Will Pouch is always in the mood for chowder during early February.
That’s one reason Pouch will be outside Esperanto, his favorite restaurant in Saratoga Springs, on Saturday: Chowderfest always fills the city’s streets and sidewalks.
“What’s the mood like?” Pouch asked. “It’s the busiest day of the year, maybe more than the Travers, but it’s different. There’s a feeling of energy. People are waiting on line, that’s true, but the lines move.”
Pouch added, “It’s like a beehive all over town.”
Like bees to flowers, chowder lovers will buzz from restaurant to restaurant for this weekend’s 20th annual Chowderfest.
Here are some festival facts:
- Chowder will be served from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.
- Each sample will cost $1; some places donate proceeds to Saratoga programs like Code Blue.
- No tickets are necessary. Ballot forms can be secured at any participating establishment.
- Ballots can be dropped off at the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center or the Saratoga Springs City Center.
- Votes can also be made online at DiscoverSaratoga.org/Vote.
- Voting ends at 5 p.m.
- An awards ceremony will be held at the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center at 6:30 p.m.
Pouch, who opened Caroline Street’s Esperanto in 1995 with his wife Belinda and friends Sheldon and Maureen Solomon, has participated in each Chowderfest. Only Gaffney’s, another Caroline Street landmark, has been at every chowder party.
“From the beginning, the goal was to bring in business at was a very, very quiet time of the year,” said Todd Garofalo, president of the Saratoga Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They had maybe a handful of restaurants and a couple thousand people. Now we’re at 90 restaurants and bars throughout the entire county and average about 35,000 people.”
Part of the fun is discovery and exploration. Chowder planners believe people come to discover new flavors and try new foods they might never generally order. Exploration comes when they visit restaurants they’ve never seen before.
Variety is another factor. Here are a few chowders that will star this weekend:
- Salted caramel apple chowder — Ravenous, 21 Phila St.
- Roasted cauliflower chowder with garlic Parmesan Shrimp — Greenhouse Salads, 33 Railroad Place.
- Cajun seafood chowder — The Mill on Round Lake, 2121 Route 9, Round Lake.
- Loaded baked potato corn chowder — Panza’s restaurant, 510 Route 9P.
- Kentucky bourbon chicken corn chowder — Saratoga Stadium, 389 Broadway.
At Esperanto, chowder will be based on the restaurant’s best-selling “doughboy.”
“It’s kind of like a calzone,” said co-manager Chris Biddle. “It’s cream cheese, chicken, scallions, spices in a pizza dough. We use that base idea to make a chowder with. We’ve done it before and it was very well received.”
Biddle said Esperanto is prepared to serve 2,500 portions. The restaurant also plans to serve a vegetarian chowder.
“It’s always been a really fun time to express ourselves creatively,” Biddle said.
Chefs are ready at Gaffney’s, where a shrimp and crab number is on the menu board. “It brings the whole town together,” said bar manager Alex Straus. “It’s a great celebration here in Saratoga.”
Straus wasn’t around when the first Chowderfest took place in 1999. John Baker was then running Gaffney’s.
“The story goes that Baker put a Crock-Pot full of chowder at the end of the bar,” Garofalo said. “Now you’ve got places like Druthers who are making thousands of gallons of chowder to get through the day.”
Garofalo said people can take a look at the list of participating restaurants at www.saratoga.com/chowderfest/participants and devise a strategy. Most people are not going to try all 90 places; 90 small cups of chowder, at three ounces per serving, would be 270 ounces. That’s more than two gallons, and about a $90 investment.
Garofalo said a plan could mean concentrating on just one or two sections of town or just a few clusters of restaurants. He also suggested people take advantage of the event’s free shuttle bus service – in a city that can be notoriously difficult to find parking spots.
The Saratoga Casino Hotel (CDTA parking area) and Wilton Mall (near the Dick’s entrance) will be park and ride locations. To keep people away from traffic — at least in some places — Ellsworth Jones Place outside the City Center will be closed to vehicles for the day. So will Phila, Caroline and Henry streets.
Nobody’s worried about the weather.
“Even if it’s raining or snowing, people will be out there,” Straus said. “If there’s a good time to be had, you can always rely on Saratoga to make it out rain or shine.”
Will Pouch believes the same thing.
“I’ll be out there all day, no matter what the temperature is,” he said. “It’s a great way to meet new customers. It’s a great event.”
View a list of participating restaurants.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].