Then there’s the food itself. Leaving aside the quality issues created by the cooking circumstances, the sheer volume and diversity of bites is enough to send your bowels screaming for relief. If you play your cards right at one of these things, you can end up inhaling small portions of 20 or 30 dishes in the span of a couple of hours: ceviche, sliders, lamb chops, banh mi, sushi, gelato, cupcakes. If you think about it too hard—or at all, really—you begin to realize how vile it sounds.
But maybe it’s just me, and you like the sound of this whole setup. Maybe a regular old dinner isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush for you. If you’re still considering attending a walk-around tasting or festival, there are a few steps you can take to ensure an above-average experience.
I’ve had better luck with tasting events focused on a single type of food, particularly foods that are easy to produce in rustic situations—the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York City, for example. At least then you’re sticking to a single cuisine, for which your stomach will thank you. Look for events that have been around for several years, so that most of the operational kinks have been worked out. You can also inquire about the event’s maximum occupancy. One thousand ticketed guests for a tasting in a hotel ballroom? Pass.
Once you arrive, get an overview of what’s on offer by doing a loop of the whole event first. Try to sequence your eating from lightest to heaviest dishes, saving dessert for last (in effect, creating a miniature tasting menu for yourself). Don’t skip the tables with long lines in front; it pays to wait for the popular items, which often really are a cut above the rest. By extension, save your appetite for the good stuff, and don’t eat anything that doesn’t truly look or sound tempting. If you find yourself at a table where the chefs aren’t busy (this usually happens toward the end of the event), why not strike up a conversation and ask a few questions about the dish or the restaurant? You might actually learn something.
But for my money, the best way to handle a walk-around event? Avoid it entirely. Cut a check to your charity of choice and treat yourself to an old-fashioned dinner—table and chairs included.
Elizabeth Gunnison is a freelance writer based in New York. She is the online food correspondent for Esquire.com and contributes to publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.