UPPER WEST SIDE — The New Taste of the Upper West Side has come to symbolize more than a food festival — it represents the chance for some to prove to the rest of the city that the neighborhood is a restaurant destination and not the food desert some call it.
In its sixth year and organized by the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, the event showcases more than 80 chefs, from the area's favorites to its newcomers.
"The reason our whole event got started was in celebration of all of the new places that opened [in the neighborhood,]" said Barbara Adler, the BID's executive director.
"The Upper West Side used to be known as a great place to live, but you had to go to the East Side for restaurants," she said.
Now, Adler added, that's changed.
"There’s a lineup of incredible chefs," she said.
The event, hosted under a tent along Columbus Avenue between West 76th and West 77th streets, has been expanded to three nights this year, kicking off with a Wednesday night fundraiser for Theodore Roosevelt Park, which sits next to the American Museum of Natural History. It continues with "Comfort Classics" on May 31 and "Best of the West" on June 1.
Wednesday's "Soiree in the Park," features champagne and hors d'oeuvres by Dove Tail's John Fraser, Maria Loi of Loi, and Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi Parmacotta.
Tickets are still available for the festival, but going fast, Adler warned.
Each year, new restaurants have used Taste of the Upper West Side to whet the appetites of residents anxiously awaiting their opening.
RedFarm, which Adler called the city's "top Chinese restaurant," is set to open in June on Broadway at West 77th Street, and will showcase its chef Joe Ng at the festival.
"[The restaurant] Corvo Bianco is about to open and has just gotten a very well known chef, Elizabeth Faulkner," said Adler.
The event "is quite simply the most important event of the year for the restaurant industry on the Upper West Side," said Greg Hunt, the owner of Cafe Tallulah, which opened in the neighborhood in January.
The festival is a way for restaurants to "showcase themselves to neighborhood residents," he said.
To impress the crowd, Cafe Tallulah is serving shrimp and lobster salad with shaved asparagus, honji mushrooms, and a warm lobster truffle vinaigrette, alongside the "Serge Gainsbourg Cocktail," a combination of Tito's Lemon Vodka shaken with fresh cucumbers, mint, lemon juice, and simple syrup.
Ease of consumption is very important to Chef Jonathan Benno of Lincoln restaurant.
"It has be a one biter, but a satisfying one bite," he said.
This year Lincoln is featuring a play on a traditional Italian sandwich on homemade foccaccia bread.
This is Lincoln's third year at New Taste of the Upper West Side.
"The restaurant business is so competitive, anything and everything you can do to build good will is only going to help," said Benno, who also appreciates the charity work of the BID.
The decor and atmosphere have also been spiffed up this year, said Adler, who didn't want to give away too many surprises. But she did say the evenings would involve an aerialist, a la Cirque du Soleil, who would pour champagne for guests, swinging from the ceiling.
Celebrity guests are also part of the draw. This year, Adam Richman from the Travel Channel will host, as well as Gail Simmons of Top Chef and Food and Wine magazine fame.
Above all, the event is seen as a chance for the neighborhood to come together, Adler said.
"People come from far and wide. We have people who come from Europe. But the majority of the people come from Manhattan and the majority from Upper West Side," she said, characterizing the festival as a "meet and greet and a chance to see your neighbors."
The event brings together all of Chef Benno's colleagues, he said, but it's also a chance to relax with the folks he serves regularly.
"You kind of get to rub elbows and have a beer with the patrons of your restaurant," he said.
Last year's proceeds went to funding the new Columbus Avenue streetscape, which beautifies a so-called dead zone between West 76th and West 77th streets. This year, the proceeds will support the program Wellness in Schools and also its efforts to improve the look of the avenue.