Funky Food Fests
Cleveland Celebrates Everything From Mac 'N' Cheese to Garlic
By Lexi Hotchkiss
Not that we’re into tooting our own horn, but Cleveland’s restaurants and chefs have racked up a pretty impressive array of culinary awards from places like the James Beard Foundation, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and others.
So, that might explain why we Clevelanders have a much more sophisticated palate than many might expect. After all, we’re noshing everything from foie gras steamed clams at The Greenhouse Tavern to escargot and fresh oysters at L’Albatros,
Let’s get real here, though. We’re all human. And, as fellow humans, there are just some foods we can’t resist — no matter how unworldly their reputation. Like most red-blooded Americans, we love our pizza, beer, burgers and tacos as much as the next guy.
But, this is Cleveland. We don’t just like these foods. We celebrate them! And while we have plenty of food-focused festivals all year round, we reserve these special fests dedicated specifically to our favorite kinds of grub.
Mac & Cheese: Who says macaroni and cheese is a dish reserved only for children? Heaven and Earth have pretty much conjoined thanks to the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Throwdown. Held in February at Red Space in the St. Clair-Superior district, you can taste test the best-of-the-best versions from 20 eateries serving everything from chicken-bacon-jalapeno mac ‘n’ cheese to lobster grilled cheese mac 'n' cheese.
Donuts: A celebration of one of the greatest foods on Earth, Donut Fest visits Cleveland each year in February. With major competition from the likes of Cleveland's heavy-hitters Brewnuts, Peace, Love & Little Donuts, Jack Frost and more, this is the perfect place to get a major sugar rush.
Ice Wine: Right, right. We know you like wine. But have you ever had real, Lake Erie ice wine? The grapes that grow along Lake Erie’s many vineyards are picked just as the fruit freezes. The result is a refreshingly sweet dessert wine complemented with a high acidity. Every March, five wineries on the Vines & Wines Trail host ice wine tastings at each of their east-side facilities during the Ice Wine Festival.
Maple Syrup: The Geauga County Maple Festival in April offers the best excuse to get a sugar rush. From maple syrup tasting to maple candy making, this festival offers all kinds of jolty, delicious jitters in a place where the sugary stuff gets tapped on the reg. While the four-day fest has traditional fair activities, the real fun is in the pancake-eating contests, lumberjack competitions, and, without question, the beard and mustache contest.
Walleye: It only makes sense that the self-declared “Walleye Capital of the World” puts on a pretty spectacular festival dedicated to this popular Lake Erie fish. During the Port Clinton Walleye Festival in May, you can jog a 5k, compete in a fishing derby, enjoy live tunes and eat lots of — you guessed it — walleye.
Pizza: Who doesn’t like bubbling, gooey, cheese pizza? (No seriously, who??) Every June, Cleveland hosts a festival dedicated to just that — PIZZA. Tons of pizza parlors from around the city vend sample-sized slices of their pies during the three-day Cleveland Pizza Fest. Bring your ‘za-eating pants, because things could get a little zesty.
Tater Tots and Beer: The world’s most amazing food combination just teamed up for one almighty event, the Tater Tots & Beer Festival. In June, head to Voinovich Park in North Coast Harbor to indulge in tater tot samplings and dozens of domestic and international craft beers. So, one question remains: how many tater tots are too many tater tots? Asking for a friend.
Cheese: A recent study says that when one eats cheese, the brain’s reward receptors light up. In other words, cheese makes you happy. (Cheese lovers everywhere give a collective, “Duh.”) Cheese Fest Cleveland, held on the veranda of the Aloft Hotel and Lago on the Flats East Bank in August, offers festivalgoers the opportunity to taste more than 70 different cheeses whilst sipping nearly 30 wine samples. And, you’d better believe they throw in a little extra mac ‘n’ cheese competition, too.
Hamburgers: Did you know Akron, Ohio is the birthplace of the hamburger? That said, the city commemorates everyone’s favorite sandwich during The National Hamburger Festival every August. Watch as goggle-wearing burger enthusiasts bob for foam hamburger patties in a kiddie pool full of ketchup, partake in a hamburger eating competition and make sure to sample burgers from more than 20 eateries during this two-day festival.
Pierogi: What’s a pierogi, you ask? Much like that of Italian ravioli, pierogi are thick, semi-circle dumplings with crimped edges. But unlike its Italian counterpart, pierogi are typically stuffed with whipped potatoes and cheese. They’re also a product of Eastern Europe. There’s no better place to sample one (or many) of these delicacies than from Holy Trinity Church during Pierogi Fest in August.
Garlic: Breath mints and mouthwash are no match for the two-day Cleveland Garlic Festival in Shaker Square every August. Thanks to the more than 300 (delicious!) varietals of garlic growing throughout Northeast Ohio’s mineral-rich soil, this fest is not only possible, but hugely popular. Buy garlic direct from local farmers, watch live cooking demos and dive into garlic-laden bites. Garlic ice cream, anyone? Seriously. Try it.
Tacos: Tuesdays are normally the best day of the week. Why? Taco Tuesday! But if you head out to the Cleveland Taco Festival in September, you’ll be met with more than 25 taco vendors serving up dozens of unique tortilla creations--on a Saturday. I know, crazy. Happening at JACK Thistledown Racino, the festival comes complete with margaritas, tequila tastings and taco-eating contests. Taco ‘bout a good time!
Sausage: The term “sausage fest” takes on whole new meaning at the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame’s Slovenian Sausage Festival each September. Festivalgoers can choose from sample sizes of Slovenian-style sausage and then vote for their favorites. And, trust us, there isn’t a chance you’ll get through this festival without cutting a rug to some live polka music.
Apple Butter: 1798 called. It wants its delicious, cinnamon-y apple spread back. Head to Century Village Museum where you’ll not only be immersed in living history, but 65 acres of some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. During the Apple Butter Festival in October, visitors can help cook apples in huge copper kettles — just like the olden days. Enjoy live music, shopping and, of course, tons and tons of apple butter.
Bacon: A wise person once said, “You can’t buy happiness. But you can buy bacon, which is basically the same thing.” (#Truth) Hold onto your statins, because the Flats East Bank gets sizzling every October during Bacon Fest. This fundraiser for the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland features an open-ended offering of bacon-infused dishes paired with some outstanding beer.