Festival Frequency is a monthly look at music festival-related topics that step beyond the shadow of the Ferris wheel, discussing everything from the performances to the inner workings that make this a global phenomenon.
The first music festival I ever went to was, in true suburban fashion, Warped Tour. The year was 2000 and I was 18 years old watching a ton of my favorite bands in the parking lot of the Honda Center in Anaheim, which we still lovingly referred to as The Pond back then. I’ll never forget a few of the sets, including Weezer returning after a hiatus to perform mostly songs from the Blue Album. Green Day delivered a ferocious performance meant to reaffirm their punk roots, while artists like Jurassic 5, MxPx, and Millencolin filled out the afternoon. The show’s headliner, weird enough, was Papa Roach, who were currently riding high on their first (and only) hit song, “Last Resort.” I remember the freedom of being young and with friends in an overwhelming concert experience and I remember realizing music festivals were a place I wanted to revisit as often as possible. What I don’t remember, though, is anything I ate.
In 2000, Coachella was only a year old and music festivals as we know them in America didn’t exist. As I write this, Warped Tour is gearing up for their final run, and if I had to guess it is still powered by the same limp pizza slices and soggy chicken fingers that most of my early concert and festival outings featured. There was a long time where you tried to eat on the way to the festival, both to save money and ensure quality, then saving your cash to get In-N-Out on the way home. Depending on the budget of the event, this is still a common practice.
But over the last decade or so, specifically in America, a tide has been turning. Many of the top-tier event and destination music festivals are realizing that it takes more than music to create lasting memories and fulfilling experiences. Part of this could be the mammoth art structures that populate a festival like Coachella or the communal atmosphere that feels singular in a place like Bonnaroo. And one of the key elements of this has become food.
It’s no coincidence that foodie culture has risen at a similar time, with TV shows like Top Chef, Master Chef, and Chopped becoming cultural touchstones. Coachella has been one of the pack leaders here, going beyond the (delicious) Spicy Pie to offer up an array of local and national culinary leaders. Festivals like Outside Lands in San Francisco are also using their events to showcase the best of local cuisine, turning their food and booze lineups into announcement events unto themselves. In Chicago, Lollapalooza turned to celebrity chef Graham Elliot to curate their offerings, while in San Diego, Kaaboo even has celebrity chefs offering up live culinary demonstrations. Events like these are turning big fests that used to skate by just on their music into places you’d want to visit just to get a bite — even if you didn’t like music.
At Arroyo Seco Weekend, the Goldenvoice-produced festival embarking on its second annual journey this weekend in Pasadena, things are going to their logical next level. Reading the list of food offerings puts to shame typical music venue food and even provides a giant step beyond the food truck scene that populated many festivals in the early part of this decade. The festival made a splash last year with its chef-driven picnic baskets, and though that idea is not returning in the format it saw last year, its spirit remains alive in this year’s program.
“Our Clubhouse VIP program is something we’re very excited about this year,” said Lizzy Stadler, Culinary Director or Arroyo Seco Weekend, about how the festival is experimenting with the marriage of food and music at this year’s event. “With the Clubhouse pass we’ll offer a fully stocked snack bar, passed appetizers from Chefs Luke & Curtis Stone, Jenny &Heather Engel, Shirley Chang, Jason Neroni, and Steven Fretz. There will be beer and kombucha tastes with Smog City and Cha Cha Kombucha. Wines curated by Domaine LA, cocktails with Jason Eisner of Block Party and coffee by Menotti’s. And, of course, all restaurants will also offer a ‘to go’ type box so we still kept a little bit of that picnic basket element alive.”
With a bill topped by artists like Neil Young, Jack White, and Robert Plant, it’s expected for Arroyo Seco to skew older. When it debuted last year, it felt like an event designed specifically for the crowd (and artists) that had aged out of Coachella. Kids under 10 were allowed for free, while Coachella no-nos like picnic blankets and lawn chairs were permitted. But regardless of the amenities, festivals will always be a young person’s game and young people interested in Mumford & Sons and Weezer still turned up in droves last year. And though an older crowd might be more open to dropping cash on lobster rolls, quality local cuisine is also something that young people are finding more interest in.
“I think food, in general, has become something a lot of people care about,” Stadler said. “You can’t go on Instagram without seeing these perfectly shot food photos. That goes hand in hand with food at festivals — capturing that really great moment based around food.” And as festivals become social media moments, it makes sense that everything from artisan ice cream to vegetarian tacos is featured prominently. Music festivals, the good ones at least, are representative of a place to indulge on any of life’s finer things.
Of course, this wouldn’t work unless there was a symbiotic relationship between the chefs and the festivals. Arroyo Seco, in particular, draws from restaurants in the LA area to give a snapshot of some of the best regional cuisine. Barrel & Ashes, the Studio City barbecue joint that celebrates the meat-cooking traditions from around the country participated in the festival last year and are back for round two. If repeat partners is an indication, obviously it’s a relationship that is working.
“Anytime we participate in this type of festival it raises our brand awareness.,” says Greg Allen, General Manager of Barrel & Ashes. “Arroyo Seco is somewhat in our backyard, so this particular festival is unique as we see a mix of our loyal fans and new customers who are discovering our food for the first time. We definitely notice an uptick in our business.”
As a music festival regular, this is a phenomenon I can vouch for. While I regularly mourn the fact that fest pizza institution Spicy Pie doesn’t have a brick and mortar, other festival discoveries have become fixtures in my Los Angeles diet. Sumo Dog, a modest K-Town dog shop that is a Coachella staple, won me over at the festival for their inventive take on a humble classic, and since I’ve been going to their permanent location, I’ve discovered their full menu is even more up my alley, including their wide variety of veggie sausages and sushi rice tots. Having a falafel from Dune at FYF Fest a couple years back opened the floodgates to regular visits to both the Mediterranean restaurants Downtown and Atwater Village locations.
And the flip side to this is that festivals give their patrons an opportunity to try restaurants that might normally be out of their typical radius or whose large crowds make visiting their physical restaurants less desirable. This year at Coachella, I took advantage of their pizza offerings to try slices from both Pizzanista and Pot Pizza Joint. In a city with hundreds of pizza spots, it’s hard to get outside your favorite few, but being at a fest is the perfect opportunity for a low-commitment sampling. If you don’t love it, there is something equally as intriguing right next door.
As a traveler, music festivals are often a good way to experience the cuisine of a region. Just as people coming into California for Arroyo Seco Weekend or Coachella would get a good idea of the best culinary offerings of the region, when I go to Lollapalooza or Outside Lands, I feel like I’m getting to know their city better through their food. When fests fall short at this, as I noticed more at international fests that are still a step behind American ones, it can feel like a major missed opportunity to put your own city and country’s best foot forward.
The M.O. of music festivals has long been one of sacrifice. Attendees suffer sweltering temperatures, heavy crowds, high ticket prices, a lack of seating, and, until recently, mediocre overpriced food in order to see a heap of bands that might not normally play on the same bill. Somehow it was worth it, but festivals like Arroyo Seco Weekend are making music festivals comfortable without totally succumbing to luxury. “Food has really become almost as important as the music and art at festivals,” Stadler said, and it’s hard to disagree with her. For Arroyo Seco’s part, they are tailoring experiences to match the food and not the other way around, including The Spare Room which offers a place to relax and play games while enjoying a handcrafted cocktail. It’s all a long way from corndogs and fries, and it’s a big part of what’s keeping music festivals exciting and fresh.
For tickets and information about Arroyo Seco Weekend, visit their website.