Taste of Madison, the annual food free-for-all that takes place on Capitol Square over Labor Day weekend, is nearly here. The event brings together 80+ food vendors and raises $60,000 for local non-profits each year by attracting 250,000 attendees. It can be massive and overwhelming with complicated logistics, especially for first-timers.
To help you navigate this sea of music stages, hawking food stalls and hungry kids, we put some tips together. Here’s how to survive the Taste of Madison, to be held this year on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 1-2.
1. Have a plan in mind.
Do your research. You have a homework assignment: Go to their handy list of vendors and menus and figure out what sound most appealing to you. Then, use their map to find clusters of vendors that you can hit at the same time.
Maybe you’ll start your day at FIB’s and grab yourself a meatball on a stick. (It’s a rule that at any Wisconsin event where a food on a stick exists, you must have it — and at just $3, it’s a steal!) You can then try the Asian tuna taco ($3) down the block at The Post, a newcomer to the event this year, while you rock out at the WJJO Solid Rock stage. When you’re ready for more food, try the lobster curds ($5) at The Rigby Pub and Grill’s stand on the other side of the stage.
To plan the best route for you, decide a starting point and end point and determine what places look good in-between. Just don’t forget to grab a dessert during your escapades — blue moon ice cream for $3 from Babcock Hall is hard to beat.
2. Try the expensive foods your cheap-ass wouldn’t normally get.
If you’re like me, you don’t spend a lot of money eating at restaurants where an evening out can mean losing a big chunk of your paycheck. The Taste is the perfect opportunity to sample some of the options these places offer, to see you want to splurge the next time you celebrate Treat Yo Self Day.
I like to visit Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse for steak or cedar-planked salmon occasionally. While the steakhouse prices may normally prevent me (an east-sider) from making the trip all the way to Middleton, at the Taste the restaurant is offering a smoked salmon dip for $4, as well as filet tips for $5. That’s definitely a price I can afford, especially for great tasting steak (aka my own personal kryptonite).
3. Go in a group. (Or don’t?)
Going with a group of friends has clear advantages. You can coordinate food to grab, with each of you staking out a different “zone” and bringing items back to an agreed-upon meeting spot. Boom! You’ve got your own potluck dinner that won’t require any dishes to be washed.
On the other hand, there’s also something to be said about going alone. I’ve done this before, and it wasn’t that bad! You may feel a bit lonely, but you’re not beholden to what the group wants to do. Maybe you don’t want to watch a band that everyone else in your group would, or maybe you want to try another dish from a restaurant your group already went to. If you’re alone, you’re able to be selfish, guilt-free. You’re also more likely to find a suitable place to sit on the crowded Capitol lawn.
4. Be ready to park far away (or not at all).
Just like with the Farmer’s Market, it can be next to impossible to find a place to park near Taste, and any potential flooding-related closures could make it even worse this year. It’s best to have an idea of where you can park, for free, that’s a good distance away. James Madison Park has a long stretch of parking spots on the right side of Gorham — you might get lucky and find a space there.
You can always employ another, better, option: Don’t drive at all. Take a taxi or rideshare service to the event, and save yourself the hassle, as well as reducing the anxiety created by periodically wondering if you parked in a legal space.
5. Bring something to do (and a pillow).
There’s only so much to do at Taste while you’re waiting to get hungry between food runs. At some point you’re going to get bored, especially if you didn’t bring something to keep you occupied. Don’t be that person to rely on your phone as your sole source of non-beer entertainment.
Here’s what I do: grab a pillow, and place inside the pillowcase one book, a crossword puzzle, two pens, a deck of cards (or another small game), headphones and some scratch paper, which comes in handy for listing the vendors you still want to check out. You’re guaranteed not to get bored with those items by your side, and if you need a quick nap after falling into a food coma, you’ve got your pillow there to rest your dreary head upon.