Eating My Way Through Atlanta’s Biggest Food Festival

·10 min read
Photo:  Su-Jit Lin
Photo: Su-Jit Lin

Large crowds, long lines, and unmasked mouths agape like a hungry baby bird’s? A year ago, that might have sounded like a nightmare. But now, with restrictions easing and outdoor gatherings once again in full swing, it was a gluttonous, Technicolor dream: the return of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.

Over the past 11 years, this event has risen to become the largest festival of its kind in this popping city, attracting food-lovers and food-makers from all across the country. As Atlanta is a hub of the Deep South and an active crossroads of culture and culinary innovation, its annual festival has built a reputation for being both accessible and exciting.

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Now, making up for lost time and opportunity, a whopping 94 chefs (along with spirits brands and various other establishments) were represented at the AFWF this September, comprising a choose-your-own-adventure format with two new auxiliary events.

For me, a recent transplant to the city and a returnee to the South, every part of it was a new adventure. I’d never been the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, still haven’t been to many of the heavy-hitter restaurants that were participating, and hadn’t even spent as much time as I’d like in historic Old Fourth Ward, where the bulk of the events took place. So this became as much of a learning experience as it was an eating one.

Here’s what I learned along the way as I flapped those baby bird wings of mine with both mouth and eyes wide open.

Photo:  Su-Jit Lin
Photo: Su-Jit Lin

Different events let you connect with food in different ways

As I mentioned, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is great in that it offers events for every type of foodie—and you get the most enriching experience by trying different events on for size.

For instance, the fest kicked off this year with a series of so-called Intimate Dinners, which were exactly that. They featured the most limited seating and exclusive access to some of the city’s top restaurants, hosted by local culinary authorities whose recognition extends beyond the South.

I attended an Intimate Dinner at Aziza, an upscale yet homey Israeli restaurant in the trendy Westside Provisions District, and I was stoked for reasons beyond the establishment’s great rep. I love tasting the undoctored, unapologetic flavors of other cultures, and this meal was being presented by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, with a menu by spicemaster Chef Lior Lev Sercarz from my native New York. A loose cocktail hour preceded assigned seating at breakout tables, offering two styles of socialization and instant new friends. Members of the media were mixed in with general food enthusiasts and guests—a mixed bag that created a fantastic springboard for conversation.

The second type of event were the themed tastings, which took place at an outdoor event venue. I unfortunately missed Sliced, a 18+ station tribute to all food that can be sliced, from pizza to pie to brisket to lasagna, due to my ticket to Aziza. However, I did make it to Cluck’d, “a chicken and cocktail soiree.”

We all know there are few topics hotter these days than fried chicken sandos in absolutely any form, so of course, I had to investigate. More than 20 stations, including spirits brands with cute horse-trailer mobile bars, justified the cost of entry, as did the lively DJ that kept the beats spinning all night.

Finally, the headliner: the Tasting Tents. Big, packed, and fully loaded, this is the full ramp-up of food frenzy. Held at the Historic Fourth Ward Park, over 60 vendors were present on each of the two days for a full afternoon of good eats, cold drinks, outdoor games, music, and assorted revelry. And like any good festival, there was a stage at which the area’s top chefs revealed tricks of their trade to an audience of food aficionados.

You don’t have to give your whole day over to a food festival

As someone with a 9-to-5 job, I really appreciated that the weekday events were scheduled with plenty of time for me to clock out, drive down, park, and get inside the gates. The Sliced and Cluck’d events were from 7-10 p.m., so there was no pressure to duck out of work early, nor did I feel hurried once I got there.

Photo:  Su-Jit Lin
Photo: Su-Jit Lin

The main event was held over the weekend, and for only a few hours during the middle of the day. With VIP admission (which gets you in at 1 p.m. instead of 2 p.m.), you have four solid hours in which to imbibe and intake to your heart’s content. That’s more than enough time to make the rounds, do some dancing, head back for seconds, attend a demonstration, go for thirds, and then contemplate your life choices.

VIP is the way to be

“Do you really need that extra hour of eating?” you might ask. The answer is yes. If you, like me, are susceptible to hangry outbursts and have less patience for lines than a small child, early access is well worth the investment.

The line for General Admission entry gets long, snaking around the corner of the park and beyond. Instead, you could feel the sheer power of sauntering up to the significantly shorter VIP line to receive the readily available and still hot food after the scant five folks ahead of you make off with their goods.

While the lines for the tasting tents do get extremely lengthy for hot-ticket items, don’t be daunted: the attendees around you will be eager to tell you whether each item is worth the wait. Take, for example, the short rib sliders on duck fat brioche from 5Church Atlanta, the fried chicken sandwiches from Soulfly Chicken, the West Indies Shrimp + Crab Roll on buttered TGM bread from Lapeer Steak & Seafood, and the lobster or candied bacon deviled eggs by Socu Southern Kitchen & Oyster Bar—yep, absolutely worth sucking it up and standing around for.

What I learned is that the key to getting the best value out of any pass (but especially a VIP one) is starting your early access as early as possible. That means more than just getting to the venue at opening time. If you score your tickets as soon as they become available online, it’s $125 per person per day for VIP, and $85 for general admission. This year, within eight weeks of the festival, the prices jumped up to $99 for GA and $150 for VIP.

Save room for the unexpected

While the food is the star here, there are a number of specialty spirits brands that make the journey to Atlanta for this event, too, and you won’t want to miss them. You’ll find some of the cutesier or better funded brands and mobile bars at multiple events—for instance, I got to try a Blade and Bow signature whiskey cocktail at Cluck’d instead of waiting on the longer lines at the main event. That way, I was able to focus more on the weekend-only drinks like Aperol spritzes, a special cocktail by Hine cognac, and Prosecco with popsicles.

Photo:  Su-Jit Lin
Photo: Su-Jit Lin

It’s also important to tuck your face into every little cranny of the event you can find. For instance, the two-story Coca-Cola truck was serving up its own boozy bev at the semi-hidden bar, making Coke Zero the hero. I also found in the quieter corners shorter lines, more one-on-one time with passionate chefs, and bigger portions (on top of the already Southern hospitality-sized samples).

Finally, just because you recognize a big name, don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken served up significant elevations of the menu it’s already famous for, such as corn-dog chicken with caviar and some unbelievable chicken salad sliders.

Parking’s gonna suck, but only a little

Atlanta’s ’burbs offer ample parking, so an in-town trip really made me realize that privilege. This is a driving city notorious for traffic and nonsensical spaghetti roads that traumatize out-of-towners, so yeah, it can be daunting to think about parking for a major event like the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.

Here’s where I hit you with the good news: While it’s not super easy, it’s actually not that bad.

No, for real. There’s a lot of free street parking available on the residential streets neighboring Old Fourth Ward Park, or paid parking if you don’t mind springing for it. The venue chosen for Sliced and Cluck’d had a long commercial street that offered free parking, and the Intimate Dinner restaurants are well-established spots with provisions for valet and self-park. As long as you get to your event ahead of time and are willing to walk about a quarter-mile or so, it really wasn’t as big of a hassle as I’d expected. Trust me, those extra steps were absolutely necessary at the end of the feasting.

Of course, Uber and Lyft are readily available in Atlanta if you want to abandon the notion entirely.

Two days are better than one

At first glance at the event map and after parking fatigue, I wondered if I wanted to make the trek out again for a second day of gut-busting gluttony. But then, speaking to the event publicists, I learned that these days are not interchangeable and well worth consecutive visits.

Photo:  Su-Jit Lin
Photo: Su-Jit Lin

Some of restaurants choose to only participate in one day of the festival, making them exceptionally limited engagements. There were a lot of restaurants I was excited to discover on Sunday that I hadn’t heard a whisper about all week, such as Versailles Restaurant from Chateau Elan and The Select.

Even the restaurants present for more than one event may swap out what they have on offer. Chef Nick Leahy from The Usual was serving up chicken and dirty rice croquettes at Cluck’d, then pork belly sliders on Saturday. And what wasn’t in the news at all was that the second day shifted over to a tailgate theme, with football-oriented games and décor, plus fancy apps and filling comfort foods that scored major points with a hyped-up crowd.

Wear your “eating clothes”

This is Atlanta, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by how many stunning, Insta-amazing photo backdrops were present at the AtlFWF. From the Crown Royal Whisky throne to the Aperol feather display to the swing bench before a faux garden wall, it’s all social media fodder as rich as the financier and blackberry bites by the excellent Zucar Patisserie.

However, my word of advice is not to let vanity overtake the real reason you’re there: to eat and drink to your heart’s content. Patterned clothing is your best friend, obscuring spills, stains, and sweat throughout the day. Loose waistbands and flowy dresses are fantastic approaches to digesting your pulled pork sandwich in peace and comfort. And supportive shoes are a must—this isn’t a sit-and-eat kind of event, but an active consumption marathon.

So all right, Atlanta. I’m ready for your next one. Be sure to bring back the short rib sliders, okay?