Dining

The Best of the Fests

How and why music fests are upping their food game
The Best Food at Music Festivals
The Governors Ball crowd and Kushiyaki Dog at Coachella | Photos: Forest Woodword and Maxim Sky

June is Music + Food Month at Tasting Table.

There was a time when concessions meant gray wieners and Day-Glo nachos washed down with warm beer. But as Americans' tastes have evolved, so has the demand for concert grub that goes beyond "take it or leave it."

As a result, forward-thinking festival organizers are lining up food and drink vendors whose star power rivals those of the performers, be it Momofuku Milk Bar and Ramen Burger at Governors Ball in New York or Eggslut and Kushiyaki Dog at Coachella in California.

In fact, sometimes the purveyors are the headliners themselves. That's certainly the case at BottleRock, which operates as much as a showcase for "the world-class food and wine of the Napa Valley" as it does for acts like Public Enemy and Courtney Barnett, according to CEO Dave Graham, who points to the culinary stage as proof.

Among the highlights of this year's festival, for instance, was a sushi-making demo with Masaharu Morimoto and Snoop Dogg: "They've both got some rolling skills; let's put it that way," Graham laughs. "So we gave Snoop some wine and let the two of them do their thing." And speaking of wine, the organizers invited not only star producers (nearly 30 in all) but also a dream team of master sommeliers to present rare bottlings to ticket holders in the Platinum Lounge.

Not that you have to pay VIP prices to dine well at BottleRock; as Graham explains, even general-admission attendees have access both to wine tents decked out like tasting rooms with "chandeliers, wood flooring and velvet couches" and to the full slate of participating restaurants—including high-end destinations like Oenotri and Redd, as well as curry and paella hawkers.

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Still, a Napa festival's demographics are bound to skew more highfalutin than those of, say, Pitchfork in Chicago, whose collegiate crowd prompts the event's coordinators, including Dave Rempis, "to keep prices as low as possible. Thankfully, we live in a city with a food culture that values quality, and most of our vendors are at the top of their class," he says.

Rempis adds that the organizers aim for "a broad range" of cuisines to accommodate diverse tastes and lifestyles: Think Swedish meatballs and Indonesian stir-fries, seitan Reubens and fig-almond cream puffs. Meanwhile, since 2013, hometown hero Goose Island has been collaborating with headliners to brew one-offs available exclusively at its beer pavilion; this year's helles lager bears Chance The Rapper's imprimatur.

Granted, it's the nature of the festival beast that the course between you and your ideal meal can be fraught with obstacles. Remove at least a few of them with these tips:

Think tech. The most rudimentary festival app should at least have a vendor map. This year, Coachella's directory included menu details. What's more, the organizers initiated a game-changing partnership with a digital concierge service, which allowed attendees to make reservations for any of four full-service pop-up restaurants (including Roy Choi's POT). However, cell phone coverage isn't guaranteed out in the boonies, which brings us to our next point . . .

Plan ahead. Remember the golden rule: Everything takes longer and costs more—in cash—than you think it will. Get as clear a lay of the land as possible in advance and amply pad your schedule to allow for mealtimes. This is especially important if you have dietary issues that restrict your dining options.

Pace yourself. Craft beer, fine wine and real cocktails may go down much more smoothly than swill, but they don't come back up any differently. So don't just treat yourself—take care of yourself.

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