Chowderheads brave cold for annual contest
Downtown filled with visitors sampling from 75 varieties
SARATOGA SPRINGS Kacy Cross rubbed her hands together and brought them to her face, covering her mouth and nose for warmth. She wanted last year’s mild winter back, and she wanted the long line she was standing in on Phila Street to move a bit faster.
“I’ve never seen lines this long,” she said, standing on her tiptoes to look behind her toward Henry Street. “And so early, too.”
People with red noses and bright cheeks milled throughout the streets of downtown Saratoga Springs, braving the below-freezing temperatures and brisk wind Saturday for the 15th annual Chowderfest — and the elements weren’t going to stop people from getting their chowder.
People’s Choice: Seven Horse Pub
Best Newcomer: Druthers
Best On-Broadway: Druthers
Best Off-Broadway: Seven Horse Pub
Best Non-Downtown Chowder: Longfellows
Best Chowder-Themed Dessert: Ben & Jerry’s
Most Chowder Served: Parting Glass
Best Chowder Under 1,000 Bowls Served (new category): The Local Pub and Teahouse
Tiny specks of snow began to swirl through the chilly air around noon, a sign of a steady snowfall that would arrive later that day.
While Cross inched closer to the booth set up outside Seven Horse Pub, her friends were ordering beer inside Hattie’s next door. She would easily sample a dozen chowders on this day, she said, as she has for the last seven years.
“One person stands in line and one person goes to the bar, and that way you meet in the middle with beers and chowder,” said Cross, explaining the strategy her group employs each year.
For one of Saratoga’s most celebrated events and the highlight of a three-day Winterfest each year, thousands of people come from all over the Northeast, filling the streets to sample more than 75 varieties of chowder from Saratoga venues, enjoy live music and, for some, get drunk while it’s still light out.
The chowders were as varied as ever this year. There was a black bean, chocolate and poblano chowder at the Bread Basket Bakery; a coconut, tofu and vegetable chowder from Esperanto; a gluten-free Manhattan clam chowder from Max London’s; and a brownie batter dessert chowder from Plum Dandy.
Of course, there was also plenty of the classic stuff. And on this Saturday, a tiny Styrofoam cup of hearty, creamy New England clam chowder was enough to redeem the long, cold wait.
“As soon as the weather gets cold, people start talking about this,” said Cross, her breath visible in front of her. “I come from St. Louis, where we celebrated Mardi Gras, and this is the closest thing to it because they don’t do Mardi Gras here. So we always look forward to Chowderfest. It always brings tons of people and tons of activity to downtown.”
Not surprisingly, as the event is sponsored by the Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau.
Chowderfest is also a great excuse to drink during the day, as nothing seems to wash down hot chowder better than a cold beer.
A line stretched along Henry Street outside The Parting Glass, where people warmed up inside with tiny cups of triple seafood chowder and much larger cups of beer. An entire table inside was stacked high with dirty Styrofoam cups, plastic spoons, and empty bottles and cans.
As the afternoon wore on, Caroline and Phila streets became packed with people, and groups on Broadway began splitting off toward either the Saratoga City Center or the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center to hand in their ballots and pick up their $10 Chowderfest T-shirts.
Ed Tokarchuk was just about done for the day, so he stopped in the Visitor Center, his white plastic spoon still tucked into the band on his hat.
“I don’t want to waste spoons, so I use it for every venue,” he said, pausing in the hallway where his wife, Linda, waited.
Their first stop had been Longfellows on Union Avenue, which is close to where they live, and then Prime at Saratoga National, Forno Bistro, The Springs, Wheatfields and Comfort Kitchen.
“My favorite has always been Longfellows,” said Linda Tokarchuk.
The Tokarchuks have gone to Chowderfest for as long as there’s been a Chowderfest, and they couldn’t remember Saturday a crowd as big as this year’s.
“I think the city ought to look at closing more streets off, maybe some of the side streets,” said Ed Tokarchuk. “I think you might even draw more people that way. There’s too many lines out in front of the restaurants, and it’s hard to get around.”
As the event wound down, fat snowflakes began to fall and people talked about the last-minute places they needed to try (D’Andreas served a much-talked about chowder pizza). Even as the chowder ran out, the mood remained lively as crowds ducked out of the snow and into bars.