I’ve been a self-proclaimed “foodie” for the past few years, so attending a Food & Wine Festival has been on my bucket list. Food has always been a big part of my life thanks to my Serbian heritage, and most of all, my grandmother. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I really started to explore restaurants and different foods that were out of my comfort zone.
Since moving to Austin in November of 2017, my husband and I have been exploring the food scene as much as possible. My list of Yelp bookmarks is out of control right now! It feels near impossible to keep up with all of the new restaurant openings while also making a dent in my existing list. LOL…serious problems over here! When I heard about the Austin Food & Wine Fest, I knew it would be one of the events that we had to check out during our first year of living here. Plus, what a great way to try some of the restaurants that we haven’t been to yet for a sit-down meal.
Once tickets became available online, I purchased the “Weekender” passes because I wasn’t ready to justify spending the hefty price tag of $625 for the “All-In” option, yet. As a AFW Fest newbie, I thought it made the most sense to go for the two days of tastings on Saturday and Sunday, and then see how we feel about it all for next year. Since we live just across the water and can see Auditorium Shores from our place, we were lucky enough to get a sneak peek of the set-up leading up to the main event on one of our evening walks around the lake. We passed by the area where they had set up for the Grillin’ and Chillin’ hands-on cooking demo, and it was ready with tables and grills for guests to follow along with local celebrity chef, Tim Love.
Activities kicked off with a special Feast Under the Stars dinner on Thursday evening. The pictures looked like a dream, complete with string lights, a beautiful tablescape, and a 5-course meal made by top local chefs. I mean, what’s not to love?! Sounds like something you’re into? To attend, you would need to purchase a separate ticket from the Weekender option. If you’re interested in experiencing the full list of events, it can get pretty pricey pretty fast. If all you wanted to do was attend the Feast Under the Stars dinner it would cost you $250. Then there’s the other special event, Rock Your Taco, where some of the country’s top chefs battled it out to see who could make the best taco, all while listening to live music and enjoying specially selected wines and cocktails (this event was only available with the All-In ticket).
After seeing the set up for the main event and the Grillin’ And Chillin’ on Thursday afternoon, I was so ready for it to be the weekend so we could have our turn at some fun! The festival started at 11am both days, with Saturday running until 4pm and Sunday until 3pm. We walked over from our building across the water via the South First bridge walkway and made our way to the line. First, we had to stop and take an obligatory photo in front of the big Austin Food + Wine Festival sign being newbies and all. I was surprised to see how long the line was, it just kept going and going and going! It was already pretty hot out and I was worried it would take a while to get in, but the line moved quickly and soon enough we were through the gates with our special AFW Fest wine cups in hand.
Once in, we were surrounded by booths and vendors, special attractions, demo tents, a live fire grilling area, and tons of local foodies. I remember thinking that it felt like adult Disneyland! There was so much to take in, so we decided our game plan was to do an initial lap around to scope out the layout and see where we wanted to start our sampling. The layout of the event was well done and the overall flow made it easy to get around and find what we were looking for. The alcohol vendors with larger attractions were on the outskirts, the demo tents were along the river’s edge, the live fire pit was up front near the entrance, and the food and drink vendor booths were set up in four rows right in the middle of everything. You can think of it as one big circle with the main tastings in the middle.
We started out both days in the back at the HEB tent after finding out on the first day that they had strawberry frosé and a bloody mary bar with savory and spicy options. My husband went for the bloody mary while I went for the sweet and refreshing frosé. This drink ended up being one of my favorites of the weekend, too. It was garnished with a strawberry slice, mint leaf, and was so delicious and refreshing to sip on under the hot sun! We made our way over to the back right-side of the vendor booths (if you’re facing the street) and started to get in line for some of the food tastings. Lines might seem long, but don’t let that deter you because they move fairly quickly. We never waited more than around 10 minutes for even the most popular vendors. Before going, I was curious if we would get enough to eat to feel full, and we definitely left feeling like we got our money’s worth. You can eat as much as you want, and go back for seconds or thirds if there’s something you really like. I only saw one vendor that ran out of food over the course of the weekend and it was on the last day, so not bad. I suggest you come prepared wearing comfortable clothes (maxi dress, stretchy pants) whatever you need to eat all the food your heart desires!
What I liked most about the event was being able to try food from some of the restaurants on my Yelp bookmarks list that we hadn’t been to yet. A selection of Austin’s greatest hits were there cooking up creative, playful, and incredibly tasty small plates of food. One of my most memorable dishes was the Frito Pie from Ranch 616. Located off of West 6th Street, Ranch 616 has a fun outdoor patio and serves up Tex-Mex cuisine in one of Austin’s hottest neighborhoods in downtown. The line for the Frito Pie was pretty long (about 20-30 people), but it went by quickly and soon enough we were at the front watching the server ladle hot chili con carne into bags of Fritos. The standard serving came with chili and was topped with shredded cheese and a tomatillo crema. My husband is dairy free and gluten free, so his was only topped with chili. I opted for the chili with crema, and left off the cheese. It was my very first time having Frito Pie, and even though it’s no culinary wonder, it was a lot of fun and had great flavor. What’s nice about the event for people with dietary restrictions is that most of the vendors will custom serve you if you just let them know what you’d like to leave off. The best part of all was eating it while waiting for Amanda Freitag to take the stage for her cooking demo. I’m a Food Network lover and Chopped fan girl, so this was a highlight for sure!
The last few highlights of the Austin Food + Wine Festival were the cooking demo tent, tasting sessions tent, meet the maker tent, and the Fire Pit where all the grilling took place. We made it to see Lidia Bastianich and Amanda Freitag, and ate at the Fire Pit both days (this had the longest lines, but it’s also where the BEST food was). The tasting sessions and meet the maker were less on our radar this year, but I’m definitely going to check them out next year when I have a better sense of planning out our activities. I really didn’t think Sunday would be able to top Saturday, but somehow it was even more fun! We had a game plan for making our way around all the food vendors, we went directly to our favorite drink spots upon arriving to fill up for waiting in the food lines, and we even found ourselves in the middle of a dance party toward the end of the event! There was a DJ booth that started playing some old school songs (can’t believe Sisqo is considered old school now lol) and EVERYONE was getting down and having a blast! I love to dance, so it was a really fun way to end such an eventful weekend.
If you want to know more about the event schedule, vendors, celebrity chefs, special events and ticketing, check out the website to see all the details for 2018. Leading up to the event, I came across a blog post recap of the 2017 festival from local Austin blogger, Kelsey, of the So Much Life blog. Her post got me really excited to attend, and she even made the bold claim that if she had to choose between Austin City Limits and Austin Food & Wine Fest, she would choose the food and wine festival. This year will be my first time going to ACL, so we will see what my conclusions are when the time comes, but I’m betting I will choose food and wine because that’s really my jam at the end of the day. If you’re still reading this, thank you so much! I really wanted to share my personal tips and takeaways with anyone who is interested in knowing more the event, so I hope this helps!
More food pics…because there was so much to eat & it was all amazing! 😉