The Austin Food & Wine Festival returns to Auditorium Shores this weekend, in a new fall edition that organizers expect to be a permanent move. With the weather predicted to hover around 70 degrees and with a year-and-a-half gap since the festival’s last edition, the crowd should be ebullient. As with production company C3’s other big event Austin City Limits Music Festival, those looking to attend Austin’s largest annual food festival have the best success if they arrive with a game plan.
After operating for a decade, the massive food event seems to have found its ultimate formula after a decade, according to organizers. Daytime events are filled with bites from noted Texas chefs and cooking/wine demonstrations from both locals and traveling celeb chefs. The evening VIP events feature Tim Love’s grilling seminar (Friday) and an array of statewide and national chefs (Saturday’s now perennial “Rock Your Taco” competition).
As with other festivals, the food festival’s COVID-19 policies are the same as ACL’s: attendees have to provide proof of a negative test result taken within 72 hours of their first day of attendance. People who are fully vaccinated will only have to show proof of their vaccinations.
A few changes to note this year:
- Other COVID-19 safety precautions including additional handwashing stations, recommendations for social distancing on the grounds, and a request to mask in crowded areas will be in place, though people are allowed to take off masks for eating and drinking purposes.
- Masks are supposed to be required in areas where social distancing cannot happen.
- Both the cooking demonstrations and drink seminars run for a compact 30 minutes this year, allowing for guests to attend them without diverting too much time away from the Chef Showcase.
- For guests who would prefer more intimate events, there are three satellite events throughout the weekend. There are dinners at New Texan hotel restaurant Lutie’s and a dinner collaboration with D.C. chef Paola Velez at Caribbean restaurant Canje, as well as a wine and appetizer event at butcher shop/restaurant Salt & Time.
- All wine cork will be recycled and additional composting stations have been added to reduce the festival’s footprint.
Attendees with “all-in” tickets do also gain access to the festival’s evening events to Love’s grilling demo at Auditorium Shores on Friday, November 5th, and the Rock Your Taco competition at Republic Square Park on Saturday, November 6th. At the latter, be sure to grab tacos from the trio of notable San Antonio restaurants participating: Nicola Blaque of the Jerk Shack, Jason Dady of Jardin, and Diego Galicia & Rico Torres of Mixtli. Among the Austin locals, prioritize LeAnn Mueller of La Barbecue, Shion Aikawa of Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley of Foreign & Domestic, Natalie Gazaui of Comedor, and frequent champion Tyson Cole of Uchi.
To help improve your experience, Eater crafted a weekend schedule focusing on the main event, the Chef Showcase. 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 ($275) allows full access to both the Saturday and Sunday daytime park events, while the VIP all-in pass ($635) adds evening events on Friday and Saturday night. At press time, tickets are sold out, so check official 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. Also keep in mind that Daylight Savings Time ends on Sunday, which means we turn the clocks back and gain an extra hour in the day.
- Cooking demos: During the daytime events, there are 15 food, wine, and liquor 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 the food isn’t actually served during the classes. (Grab a snack or two before you head in.)
- Drinks 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. Non-clear bags like small clutch purses and fanny packs cannot be better than 4.5 inches by 5.5 inches and can’t have more than one pocket or opening. Clear bags need to be smaller than 12 inches by 6 inches. Anything with more than one pocket, i.e. backpacks, aren’t allowed.
- Important items to bring: Texas fall 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’s fall allergy season, so take 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.
- Food lines: While most food lines are short, they inevitably 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 first: not finishing dishes you don’t care for; second: prioritizing your anticipated and/or favorite restaurants as first bites, and third: 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.
With all of that in mind, 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 some of their days 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.) When thinking through your day, here are some suggestions:
The Fire Pits
Try every single dish from the fire pits. It’s always worth it.
- Saturday, November 6: This year’s Saturday showcase features longtime local favorite John Bates, who arrives still on a high from his North Austin barbecue restaurant Interstellar BBQ being named No. 2 in the state by Texas Monthly. As if that weren’t enough quality barbecue, Lance Kirkpatrick of Brentwood restaurant Stiles Switch will join him to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the beloved North Lamar favorite.
- Sunday, November 7: On Sunday, the top-tier barbecue continues with Tom Micklethwait and Ren Garcia of food truck Micklethwait BBQ and Marco Oglesby of Stiles’s Dripping Springs restaurant the Switch, along with smart locavore fare from Sonya Cote of Bastrop restaurant Storehouse Market + Eatery, who Austin diners know well from her Eden East and Hillside Farmacy spots.
When approaching the numerous tents in the Chef Showcase area, there’s more to try than one person can reasonably accomplish. If you’d like a priority list, here are a dozen bites to seek out.
- Carmen Valera of Austin Mexican restaurant Tamale House East
- Geronimo Lopez of San Antonio Chinese- and Japanaese-Peruvian restaurant Botika
- James Flowers of Austin New American restaurant 1417
- Jeff Balfour of San Antonio American restaurant and brewery Southerleigh Fine Food
- Jessica Galindo Winters of Austin Mexican restaurant Cruzteca
- Ji Peng Chen of Austin modern Chinese restaurant Wu Chow
- Krystal Craig and Ian Thurwachter of Austin Italian restaurant Intero
- Margarita and Nestor Mendez of Austin taco restaurant Pueblo Viejo
- John Gocong of Austin at-home omakase experience Osome
- Jacob Euler of Dripping Springs French restaurant Le Vacher
- Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel of Austin New American wine bar and restaurant Birdie’s
- Joseph Gomez of Austin taco truck Con Todo
Food at Vendor Booths
Around the festival grounds are sponsored vendor booths and stalls. Of note:
- Bad Larry Burger Club: The popular burger pop-up will set up shop at local hard seltzer company Ranch Rider Spirits with burgers starting at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
- Little Ola’s Biscuits: Fine-dining restaurant Olamaie’s casual sibling will sling miniature biscuits paired with CBD-infused jam at CBD edibles company Earlybird throughout the weekend.
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. Whiskey seems to be the dominant player in the park this year, which will undoubtedly make many attendees happy. Some upscale and craft brands to prioritize include:
- The Whiskey Bar (featuring Utah-based High West Distillery and Tennessee-based Belle Meade Bourbon)
- Highland Park Whisky with 12- and 18-year scotches
- Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
- Japan-based House of Suntory’s Tiny House with highballs
If you’re still feeling whiskey-inclined after those stops, visit:
- Tennessee-based Dickel Bourbon with Old Fashioned s
- Kentucky-based Maker’s Mark
For those that enjoy Amaro (a bitter, herbal Italian aperitif and cocktail accent), Amaro Montenegro’s pop-up bar is a fun stop.
And for guests inclined to sample Texas wines, the “Texas Two-Step” booth will feature wines from five Texas labels to compare and contrast.
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, since beverage service closes promptly (and by law) at 3 p.m., with 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 2:45 p.m.
The closing hour of the festival is spirited, and excess consumption is par for the course. Remember to be safe when heading home.