Every so often, restaurants reach a point where they need to refresh the menu and update the upholstery. Food festivals, it turns out, experience the same.
Now in its 14th year, the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival is expected to draw some 60,000 food enthusiasts to the Beach, Miami, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and beyond Thursday through Sunday.
Festival organizers spent the recent offseason looking for ways to nip and tuck, to tweak and improve. Despite the event’s consistent popularity — almost all of its 75-plus programs tend to sell out, some within minutes — critics groaned that the festival had shifted its focus away from local chefs, that its prices had gotten too high and that its signature event, the Grand Tasting Village, had lost some luster.
To counter that, festival founder and director Lee Brian Schrager directed his team to bring on more local talent than ever. The result: 150 out of the festival’s 350 participating chefs are from Florida, mostly Miami-Dade and Broward.
The Grand Tasting Village on Saturday and Sunday under tents on the sands of Miami Beach will have 50 local chefs cooking and serving food, up from about 30 last year. Parts of the tasting tents will be arranged by a South Florida neighborhood, with a local “culinary captain” overseeing each.
To name a couple: Tim Andriola of Basil Park and Timo is representing Sunny Isles Beach/North Miami-Dade. Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak & Bar in the Four Seasons is in charge of the Brickell “neighborhood.”
Other changes to the village include more water stations and shaded lounges to take a load off, new hours and more elbow room (See Friday’s Weekend section for more on the upgrades, including a pullout Grand Tasting Village map). To alleviate the snarling traffic and tight parking on the Beach, park and ride options from festival parking at Northeast Eighth Street and Second Avenue downtown will be offered to Grand Tasting ticket holders.
“We’re taking something that we’re famous for and making it better,” said Schrager, who is a vice president for Southern Wine & Spirits. The South Florida-based liquor distributor puts on the annual festival, which benefits Florida International University’s hospitality and tourism school, raising about $20 million so far over the 14 years.
In other big events, the Saturday night beachside barbecue party known as The Q has been rebranded as Meatopia, an established protein bonanza started in New York by Esquire restaurant editor — and Kendall native — Josh Ozersky. Guy Fieri will emcee; Blues Traveler will jam.
Another festival first: South Beach is taking its talents to Broward County. Friday night’s Feast on the Beach at S3 Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, featuring the Food Network’s Amanda Freitag, is the festival’s inaugural event in Broward.
And while the Saturday Tribute Dinner at the Loews Miami Beach is the festival’s highest-priced event at $500 a person, more than 15 programs this year clock in at $100 or less. The least expensive: $20 for a ticket to Fun & Fit as a Family, a kid-friendly event Saturday and Sunday at Jungle Island.
Want to make a last-minute decision to go? Tickets remained available Tuesday for more than 35 events — just under half of the festival’s total programming — but festival organizers said they expected most to sell out, including major events like Thursday’s Al Fresco Feast on the beach at the Delano Hotel and Sunday’s Swine & Wine at the Biltmore.
Discounted Groupons for select events, including Sunday night’s Best of the Munchies Awards with Andrew Zimmern, as well as several wine, food and spirits pairing seminars, were available as of Tuesday, too.
A number of unofficial festival spinoffs cropped up again this year, including the return of Eats & Beats, a Saturday night party in the Design District that made its debut last year, and a new event in North Beach called the International Foodies Festival.
A perennial festival favorite, the Friday night Rachael Ray Burger Bash outside the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach sold out months ago. If you don’t have a ticket, you won’t be there to see whether chef Michael Symon’s reigning-champ burger with pastrami and coleslaw can hold onto its crown.
But there are plenty of good burgers to find elsewhere in South Florida. And there’s always next year.
Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor and Miami.com restaurants editor. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanBenn.