Music festivals have come a long way since the first—1967’s Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain— where the only thing anyone ate was LSD dropped on the crowds by Grateful Dead’s “chemist,” Owsley Stanley, as he flew over Golden Gate Park.
Nowadays, while talent bookers clamor to secure the summer’s top bands and DJs, a similar mad dash is happening to devise equally impressive food and drink lineups for hot and hungry festival-goers from coast to coast.
From rare Bourbon in Louisville, to cooking demos in New Orleans and tacos! tacos! tacos! in Austin, these massive festivals deliver culinary snapshots of their respective regions at gourmet levels not seen before. Their sophistication of work might go unnoticed by the average fan but I spoke to the hard-working food and drink coordinators at some of the nation’s best to find out what to expect, what to look for, and what not to miss.
NEW ORLEANS JAZZ AND HERITAGE FESTIVAL, New Orleans
Unsurprisingly, the best festival food happens in and around the country’s best food cities and both New Orleans and its prized “Jazz Fest” are in a league of their own. Each year, spanning two weekends in late April and early May, folks descend on the Fair Grounds Race Course (just outside the French Quarter) to celebrate the birthplace of jazz and whole lot of incredible food.
From muffuletta sandwiches and alligator gumbo to cochon (pork) sandwiches and TONS of seafood, Jazz Fest packs as big a punch as any with an incredibly defined food personality that reflects the city itself. Director Michelle Nugent secures over 60 vendors each year, all with distinct and local culinary traditions including Cajun, Creole, soul food, street food, “Nouvelle ” Louisiana, Vietnamese, Cuban, African, Native American, Mediterranean, and classical French.
As the scent of hot fry bread and oyster po’ boys waft through the thick Louisiana air alongside tunes from headliners like Bruce Springsteen and Buddy Guy, you realize this is the mother of all festival food experiences and worth every calorie.
Crawfish Beignets from Patton’s Caterers
Fried Chicken and Jambalaya from Catering Unlimited
Cochon de Lait Po-Boy from Love at First Bite
Alligator Gumbo from Fireman Mike’s Kitchen
Beignets from Cafe du Monde
Take a break from your Zydeco two-stop and catch full-on cooking demonstrations at the indoor Food Heritage Stage where mic’d up master chefs like Red Fish Grills’ Austin Kirzner give step-by-step instructions on how to make menu staples like Redfish Etouffee (with enough for everyone to sample, of course).
Download the Jazz Fest app, a helpful resource for locating your favorites in a sea of offerings and find a complete schedule for cooking demos at the Food Heritage Stage. As an added bonus, the music ends before sunset, so make your way to one of the city’s many celebrated restaurants like Cochon Butcher or Arnaud’s French 75 for dinner, but make reservations early!
GOVERNORS BALL, New York City
There is likely no music festival on earth with more pressure to deliver a perfect 10 than New York’s 8-year-old Governors Ball, which plops down on Randalls Island for three days in early June bringing rock, pop, and hip-hop superstars like Jack White and Björk.
Luckily for organizer Tom Russell, a lot of the city’s best are excited to be part of the festival. Due to limited space, quite a few businesses are actually turned away. With Mexican, Greek, Korean, Cuban, Chinese & Hong Kong, Belgian, Italian, and Southern options, “Gov Ball” sports a food landscape as diverse as the city that surrounds it.
Pizza from Michelin-rated Roberta’s Pizza
Lobster Roll from Luke’s Lobster
Ramen Burger from Ramen Burger
Craft cocktails and respite in one of the 21+ areas like “Best Kept Secret Bar,” a shady oasis located towards the middle of the festival grounds.
Russell says “Ramen Burger and DŌ! have have the longest lines every year, so think about getting there early or during a lull in your day with some time to spare.”
FORECASTLE FESTIVAL, Louisville, Ky.
Forecastle has been going strong since 2002. The homegrown music festival celebrating “music, arts, and activism” has evolved from a small gathering of friends and artists to one of the premiere events on the summer music calendar. It draws tens of thousands every July to Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park, blending cutting-edge local, regional, and national talent across multiple genres.
Jeff Cuellar, Forcastle’s VP of strategic partnerships, describes the scene as a “variety of cuisines from all over the world, with a southern flare and heavy ‘Bourbonism.’” Look out for local favorites like Firebird BBQ, Hi-Five Doughnuts, Black Rock Grille, La Chandeleur, Heine Brothers Coffee, and Steel City Pops. The “Kentucky Landing” area, a festival favorite, pays homage to the Commonwealth, with a variety of craft breweries and local food trucks.
Whole Hog at Firepit BBQ
Sierra Nevada’s Chantey Session IPA (made exclusively for Forecastle)
Tacos from Holy Molé
Kentucky Sunrise Slushies (adults only)
The Bourbon! Forecastle’s Bourbon Lodge is where it’s at. Fans of the brown stuff can purchase a membership online or on-site allowing access to an immersive (and air-conditioned) Bourbon Lodge experience with selection from Kentucky’s best distilleries, served neat or in cocktails. Flight Bar & Rarities (located inside the lodge) features rare and hard-to-find booze like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Four Roses special editions, and more—many only available at Forecastle and in limited quantities.
Bourbon Lodge members receive updates via the mobile app about Bourbon Rarities available in the Lodge. “If you are looking to go further down the Bourbon rabbit hole,” says Cueller, “Gonzo Bar, inspired by writer, Bourbon freak, and general mad man, Hunter S. Thompson, offers additional selections and exclusive ‘Bourbon experiences.’”
The Yacht Club—a new nautical experience, featuring access to Louisville’s Mary M. Miller Steamboat with exclusive libations, culinary treats, music, and the best place to watch the sunset over the Ohio River.
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS, Austin
In many ways, Austin City Limits, or “ACL”, is the grand finale of festival season. And like any good finale, it pops over two full weekends in October, boasting legendary headliners like Paul McCartney and Childish Gambino.
Kevin Noonan, ACL’s manager of vendor operations, tells me his number one priority is elevating the local establishments inside the grounds of Austin’s Zilker Park. Noonan and his team strive for representation from “restaurants that locals would recommend to out-of-towners.” Expect lots of barbecue, queso dip, and tacos…lots and lots of tacos.
Mighty Cone from Mighty Cone
Elk and Foie Tacos from Lonesome Dove
Green Chile Pork Tacos from Torchy’s Tacos
Brisket Sandwich from Mickelthwait Craft Meats
Local beers and Bourbons
Healthy things?! Don’t count ‘em out. With Austin’s rampant and ever-growing infestation of health nuts, ACL proudly delivers a smattering of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options that don’t sacrifice on taste.
Noonan says, “If you’re looking to avoid the dinner rush, know that the most popular time to visit the food court is right before the headliners go on. Divide, conquer, and then share with your friends to try the most food in the least amount of time!”
OUTSIDE LANDS, San Francisco
Like New York, San Francisco has a seriously badass reputation to uphold when it comes to anything food-related. Now in it’s 11th year, Outside Lands reigns sonic domination over SF’s historic Golden Gate Park for one weekend in August, alongside a brag-worthy 83-vendor lineup of culinary heavyweights curated by celebrated SF restaurateur Anna Weinberg (Big Nights Restaurant Group).
In her second year with the festival, Weinberg laughs that it’s always “freezing at night,” so hot and spicy foods are popular and her team delivers an epic selection. The expansive offerings are broken into categories including “Taste of the Bay” featuring both longtime institutions and newcomers like Michelin-rated Hawker Fare (Lao/Thai), Trestle (New American), The Monk’s Kettle (Belgian), and Little Chihuahua (Mexican).
Similar to Jazz Festival, Outside Lands also houses a culinary stage called “Gastro Magic,” where star chefs from the area dazzle onlookers on hiatus from the main stage where crowds sway and shimmy to icons like Janet Jackson and Florence and the Machine.
Baked Goods from (the legendary) Tartine
Malaysian Lamb Curry Sandwiches from Azalina’s
Spicy Fried Chicken Biscuit from The Bird
Hawaiian Ahi Poke from Pacific Catch
Porcini Doughnuts from Rich Table
Tented areas dubbed “Wine Lands” and “Beer Lands” feature 41 Northern California wineries and 30 West Coast breweries respectively. That’s a whole lot of good drink. Not to be outdone, Cypress Grove curates “Cheese Lands” where you can try their famous Humboldt Fog, among others.
“Carve out some time to hang in the Wine Lands Courtyard. It is a total blast and marching bands come through unexpectedly, bringing raucous and unexpected entertainment.”
FIREFLY MUSIC FESTIVAL, Dover, Del.
Dover might seem like an unsuspecting city in the second smallest U.S. state but it’s home to one of the coolest new additions to the festival circuit. In only its seventh year, Firefly has already bagged major acts like The Killers and Red Hot Chili Peppers to grace its stage in mid-June and the food, much like the festival itself, is eclectic yet manageable.
Favorites here include Hebros Kitchen, Tica’s Tacos, Humpty’s Dumplings, Grotto Pizza, and Roaming Raven (cheesesteaks) underscore a diverse local lineup with something for everyone. Delaware brewery Dogfish Head has the beer market cornered. Lucky for us, they brew some of the best on the coast and always offer a signature Firefly Ale for the festival only.
Smoothies from Hippie Dips
Wok-fried Noodles from Island Noodles
Buffalo Chicken Dumplings from Humpty Dumplings
Firefly Ale from Dogfish Head
The Woodlands Coffee House. The Coffee House replicates a, well, coffee house and features intimate performances from fifteen acts and a large coffee shop including coffee cocktails (yay!). A great spot to relax and recaffeinate between higher-energy sets in an intimate setting. You might even hear “Smelly Cat.”
Island Noodles is easily one of the most popular vendors and usually sells out fairly quickly. Get in line early and often!