Saratoga Chowderfest 2018 is in the books. But I suggest you bookmark this post (as well as similar advice published in 2017) and come back to it prior to next year’s event so you can make the most of your experience and avoid some buzz-killing mistakes.
2018 attendance was allegedly 30,000 vs 40,000 last year, the difference probably due to bitter biting winds. Some of the rules were relaxed. You no longer have to get stamps on your ballot to earn the right to buy a t-shirt; just fill it out to your liking. This takes some of the rigor out of the voting process and renders the results somewhat fluid. Why is it that Thirsty Owl, a restaurant on the far end of downtown at Broadway and Lincoln, wins both Best on Broadway and People’s Choice year after year? Next year I am going to make the trek there and find out.
As usual, I flagged after half a dozen tastes. My favorite was the Ramen Chowder at Buddha Noodle—essentially their excellent miso broth married with a chowder base. A close second was the Chicken Pot Pie Chowder at Morrissey’s on Broadway. This place and its sister, Salt & Char, also had the longest lines.
Which brings me to my first tip: don’t just get in/on a chowder line. Instead, measure your desire for that chowder against the opportunity cost of missing out on other chowders while you are standing in line. Sometimes the line will be quite short, in which case you should jump on it. $1 for the chowder sample is all you have to lose. To fine tune the process, check the Discover Saratoga website for an incomplete list of who’s serving what kind of chowder.
Second tip (should be first, chronologically) is to be in downtown Saratoga, queued up for your first sample, when the tasting starts at 11 am. The lines generally grow longer as the day progresses, and many establishments may run out of chowder so you get nothing for your procrastination. Also, an early arrival gives you a fighting chance at a parking spot. There were still plenty of spaces downtown as 11 am arrived and, bonus tip, there were more spaces west of Broadway than in the neighborhoods to the east where most cars were looking to park.
Sadly, there’s another reason to get there early: to avoid the drunks (as much as possible; many folks seem to arrive pre-drunk). Chef Dominic Colose wrote a vivid post about this on his Chefsday blog; he had people trying to break the lock on his men’s room and he wasn’t even serving chowder.
It probably helps to stay out of interior spaces (mostly on Caroline St) that are also serving alcohol and to calibrate the mood of the crowd when you arrive at an establishment; Druthers had lots of beer drinking going on in their patio but people were civil.
Chef Colose declares he’s done with Chowderfest (which he calls Chowderwreck). I’m not. It’s still one of the biggest non-track events in Saratoga, and you can’t beat the price.