As far as I can tell, Chicago Gourmet serves two main purposes. First, it's a celebration of Chicago's food that affords restaurants an opportunity to introduce or reintroduce themselves to a concentrated group of serious eaters. Second, it's a way for the Illinois Restaurant Association, the industry's lobbying group, to raise money and its profile, which it did by selling 2,000 more tickets this year and attracting a number of new national partners including new sponspor Bon Appetit.
For the second consecutive year, Chicago Gourmet brought together an absolutely insane variety of some of Chicago's best restaurants to Millennium Park and supplemented them with hundreds of purveyors of wine, booze and beer along with an array of cooking demonstrations, educational sessions, celebrity chef book signings, and, new this year, a tent featuring products from nearly 50 specialty food producers.
For each half-day of the two-day event, there were about 25 different restaurants spread out among six different dining pavilions. A few others had tables set up in various drinking tents, a couple more passed food around, and a handful of sponsor restaurants had booths set up for the entire time. Most people bought tickets for either Saturday or Sunday and on each day had over 50 different restaurants to choose from.
Nearly all of the food was around the outer edge of the park while the middle was filled with well over 300 different kinds of wine, liquor and beer. While there were definitely some people at Chicago Gourmet, particularly on Saturday, focused on the booze, I never saw a line of more than 3 or 4 people in front of anyone pouring alcohol. In fact, people looking to drink, check out the specialty food tent or attend any of the presentations were able to do so without a hitch.
Unfortunately, things did not run as smoothly with the food. Unlike last year, when I had only praise for the event, there were some logistical problems this year. Attendance went up at least 25% this year and the more than 5,000 attendees each day were in an eating area that was the same size. The increased turnout was partially alleviated by an increase in restaurant participation, but there's no question that some of the lines were absurdly long and I counted at least 10 places that ran out of food early.
There really is no excuse for the lines and I hope steps are taken next year to make sure things run more smoothly. But even with the problems, while it took longer than I would have liked, I managed to sample offerings from 74 different restaurants in two days, and no amount of standing in line is going to get me to complain about that. Almost everything I tried was at least very good and a whole lot of it was excellent. The slide show features 20 of my most photogenic favorites.
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