Best of the Fests: Our ultimate guide to Toronto's summer food festivals
This is the summer when Toronto's food festival circuit peaks. Mark your 2018 calendars with our list of festivals you won't want to miss.
There was a time when a summer street festival meant slushies, corn on the cob and burger patties on a rickety grill wheeled onto the street. Toronto’s festival circuit has upped its game in tandem with our obsession for niche cuisines and regional dishes. Sure, there have been a few hiccups in recent years – long lines, food sellouts and disappointed (and hungry) festival-goers – as new operations gain their footing in this lucrative market. But we feel pretty confident that the summer of 2018 will be the year when Toronto’s summer food fests fully hit their stride. Here’s a rundown of the best fests happening this season.
Musica Africa has been promoting African music for over two decades, and their premier music festival is not one to be missed. Since Afrofest moved to Woodbine Park, the weekend-long festival has grown to become one of the highlights of the summer with its outdoor auditorium feel. Despite the 30-plus stage acts, Afrofest is as much about the diverse food offerings as it is about its live performances; picture 50-plus vendors cooking traditional dishes from nearly every corner of the continent. It’s perfect for a day or evening picnic, especially if you want to take a break to Ashbridges Bay Park across the street. Parents rejoice – Afrofest is also widely regarded as one of the best kid-friendly events the city has to offer.
Toronto is still in love with tortilla-cradled eats. So Taco Fest is returning to Ontario Place with over a hundred varieties of tacos. Some of the city’s top taco slingers will be throwing together their finest at this fest, including Fonda Lola, The Food Dudes and Los Vietnamita. You can also expect creative takes on the taco (like generous scoops of ice cream served in a waffle taco from Booyah) as well as a hot sauce bar that will offer over a hundred bottles of the peppery stuff, from locally-made concoctions to imported favourites from Mexico to turn up the tongue-numbing sizzle factor. Once you’ve had your fill, make room for more with free salsa dancing lessons and a piñata-smashing contest. Or just chill out at the tequila and mescal bar – we won’t tell anyone.
Sipping a glass of chilled rosé wine or an ice cold beer on the beach is technically prohibited in Toronto, but there’ll be at least one place this summer where you can legally imbibe with your toes buried in the sand. The Wine & Spirits Festival at Sugar Beach combines wine, beer, spirits, cocktails, ciders and coolers in sampler-friendly sizes that’ll allow you to taste a range of beverages (the likes of Adamo Estate Winery, Legendario Rum and Big Rock Brewery are among the participants) and discover some new favourites. The fest is partnering with Feast ON, a local culinary campaign supporting chefs and producers in the province, for sessions where local chefs will guide you through the best pairings with Ontario wine, cider and beer.
Toronto has undoubtedly raised the pizza bar in recent years, with trendy sit-down restaurants, ovens tucked into the back of dive bars and even the elusive deep dish slices making their way to our fine city by way of both Detroit and Chicago. The obsession deepens with the launch of Hogtown’s first Pizza Fest that plans to showcase pizza vendors alongside small-scale makers of classic Italian fare like fresh pasta, handmade meatballs, risotto and tiramisu. Expect some boundary-pushing offerings, like fried pizza from Fidel Gastro’s, along with pizza-making workshops, wine tastings and the opportunity to help crown the city’s best slice. Yeah Yeahs Pizza, Pizzeria Defina and Pizzeria Via Mercanti are just three of the pizzaioli in the running.
The rosé renaissance continues with an entire picnic event dedicated to the blush coloured wine that has become synonymous with daytime boozing in the summer. For its second year, the Rosé Picnic is moving to the new Stanley Barracks, on the grounds of Hotel X Toronto in Exhibition Place. The event is organized by the McEwan Group and its restaurant chefs (Darby Piquette of ONE, Brooke McDougall from Bymark) will be serving bites on site but the most stylish way to do the Rosé Picnic is by pre-ordering a basket platter in advance. And if ground-level lounging is, well, below you, full tables ($1,750) and suites ($5,000) can be booked ahead of time.
Our national cocktail finally has a festival of its own. The strange but compelling concoction of clam juice, tomato juice, vodka and seasonings gets its moment in the spotlight at the city’s first Caesar Fest. Past the Great Wall of Caesars (featuring images of the most outrageous, gravity-defying concoctions), guests can sample 10 creative takes on this much-loved beverage along with an oyster bar and food pairings to match. Continuing your Sunday funday, you can try your hand at yard games on the patio and browse for Caesar-themed swag at the shopping marketplace to deck out your home bar to the nines. Live music and DJs fill out the entertainment roster while visitors get the chance to win prizes for completing their “Caesar Passport”.
Of all the beer festivals in our calendars this summer (trust us, there are a ton of them), Toronto’s Festival of Beer takes the cake for sheer numbers. There are over 400 beers from close to a hundred breweries to try at this fest, ranging from local craft operations to international favourites. Haughty hop-heads should venture to the New Brews section, home to breweries exhibiting at TFOB for the first time, then venture to spotlight pavilions dedicated to beer with a specific theme. If the brews aren’t enough to keep you satisfied, each day of the fest features an impressive headlining act – Ludacris on Friday, Toronto cover band Dwayne Gretzky on Saturday and I Mother Earth and Finger Eleven on Sunday. Each show is included in the ticket price for that particular day.
Toronto’s food festival circuit makes it possible to sample authentic eats from all parts of the globe. The newest to enter the mix is the Taste of the Middle East – a food festival highlighting not only culinary delights but culture and traditions from countries in this region. A dozen food vendors will be serving up tasty bites (expect eats like Turkish pide, halloumi, kabobs and baklava) along with a licensed area showcasing Middle Eastern spirits. Cultural vendors selling clothing and jewellery from the region will also be on hand. Hitting all of the senses, guests will be treated to entertainment like live musical performances and, of course, belly dancing.
While Caribana is the major event in our summer calendars for celebrating the island life, the good times continue east of the city at the Jerk Festival. This event might be named for the iconically spicy style of Jamaican cooking, but really the Jerk Festival showcases all manner of Caribbean eats and creative takes on jerk (there will even be a vendor selling jerk ice cream this year). The festival is also a chance to dig into some out-of-city restaurants that serve up delicious island foods. Home Restaurant & Patties and Dawn’s Catering (Brampton), Taste of Jamaica (Mississauga) and Willy’s Jerk Restaurant (North York) will all be making the pilgrimage to Centennial Park this year. The event is also known for its live acts. While this year’s set is yet to be revealed, last year’s notable R&B performers (Brian McKnight, Maxi Priest) give you a taste of what to expect.
Savoury snacks steal the spotlight in the food festival circuit, so dessert fiends like us are glad to see an event like Sweetery enter the fray. They bill themselves as the largest sweets festival in the country and this year’s confirmed vendors include Eva’s Original Chimneys, Holy Cannoli and Coconut Island. In addition to the usual vendor booths, Sweetery helps showcase new talent in the industry with dedicated programming for George Brown College Chef School students, with last year’s festival highlighting offerings from budding French pastry chefs. Put that sugar high to good use with carnival games on-site as well as scavenger hunt stamp cards that reward curious festival goers with entry to prize draws for trying five or more items at Sweetery.
Navigating the city as a plant-based person can feel like a difficult chore but there’s at least one food festival this summer where vegans can eat everything without fear. Vegandale, formerly known as the Vegan Food & Drink Festival, brings together over a hundred vendors with a focus on hot food, drinks and dessert as well as merchandise aligned with the earth-friendly lifestyle. Organizers of this fest are the same group rebranding a Parkdale strip of vegan restaurants and cruelty-free establishments on Queen West into the catchy-sounding Vegandale Village.
Don your best cowboy boots, plaid shirts and channel your inner tractor rider or hay-bail tosser at this now-annual festival with a rollicking country theme. Grilled meats are really the most appropriate food to accompany such an affair, so the city’s top barbecuers (The Mighty Cob and The County General are among the 25 vendors) will be on hand serving up their finest charred concoctions. Bourbon is the beverage of choice here and specialty cocktails, notably a bourbon lemonade, will be flowing. Lawn games and activities (think cornhole, line dancing lessons and giant Jenga) help you digest your servings before tackling the mechanical bull.
Our continental neighbours to the south get a fest all of their own with this annual affair in the heart of the city at Yonge-Dundas Square. The Pan American Food & Music Festival sees 25 countries across the region represented through food and drink vendors, artists, live music and dance performances. Among them are The Arepa Republic (Venezuela), Panchos Bakery and Rebozos (both from Mexico) while true fans of Latin American food can declare their affinity for the cuisine (or demonstrate their ability to ingest it in large quantity, at least) at the arepa eating contest. But you can always just watch the pros in action instead at one of two food competitions pitting six chefs, from six different countries against each other to create on-theme dishes in the seafood and spicy categories.