Locally, there are a half-dozen versions of the “Taste of” festival, in places such as Bethesda, Wheaton and Ballston. But for the past eight years, there’s been one glaring absence from the list: a Taste of DC.
There used to be such a thing. Until 2003, the Taste of DC festival was a popular three-day affair that could draw a million people, even if it was mostly for pizza, eggrolls and kebabs.
It’s that heyday — with some major upgrades — that a certain local “Apprentice” star wants to resurrect when Taste of DC finally returns to its stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue next month, Oct. 8-10.
“I think the old Taste of DC was one of the best events in Washington,” says Steuart Martens, a Washingtonian who starred on Season 10 of “The Apprentice” last fall. After returning from filming (the Donald fired him, if you’re wondering), the entrepreneur, who runs wine distribution company Tradewinds Specialty Imports and who was a partner in the now-defunct On the Fly food carts and carryouts, jumped at the chance to take over Taste of.
Despite successes in the ’90s, the festival hit a streak of bad luck in the early aughts. The fall 2001 event was postponed, and when it forged on in October 2002 in the midst of the D.C. sniper attacks, festival-goers were greeted by National Guard members trolling the event. The last straw? Taste of DC was unceremoniously canceled in 2005 when D.C. officials realized they had scheduled it in conflict with the Memorial Day parade and Rolling Thunder’s annual ride.
Martens has clearly studied the festival’s history and its previous failings.
“One of the big things in the past about the event was that it was very carnival-y,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of restaurants showcased, it didn’t promote D.C. as a hospitality powerhouse, and it didn’t promote its restaurants.”
The list of vendors for next month’s festival (there are 60-plus) reflects Washington’s current, seemingly unstoppable restaurant scene. It’s packed with restaurants that didn’t exist during the festival’s ’90s run: Co Co. Sala, Marvin, BGR the Burger Joint, Lincoln, Sprinkles Cupcakes and P.J. Clarke’s, to name a few (food trucks have been invited, too, a nice nod to street-eat pioneers On the Fly). The festival will also feature wine and beer pavilions, seminars, a ticketed concert area and a competitive eating event. Groupon has signed on as a sponsor (look out in coming weeks for Taste of DC deals through the coupon site).
“We’re really trying to resurrect this thing,” Martens says, “and not just bring it back, but make it spectacular.”
To sample food at Taste of DC, visitors will have to buy tasting tickets priced at 10 tickets for $15 (online, a package of 20 tickets for $25 will be available). Every vendor will offer small tastes for two tickets or less, as well as larger portions that require more tickets. Alcohol tickets must be purchased separately, at 10 tickets for $15.