If you've somehow made it to the first weekend in September without attending even one of the bazillion summer festivals put on throughout the state, get off your rump and mosey on down to Civic Center Park over the Labor Day holiday. There you can join about a half-million of your nearest and dearest fellow festival-goers in celebrating all things Colorado at the Festival of Mountain and Plain...A Taste of Colorado. You'll find food, music, food, crafts, food, activities for the kids, food, arts demonstrations, food, celebrities, food, and even something to drink at the Rocky Mountain Region's largest free-admission family festival.
"The Taste is really a showcase for Colorado restaurants," says Patty Johnson of the Downtown Denver Partnership Inc., producer of the event. "You can find anything from roast turkey legs to fine gourmet dishes. And you can hear great live music for free while you eat!"
With six -- count 'em, six -- stages scattered throughout the park, you won't be able to miss the music. Johnson has confirmed that along with plenty of local performers, this year's main-stage artists will be Loverboy, The Fixx, Ray Parker Jr. and Cheap Trick. All shows are free.
So you have your food, you have your music; you gotta have your vendors. More than 200 arts-and-crafts booths fill the marketplace with all kinds of stuff to buy: clothing, jewelry, kites, photography, fine art and sculpture, purses and leather goods, knickknacks and the shelf to put them on, all handmade or custom-crafted by artisans from around the region, the country and the world.
"Monday afternoon is a heavy-duty shopping day, especially for all the volunteers working the booths," explains Johnson. "There's one guy who comes every year, and every year I have to buy something from him. I could go to his shop in Boulder any time of the year, I guess, but seeing him in his booth, it's a tradition."
Tradition is a good way to explain why about 50 percent of the participants at this year's Taste are considered regulars -- that is, they've been coming to the Labor Day extravaganza for at least six years now. One restaurant, Mustard's Last Stand, has been part of the event every year since 1984.
That's the year A Taste of Colorado was added to the Festival of Mountain and Plain, a fairly low-key little shindig started back in the 1890s after the federal government's switch to the gold standard nearly wiped out the state's silver-based economy. After the Second World War through the 1960s, the festival was little more than a parade celebrating mining and agriculture. It was revived in the early '80s, and with the addition of the restaurant angle and the move to Civic Center Park, the event took off like a soufflé afire.
Families have been celebrating the end of summer here long enough for the kids to be bringing their kids to the KidZone around the Seal Pool. Bonnie Phipps is still performing on the Kids' Stage, and there are still clowns and jugglers and magicians and puppets, a playground, an arts-and-crafts tent and the ever-popular raptor exhibit. Splashing in the Seal Pool, however, is the time-tested best way to enjoy the afternoon, especially on Friday.
And if this is really a big-time festival, there must be rides. The carnival midway offers rides and games by the dozens, geared for all ages.
Did we mention food? More than fifty of Denver's finest restaurants will be on hand to serve up their specialties, from traditional and ethnic to exotic and gourmet. The fine-dining area on the stage at the Greek Amphitheatre is always a crowd-pleaser. Four of the city's top restaurants are featured on stage for two days, either Friday and Saturday or Sunday and Monday, where chefs will present cooking demonstrations, tastings and seminars.
"A few years ago, we had a sommelier do thirty minutes on champagne to a crowd in T-shirts and flip-flops," Johnson recalls. "They loved it."
At the other end of the scale are the copious free samples available from sponsors in booths throughout the park. But if you'd rather not troll the aisles begging for bits of peanut butter and slurps of mineral water, pony up for the main attraction: food.
Tickets are priced at nine for $5, and although in the past, the Taste has been criticized for being expensive, Johnson says that participating restaurants have been urged to make their portions comparable to what they serve on the premises. For $5, festival-goers should be able to put together any number of combinations of an entree, appetizer or side dish and a drink. For example, for nine tickets, you could load up on a soda, a Polish sausage and popcorn, or a turkey drumstick and a frozen banana.
"You really have to consider what you might spend on any special event," Johnson says. "For me, the greatest part is that the whole family can try something different. I always go for a big burger from Unique Burger, but my husband tries everything -- Italian, Thai, Greek, you name it -- all on the same plate."
Save room for dessert, dear.