It's safe to say that nobody knows what to expect from this year's Taste of Chicago.
Stripped down to five days from its usual 10, the number of food vendors trimmed to 40 (compared with 59 in 2011) and separated from its traditional Fourth of July anchor (this year, Taste kicks off July 11), this will be the most unpredictable Taste since Arnie Morton dreamed up the event in 1980.
To the casual visitor, not that much will have changed other than the run dates. There will still be plenty to eat and drink, paid for with Taste tickets. There will be free, live entertainment at the Petrillo Music Shell and the Bud Light Stage.
Of this year's 40 food booths, 36 are being run by restaurants that have been here before. Longtime veterans like BJ's Market, Connie's Pizza, Eli's Cheesecake, Harold's Chicken, Lou Malnati's, Original Rainbow Cone, Polo Cafe, Robinson's No. 1 Ribs and Vee Vee's African Restaurant are back. So are the wine garden, Dominick's cooking-demonstration tent, Family Village and other familiar amenities.
The most conspicuous absence will be the barbecued turkey drumstick, missing from the Taste lineup this year because Tim McGivern, who cooked turkey legs at Taste for more than 30 years, is sitting out this Taste because of health problems. Guey Lon, a restaurant that has participated in every Taste of Chicago, is one of several skipping this year's Taste.
The fear among vendors is that a five-day Taste will not produce enough income to offset the various permit, hookup and inspection fees — in addition to food and labor costs — that restaurants have to pay. And a one-day rainout, a disappointment in a 10-day Taste, could be a financial disaster in a 5-day event.
On the plus side, vendors will be able to charge more for certain large-portion items; Polo Cafe, for instance, will offer whole fruit pies in addition to individual slices. Taste portions, the nibbles every vendor is required to offer, now carry a maximum price of five tickets, up from last year's four-ticket ceiling.
And Taste offers a few new features definitely worth your attention. Chief among them are the three "Pop-Up" booths that will be staffed by different restaurants each day. On July 11, for instance, the booths will be occupied by Beat Kitchen (offering chicken and vegetable empanadas), Jin Ju (selling Korean bulgogi, kalbi and chap chae) and Marie's Pizza (offering Italian beef, antipasto salad and ravioli sampler). Other one-day participants include Tre Kronor on July 12, LM Restaurant on July 13, Austrian Bakery on July 14 and Karyn's On Green on July 15.
The Celebrity Chef du Jour, another new feature, is already a success. The program presents a local star chef each day, preparing a three-course sit-down dinner or lunch for $40, and four of the five meals have already sold out. Only the July 15 lunch featuring Jimmy Bannos has any tickets left (at least that was true when I wrote this); buy them at tasteofchicago.us.
But each chef du jour also will do a free cooking demonstration in the Dominick's Cooking Corner and will sell individual food items at the Celebrity Chef du Jour booth (booth 40). So even if it's too late to have dinner with Tony Mantuano on July 12, you can still watch him work and snack on his food.
Times, dates, place: July 11-15 in Grant Park, along Columbus Drive between Monroe and Balbo. Hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Buying tickets: Admission is free. Food and beverage tickets are sold in strips of 12 tickets for $8; most items cost between 3 and 14 tickets. Through Tuesday, discounted tickets ($7 per sheet) are available at Dominick's (must show a Fresh Values card); limit four sheets per purchase. Full-price tickets available at Dominick's and Taste beginning Wednesday.
Getting there: Public transportation is the way to go. For CTA, RTA and Metra travel routes, call 836-7000 (all Chicago area codes), 312-836-4949 (TTY) or go to transitchicago.com. Closest parking spaces are at Millennium Park garage, East Monroe garage and Grant Park garages; check millenniumgarages.com for information.
Eating healthy: Look for the green apple icon on Taste menus; based on nutritional information supplied by the restaurants, Humana Healthier Choices designations go to appetizers, main dishes and desserts that fall under calorie, sodium and saturated-fat maximums. Main dishes, for instance, are 500 calories or less. Grab a guide to the Healthier Choices picks at the Humana Dining Pavilion or at humana.com/tasteofchicago.
When to go: Weekdays. Weekends, naturally, are the most crowded.
What to bring: Blanket, sunscreen, bottled water. Coolers with water and soft drinks (no glass containers) are permitted. Moist towelettes, hand sanitizer, extra napkins and rain ponchos (just in case) are good to have along.
What not to bring: Alcoholic beverages of any kind. Glass containers. Backpacks, coolers, etc. are subject to search.
For more information: Go to tasteofchicago.us.
— Phil Vettel