Stepping into the Riot Feast pop-up restaurant in Chicago was an incredibly disorienting experience. The first sight to greet my eyes is an old-school carnival ticketing booth, where a hostess greeted me and took my name. Entering the dining room itself, I was overwhelmed by the gothic carnie atmosphere; the big red and white tent, the Ferris Wheel chair by the bar, the large wax candles simmering at ever table. I also noticed the music, a brutal mélange of Replacements favorites, Superchunk classics, and Stiff Little Fingers deep cuts. It was unlike any other dining experience in the world, which suits the man responsible for it all just fine.
“I knew what I didn’t want,” festival founder “Riot” Mike Petryshyn said. “I didn’t want it to be a Hard Rock Café, where there’s like guitars on the wall and posters or whatever. It’s just not who we are. It’s bland and I think Riot Fest is unique.”
While Riot Fest is one of the more offbeat and expansive multi-day music festivals out there, it never occurred to them before this year to open up their own restaurant. It was only after a Saved By The Bell-themed pop-up picked up stakes and left for Los Angeles that the opportunity arose. “They kind of came to us,” Mike explained. “They had the Saved By The Max concept last year that was only supposed to run a couple months… from my understanding, they had the lease on that space and wanted to do something new. Somehow they came up with, ‘Let’s talk to Riot and see what they say.’”
Even with an incredibly short time frame to put something together, the Riot Fest promotors gave the green light, and not long after the last patron departed from the simulated confines of Bayside, California, contractors went into the space and began tearing it down. “The good thing is they retained a lot of their staff from the Max to run Riot Feast so the transition was as smooth as it can get. As soon as the Max closed — I think the final day was May 31st or something — we were inside building it out by June 9th. They knew what they were doing.”
For the look of the pop-up, the organizers wanted to bring in the signature aesthetic of the annual festival, along with elements of the actual, festival experience to create something unlike anything anyone’s done before. “We tap into the carnival element, adding to it every year, but we want that 1920’s-ish carnival feel,” Mike said. “That’s fed into what [the pop-up] is now, what it turned into with the tenting, the communal table, even the menu. You’re sitting next to people like you would be standing at a festival. It’s a communal experience.”
You don’t order food at Riot Feast, you are bombarded by it. A whole team of waiters and waitresses swoops through the aisles of the dining room delivering course after course after course of delicious, music-themed apps, entrées and desserts. Keeping with the theme of a community, everything is served in larger portions, family style.
It all begins so innocently with a slight bag of togarashi spiced popcorn. From there, I was offered a slice of the “Have Mercy” jalapeno cornbread with hunks of butter shaped into the visage of John Stamos. Speaking about the festival’s peculiar fascination with the Full House actor and Oikos yogurt spokesman, Riot Mike says, “It started on Twitter. Our Twitter guy made a post about Stamos and he responded back. That was 2013. It’s been back and forth since. It’s great!”
After a double-kick of spice, the “Feel Good Salad of the Summer” arrived to cool things down. Dressed with a white wine vinaigrette, it’s a bowl overflowing with strips of zucchini and yellow squash, tomatoes, feta, parsley, shaved fennel and chickpeas. It’s very summery, very bright and extremely difficult to stop eating. This one gets my vote for the best dish on the menu.
The veggies keep coming with the Gwar-themed “Brocclous Ungurus,” a smattering of florets covered in thai spice and peanuts. From there, a double serving of fried deliciousness; “C.R.E.A.M. (Curds Rule Everything Around Me)” which I heartily enjoyed on principle as a Wu-Tang fanatic, followed by the “Hot Dog In A Hallway,” a delicious sausage tossed on a stick, rolled in batter, deep fried and served with a tangy ramekin of yellow mustard.
For the main course Riot Feast offers two poultry options, an as-yet-unnamed quesadilla that replaced the “Guided By Rices,” that’s been stuffed with gooey cheese and braised turkey leg meat, topped with queso fresco and pickled red onion. Then, the piece de resistance if you will, the “Never Mind The Chicken” a slightly spicy fried chicken breast, paired with a poppy seed and celery salt strewn savory funnel cake, served with a side of pickles and peppers. It’s meant to pay homage to the esteemed Chicago dog and it’s damn delicious.
Dessert is the only place where you’re given the freedom to choose what you want to eat, and to be honest, it’s tough. While the “Bad Brain Freeze” and the “Taking Back Sundae” were certainly enticing, I decided to throw down on the “Paramoreos.” I think I made the right call. The dish is made up with a couple of deep fried oreos, topped with caramel corn over a heaping spoonful of vanilla ice cream. Though my arteries begged for mercy, my stomach kept asking for more.
While the impact that Riot Feast will have on the fortunes of the festival at large are hard to quantify, the experience itself is wholly enjoyable, and further cements Riot Fest’s presence in the city from which it was birthed. It also speaks to the originality of thought and adventurous spirit that the organizers of Riot Fest imbue into their many endeavors that no doubt appeals to the many bands and artists — especially long dormant groups like the Misfits with Glenn Danzig and Jawbreaker — who seek to perform at their event year in and year out.
“Doing stuff like the Feast is kind of natural for us,” Mike said. “I can’t name another festival outside of maybe one or two who could pull this off.”