Destinations love to show off homegrown specialties when meetings and conventions come to town, and walking tours, tastings and food trucks are a few of the fun ways to get the “flavor” of a place.
For instance, during a 2012 reception at the River Music Experience in Davenport, Iowa, members of the Midwest Travel Writers Association sampled munchies, beer, wine and chocolates that were made in Iowa. At the Newburgh Brewing Co. on the Hudson River, visitors taste ale-washed goat cheese and other local foods, accompanied by the New York craft brewery’s beers.
And meeting attendees in Wilmington, N.C., can sip imaginative libations, hear a mixologist’s tales and pair cupcakes with wines — all made in North Carolina — on a Drinks Downtown Cocktail Tour.
In Lexington, Ky., Bleu Plate Tours takes groups through downtown to discover the city’s history and sample some of its savory treats.
“In the last 10 years, most good Lexington restaurants have hired classically trained chefs who are taking traditionally Southern food and elevating it to a fine-dining level, and we tap that market,” said Laura Mize, creator, owner and head tour guide. “Our tours have to appeal to a broad spectrum of people, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”
On Bleu Plate’s three-hour adventure, attendees might hit six or seven eateries. A morning tour might begin with a stop at Alfalfa Restaurant on Main Street for a short stack of buckwheat blueberry pancakes. Then it’s on to Sam’s Hot Dog Stand for a palate cleanser of Ale-8-1, a popular soft drink produced 20 miles away in Winchester. Next stop is upscale Jonathan at Gratz Park Inn for a Southern trio sampler of deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes and crispy black-eyed peas.
A restaurant designed like a depression-era speakeasy, Parlay Social serves barbecue minisliders to those on a tour, and a gastropub, the Village Idiot, adds truffle crab macaroni and cheese.
In Lexington’s entertainment district, Bellini’s Italian Restaurant rustles up small servings of pan-seared scallops, while DeSha’s Restaurant tops it off with a Kentucky favorite: bourbon bread pudding.
Tours can be tailored to a group’s time and interests. For example, tours on Saturday mornings can focus on the city’s farmers market, with samples of goat cheese and handmade pasta from food stalls.
Bleu Plate can also organize progressive dinners. The company can accommodate groups of up to 40 and can split those in two for a more individualized experience. Tours are available year-round.
In California, Chef Greg Murphy of the restaurant Bouchon Santa Barbara leads smaller groups on Farmer’s Market Foodie Strolls.
“Santa Barbara has a temperate climate, so our produce stays in season longer,” said Eric Hanson, manager of the popular restaurant, where ingredients come from surrounding farms and are just picked whenever possible. Fish from the Santa Barbara Channel, produce from the nearby countryside and area wines — chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah — are all served in a French country atmosphere.
“Santa Barbara County has farmers markets nearly every day of the week,” Hanson said. “Chef takes up to eight people to the Tuesday one. It’s right downtown and covers three blocks.”
During the Foodie Stroll, Murphy talks about the produce for sale; explains how he might use, say, tomatoes in a restaurant dish; and offers participants tastes, such as a chunk of cantaloupe here, a baby carrot there. Murphy entertains with commentary and stories about some of the farms from which he buys.
Participants then select ingredients for supper. They follow the chef to observe how he picks out produce and what the purveyors do. He phones in food choices to the restaurant, where the staff then creates a menu. Carrying their purchases, group members meander back to Bouchon, where owner Sjerven Michael pairs southern California wines with a three-course dinner. Bouchon’s Cork Room offers private dining space for up to 20 with no room charge.