45. While this may challenge presenters to finish in time, it should also allow more time for guests to roam the park without missing anything.
- Austin ranch-style restaurant Contigo has taken over the expanded fire pit area and enlisted guest chefs and friends from Louis Mueller Barbecue, Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew, LeRoy & Lewis, and Eden East to work alongside them. These visually dramatic cooking stations offer some of the best weekend bites, but can also attract big lines. Go when you get the chance.
- Wine distributor Republic National Distributing Company will host a “Talking About Wine” tent featuring local experts. The casual sessions will include food pairings from San Antonio-based Jason Dady Restaurant Group. The company is also collaborating with Dady on a booth near the fire pit area serving drinks from Austin whiskey bar Dumont’s Down Low and tacos and appetizers from the chef’s only Austin restaurant Chispas, dubbed 4th Street in the Park (a reference to the Austin address of the Tex-Mex restaurant and the bar).
To help improve your experience, Eater crafted a weekend schedule focusing on the main event, the Grand Taste. Attendees with all-in tickets gain access to the festival's evening events to Love’s grilling demo at Auditorium Shores and the Rock Your Taco competition at Fair Market on Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m. (Be sure to grab tacos from frequent champion Tyson Cole, along with Austin wunderkinds like Ramen/Kemuri Tatsu-ya’s Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, Suerte’s Fermín Núñez, Holy Roller’s Callie Speer and Britt Castro, and Pitchfork Pretty’s Max Snyder. Celebrity guest chefs like prolific Boston chef Tiffani Faison of restaurants like Sweet Cheeks and Fool’s Errand, Chicago’s Sarah Grueneberg, Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Antonia Lofaso of restaurants like Dama and Scopa, and Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza will all offer their takes on tacos.)
Whether you are a first-time visitor to the fest, or simply missed last year, read on for tips on what to bring, how to plan, and best bets for a winning weekend.
- Ticket tiers: This year’s fest offers two ticket options. The popular weekender pass ($250) allows full access to both the Saturday and Sunday daytime park events, while the VIP all-in pass ($625) adds evening events on Friday and Saturday night. At press time, tickets are sold out, so check resellers (or ask around on Facebook) to grab a spot.
- Hours: The daytime events begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with a 4 p.m. finish on Saturday and a 3 p.m. close on Sunday. Note that DJ Mel’s annual dance party on Sunday usually goes past that stated time, though drinks are no longer served after 3 p.m. Evening events start at 7 p.m. and run until roughly 9:30 p.m.
- Cooking demos: During the daytime events, there are 20 food and wine seminars offered at staggered times. Note that the chef “demos” take the form of something akin to a live television show — the personalities will lecture, cook, and answer questions, but food isn’t actually served during the classes. (Grab a snack or two before you head in.)
- Wine classes: On the other hand, the beverage classes do serve wine or spirit samples to go with the discussion. Note that most of these seminars fill up early, so arrive at least 20 minutes in advance for a better chance at a seat.
Things to Remember
- Bags: As with most festivals and concert venues, only small purses, tote bags, and drawstring bags will be allowed into the venue. Bags need to be smaller than 14 inches by 11 inches by 5 inches, and have to contain only one pocket or opening. Anything with more than one pocket, i.e. backpacks, aren’t allowed.
- Important items to bring: Spring park essentials are advisable: sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat or cap, some wet wipes (your hands will get dirty), and comfortable walking shoes are all recommended. You’ll be in a park setting during Austin spring, so take that Zyrtec or Allegra as well (allergies are no fun). A notebook and pen isn’t a bad thing to have, either, to note favorite wines and snag chef autographs, and a backup phone battery is ideal.
- Rideshare: All drink samples are included with ticket prices, which can potentially lead to bad decisions. Download and update your favorite rideshare app for a safe and responsible ride home from the festival. There’s RideAustin, Lyft, ZTrip, and Uber.
- Food lines: While most food lines are short, they happen every year, especially at the Rock Your Taco competition. To sample a broader range of options, split your group between two lines and pick a time and reconvene to sample both dishes. This cuts waiting time without extra effort.
- Choose carefully, and share: As with any food festival, there is simply too much for most regular humans to eat in one sitting. Plan accordingly by (a) not finishing dishes you don’t care for; (b) prioritizing your anticipated and/or favorite restaurants as first bites, and (c) sharing a single portion between two people when you begin to run out of steam.
- Drinking strategy: Throughout the weekend, be sure to ask for light pours of cocktails and wines: it’s good for you and prevents food waste. Hydrate early and often — grab some water hourly to combat your drinks. It’s also perfectly okay to throw out sips of wine you don’t care for (or can’t reasonably consume safely) on the lawn — just watch your aim.
Autographs and photos: One big perk of the festival is easy access to favorite food television personalities. These chefs and speakers are often roaming the grounds, so keep an eye out for photo opportunities, or simply attend one of the cookbook signing sessions for an easy Instagram victory. Also note the official appearances at the book-signing tent from Andrew Zimmern (1 p.m. on Saturday), Silverton (1:30 p.m. on Saturday), Jonathan Waxman (2 p.m. on Saturday), Aarón Sánchez (12 p.m. on Sunday), and Ana Fabiano (1:30 p.m. on Sunday).
With that, go forth and eat and drink well at this year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival.
There’s a fun, choose-your-own-adventure element to the festival that leads to varied experiences for different guests. Those inclined to catch a glimpse of the big-name chefs can spend their day in the seminar tents, while others simply opt to drink and graze on food samples for the day. (In conversations with past attendees, most say that attending one chef demo, one drinks class, and roaming the rest of the time makes for an ideal day.) The Grand Taste and fire pits are always a good bet, but if you’d like to partake in the classes, here are a few to prioritize:
Saturday, April 27
Auditorium Shores, 800 West Riverside Drive, South Austin
Suggested Saturday bites: Noble Sandwich Co., Dee Dee, Foreign & Domestic, Poke Poke, Lin Asian Bar, Wu Chow, Southerleigh Brewing Co., Second Bar + Kitchen, Mattie’s, and Cochineal Marfa.
Chaka Chaka Chả Cá Lã Vọng With Tiffani Faison
Cooking Demo Tent
Faison’s seminar offers the chance to learn more about preparing Vietnamese seafood — reason enough to go check out the 2019 James Beard finalist nominee, Chopped judge, Top Chef runner-up, and even Will Smith’s former personal chef. There’s nothing Boston chef Faison can’t do in the kitchen, so one suspects she can teach a crowd of amateurs better home seafood technique.
All the Single Vineyards: Russian River Valley With Inman Family
Meet the Maker Tent
Winemaker Kathleen Inman is a Northern California-lifer, and has been making wine at Inman Family for nearly 20 years. This seminar will teach fest-goers more about the winery’s single vineyard Pinot Noirs and rosés from Sonoma.
Sarah Grueneberg’s Rolling In The Dough
Cooking Demo Tent
Grueneberg’s prowess with Italian food has made her one of Chicago’s brightest stars. In addition to her 2017 James Beard win, she also finished second on Top Chef season nine, and recently battled local favorite Dady on Iron Chef: Gauntlet. She’ll have plenty to teach about the art of pasta in this afternoon session.
Masters of Their Domain With Master Sommeliers Craig Collins, Devon Broglie, and June Rodil
Meet the Maker Tent
Though Rodil has recently decamped for Houston, these three Master Sommeliers are one of the key reasons Austin’s wine scene is among the best in the country. Benefit from their wisdom (and collegiality) as the trio sample five French wines and talk about why and how it’s unique in the larger wine world.
Sunday, April 28
Auditorium Shores, 800 West Riverside Drive, South Austin
Suggested Sunday bites: Tamale House East, Sway, forthcoming taqueria Nixta, Pueblo Viejo, Stiles Switch, Lenoir, Yuyo, Apis, Fixe, and Hopfields.
Nancy Silverton’s Hakuna Frittata
Cooking Demo Tent
Here’s an idea for a seminar: Silverton will focus on ways to solve problems, worry less, and enjoy more in the kitchen. As the author of nine cookbooks and one of the leading chefs of her era in California, Silverton should make for a lovely start to Sunday.
12:30 p.m./12:45 p.m.
Washington State Is the New Epicenter of Wine/Explore the Royal Reservas & Gran Reservas of Rioja With Ana Fabiano
Tasting Sessions Tent/Meet the Maker Tent
The Washington wine class with Collins and the Rioja Reserva seminar with Fabiano are both about great wine regions, and each is hosted by a leading light in the wine community. (Fabiano literally wrote the book on Rioja, The Wine Region of Rioja, which she’ll sign on Sunday.) Our advice is to grab a seat at whichever seminar you can get in to — both will enlighten your palate. (Bonus: each region also offers tremendous values)
DJ Mel’s Closing Set
Austin legend DJ Mel always closes the festival with a set of popular favorites (think Prince, Madonna, Beyoncé, Daft Punk, and classic hip-hop) before the crowd disperses. The festival ends, as it should, with dancing and revelry during the final 90 minutes of the weekend.
Grab a drink before the dancing: Note that beverage service closes promptly (and by law) at 3 p.m., which some booths erring on the side of caution and stopping a bit before that. If you’d like a drink for the dance party, grab it by 2:50 p.m.
Rideshare redux: The closing hour of the festival is spirited, and excess consumption is par for the course. Remember to be safe when heading home.
As is the name, along with food is wine and booze, and there is plenty at the festival. If your time (or your tolerance) is limited, here are our picks for drink stops.
Spirits: Devil’s River, Dulce Vida, Hendrick’s, High West, Maker’s Mark, The Botanist.
Wine, Luxury Picks: Wines of Rioja, Wines of Substance, Hess Collection, Jackson Family, Justin, Sonoma-Cutrer, Criterion (Whole Foods), Hope Family Wines, Vins De Bordeaux, Washington State Wine, Inman Family.
Wine, Bargain Picks: Bota Box, Canned Oregon.