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Our Comprehensive Review of Busch Gardens Williamsburg's 2021 Food & Wine Festival

We Sampled, Rated, and Photographed Every Dish & Non-Alcoholic Beverage at BGW's Annual Food Event

We Sampled, Rated, and Photographed Every Dish & Non-Alcoholic Beverage at BGW's Annual Food Event

It is that time again: BGWFans’ annual foodie adventure. For the 2021 “Light at the End of the COVID Tunnel” edition, Zachary and I were joined by my friend Renee and ParkFans Co-Admin Gavin. In one hectic afternoon, we sampled every dish and non-alcoholic beverage at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual Food & Wine Festival. The results were this review and several food comas.


Introductory Thoughts

I think I need to start with an apology or perhaps just an explanation. Usually, BGWFans conducts a comprehensive review of the park’s premier culinary event in its first or second week. Much like everything else in our world right now, however, our outing was delayed. After hearing reports of endless lines and unnavigable crowds, we decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor, and waited until after Spring Break.

To those who have contacted us, asking whether we planned to share our amateur opinions, we apologize for the delay. Given the fact that most of the park restaurants have been closed, since the Festival began, however, I’m not actually sure we could have tasted everything before this past weekend, anyway. Even without the masses of tourists, we still found ourselves in nearly hour-long lines and struggling to get to every booth before they closed.

Happily, we were ultimately able to try every dish and “refresher” at the event. Because there were so few offerings this year, we were even able to do it in a single day (not something I recommend, unless you like feeling like a stuffed turkey, by the way). For that same reason, we are only doing a one-part review this year. In the BeforeTimes BGW would serve 50-60 items at as many as 15 booths; this year they could only offer 27 dishes and a mere nine booths, probably because, you know, COVID operations. There were also dramatically fewer cocktails and bars at the 2021 event.

Anyway, enough chat. Onto the review!


Overarching Observations

In these gloomy times, I’d like to start with the things that made us happy. We thought the food was really good overall. It tasted better and seemed to be higher quality than in the past. We were also excited to see new dishes and drinks, despite current staffing and operating constraints.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we were really impressed with how much spice there was at this year’s event. In the past, we have complained about the food seeming bland and dumbed down. This year, we enjoyed a variety of flavors ranging from herby to hot to sweet.

Unfortunately, while the event was tasty, it was by no means perfect. From a logistical standpoint, especially with so many regular restaurants closed, we found it odd that there were so few tables near the booths. In fact, there were none at all at the South Korean kiosk (given that there is nowhere to sit and eat in Festa Italia right now to begin with, this seemed like a huge oversight). Additionally, probably because of staffing constraints, the few booths at the event seemed overwhelmed by customers and plagued by logistical and technological issues. The resulting waits, oftentimes in long, non-socially-distanced lines full guests displaying varying degrees of mask compliance, significantly degraded our overall experience.

If you have read our previous reviews, you will know that the custard bias is real. Well, for lovers of soft, creamy desserts, this year’s options were a real letdown. Across nine booths, we found only one, lonely Coconut Pineapple Mousse. Gone were the lemongrass custard, the vanilla panna cotta, the Guinness Mousse, and all of the other similar confections from past years.

On the topic of desserts, the park somehow designed a culinary event with only a single chocolate sweet. I know that many people won’t care, but to me that seems irresponsible, possibly criminal. Especially in light of that charred pineapple disaster at the Brazil booth, I just can’t fathom how the dessert menu was set.

Finally, we must issue our standard warning about consistency. As in the past, we have already come across wild variations in dishes from day to day. Additionally, we noticed that some of the food we received had been sitting out on the counter getting cold, while other items were made fresh. Presumably, crowd size and staffing limitations will drive booth operations, so please keep in mind that our scores and comments are based entirely on the items that we received last Sunday.


Our Process & Results

We again scored everything on a 10 point scale from 1 (inedible) to 10 (food nirvana). We then averaged our scores to reach the final assessment. Because there were so few dishes this year, we are including desserts in our Best in Booth awards. We also selected Taster’s Picks, as well as Best in Show: Savory, Sweet, and Refresher. Additionally, any dish that received a mean score of 7.5 or above has been marked as, “Highly Rated.”

While all of these awards are annotated with banners below, we thought it made sense to highlight the Best in Show winners up front:

Best in Show Savory: Mediterranean’s Lamb Burger Slider
Best in Show Sweet: French Quarter’s Beignets
Best in Show Refresher: Mediterranean’s Cafe au Lait

So, without further ado, cue the pretty food photos and unscientific ratings.


Jump to a specific booth?

Brazil

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Brazil New France 7/10

The Brazil booth featured two highlighted dishes. The tender Churrasco with its fresh, herby sauce and good char won Best in Both. The Linguica, which was Gavin’s Pick, was remarkably improved since last year. The well cooked and spicy sausage paired well with well-seasoned vegetables, both offering unusual and interesting flavors. The refreshing Brazilian Lemonade was nice, but essentially just seemed to be frozen limeade. We couldn’t taste the condensed milk at all. The Abacaxi has the dubious honor of being our lowest scoring dessert. This lukewarm, charred pineapple tasted more like a dirty grill than a tropical fruit and the dry coconut added nothing but an unpleasant texture.

Abacaxi

Grilled Pineapple & Coconut Caramel Sauce

Booth Price Rating
Brazil $4.25 5/10

Churrasco

Grilled Beef & Chimichurri Sauce

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
Brazil $6.50 8.3/10

Linguiça

Grilled Sausage, Portabella Mushrooms, and Peppers

Highly Rated
Gavin's Pick
Booth Price Rating
Brazil $5.50 7.8/10

French Quarter

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
French Quarter Aquitaine 7/10

The French Quarter booth boasts the Best in Show: Dessert. The light and fluffy Beignets were the best we have ever tasted at BGW. They were perfectly browned and only lightly sauced. The Muffaletta won praise for its strong flavors and thick layers of meat. Depending on how spicy you like your food, you may or may not enjoy the “shockingly hot” slaw. The Gumbo, despite being very spicy, disappointed tasters with its slimy texture and beige color.

Beignets

Puff Pastry, Powdered Sugar, and Caramel

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Best Sweet
Booth Price Rating
French Quarter $5.25 9.8/10

Chicken & Andouille Gumbo

Creole-Spiced Stew & Cajun Rice

New for 2021
Booth Price Rating
French Quarter $6.50 5/10

Muffaletta

Sliced Mortadella, Salami, Ham, Provolone, Olive Spread, and Cajun Slaw

Booth Price Rating
French Quarter $5.25 6.3/10

Hawaii

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Hawaii Jack Hanna Trail 6.4/10

We saw several changes at the well-themed Hawaiian booth. A new dish, Spam Musubi, debuted as the top-rated savory item. It boasted a clever presentation and well-balanced sweet and salty flavors. The raw fish in the Tuna Poke was good, but unfortunately overwhelmed by the horseradish sauce. While the dish was actually the best version we have tasted at BGW, including a crunchy shell and mild seaweed salad, we would have preferred to have the horseradish served on the side. It is always hard for the team to overcome its frustration with being served super-mundane food at a culinary event, so the middle of the road scores for the Hawaiian Mac & Cheese were fairly predictable. The cheese sauce was admittedly creamy with hints of ham and pineapple, but the crumble lacked any macadamia nut flavor. It was fine, but we couldn’t see a reason to go out of your way to buy it. By contrast, everyone really enjoyed the Best in Booth Pineapple Coconut Mousse, which was light and fluffy and covered in flavorful toasted coconut. Our biggest quibble was with the canned pineapple flavor, which honestly made the Abacaxi that much more frustrating. As expected, the Hibiscus Lemonade was a fun and sweet drink. Some of the tasters wished for more tartness, but it was a refreshing accompaniment to the savory items at the kiosk.

Hawaiian Mac & Cheese

Ham, Pineapple, and Macadamia Nut Crust

Booth Price Rating
Hawaii $4.75 5.8/10

Pineapple Coconut Mousse

Sweet Pineapple & Toasted Coconut

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
Hawaii $4.00 8.3/10

Spam Musubi

Seared Spam, Sushi Rice, and Sweet Soy Glaze

New for 2021
Booth Price Rating
Hawaii $5.25 6/10

Tuna Poke

Sushi Tuna, Wonton Flower, Wasabi Aioli, and Wakame Seaweed Salad

Booth Price Rating
Hawaii $6.50 5.5/10

Italy

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Italy San Marco 6.8/10

The Caprese was the highlight of the Italian Booth. As the only offering to include balsamic this year, it was also Nicole’ Pick. This cool and fresh salad was a perfect palate cleanser with well-balanced flavors and textures. The Mushroom Risotto had clear flavors, but an unfortunately gooey consistency. The Cannoli were essentially the same as the ones for sale at Marco Polo’s Marketplace. The shells seemed slightly stale and the fillings were mild. We couldn’t understand why the booth that used to offer a huge assortment of desserts got rid of everything but a park staple.

Cannoli

Choice of Chocolate, Cannoli Cream & Pistachio, or Cannoli Cream & Chocolate Sprinkles

Booth Price Rating
Italy $5.50 5.5/10

Caprese

Fresh Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Balsamic Glaze, and Basil Pesto

Highly Rated
Nicole's Pick
Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
Italy $5.00 8.5/10

Creamy Mushroom Risotto

Mushroom Risotto, Truffle Oil, and Basil Pesto

Booth Price Rating
Italy $5.25 6.5/10

Jamaica

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Jamaica Rhinefeld 7.1/10

The Jamaican Booth is always a Tasting Team favorite. Perhaps that is why we were a little disappointed this year. Although there was a lot of wonderful heat in the flavors, the dishes, themselves, were cold. The greasy Gamba Fritters were saved by the fantastically tangy sauce, but lacked a consistent amount of shrimp. Perhaps because there were so few items this year, they still scored high enough to be named Best in Booth. The Jerk Chicken Slider had a lot of strong, delayed spice and the accompanying slaw made a creamy and cool compliment. The Ginger Limeade seemed much less gingery, but we decided we were OK with that, given the heat on the jerk.

Gamba Fritters

Crispy Shrimp Dumplings & Pickapeppa Sauce

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
Jamaica $5.50 7.5/10

Jerk Chicken Slider

Mango Salsa & Cilantro Lime Slaw

Booth Price Rating
Jamaica $5.25 6.8/10

Mediterranean

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Mediterranean San Marco 7.3/10

Easily the strongest at the event, the Mediterranean Booth served us our picks for both Best in Show: Savory and Best in Show: Refresher. The Lamb Burger Slider offered an amazing and cohesive array of flavors and textures in a generous portion size. The feta sauce was tangy and creamy and the lamb herby. The orzo and feta complimented each other perfectly, providing interesting textures. The Spanakopita, which was Renee’s Pick, featured a warm and flavorful filling, wrapped in flaky filo, and accompanied by a tangy lemon sauce. The Dolmades, however, struck us as oily and bland. Similarly, we found the Loukoumades wanting. Unlike the beignets, they were heavy, dry, chewy, and lacking in the advertised cinnamon. The surprise hit of the kiosk was the Iced Cafe Au Lait, the Best in Show: Refresher winner. While this non-alcoholic beverage has historically been fairly boring, this year we were stunned by the hints of cinnamon, orange zest, and even Sambuca in the drink. We strongly recommend it with the lamb slider.

Dolmades

Rice, Grape Leaves, and Tzatziki Sauce

Booth Price Rating
Mediterranean $4.25 4.8/10

Lamb Burger Slider

Pita, Feta, Cucumber, Tomato, and Olive

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Best Savory
Booth Price Rating
Mediterranean $6.50 9.3/10

Loukoumades

Honey & Cinnamon

Booth Price Rating
Mediterranean $5.00 6/10

Spanakopita

Spinach, Feta, and Spicy Lemon Sauce

Highly Rated
Renee's Pick
Booth Price Rating
Mediterranean $4.75 9/10

Mexico

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Mexico Jack Hanna Trail 6.9/10

The Mexico Booth is home to Zachary’s Pick, the Chorizo Empanadas. They had a lightly spicy and warm filling that wasn’t too dry. Similarly, the Best in Booth Crispy Shrimp Taco did not disappoint. This cohesive dish boasted good heat, a fresh crunch, and a cool slaw. Conversely, the Carne Asada Taco simply didn’t please anyone on the team. It was difficult to eat and the components didn’t work well together. Perhaps the biggest disappointment at this kiosk, however, was the Horchata. In a dramatic change from the past, it was thin and watery and lacking any flavor. While we appreciated the concept of using a candy straw, in practice it was a bit of a let-down, tasting like a mildly cocoa Necco wafer.

Carne Asada Taco

Marinated Citrus & Soy Beef, Queso Fresca, Guacamole, and Corn Tortilla

Booth Price Rating
Mexico $5.25 4.3/10

Chorizo Empanada

Spicy Pork Sausage & Cilantro Lime Cream

Highly Rated
Zachary's Pick
Booth Price Rating
Mexico $6.00 8/10

Crispy Shrimp Taco

Sweet Chili Sauce, Pico de Gallo & Cilantro Lime Slaw

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
Mexico $5.50 8.5/10

South Korea

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
South Korea Festa Italia 5/10

If you just observed the lines, you might think the Korean Booth was amazing; you would be wrong. The Beef Bulgogi was bland and chewy. The Chicken Bulgogi, conversely, had an overwhelming teriyaki taste and was incredibly dry. For both dishes, even our rice hater thought the rice was the best part: it was well prepared and the scallions stood out, providing most of the flavor on the plate. The Korean BBQ Pork Ribs, which won Best in Booth by default rather than through any real merit, fared slightly better but lacked consistency across our two servings. The meat was tender, but cold. Some pieces were spicy and some seemed underdone. The best thing we could think of to say about either the Vanilla or Chocolate Banana Milk was that they cut the heat from the ribs. Mostly they just tasted like watery bananas with perhaps hints of a chocolate aftertaste.

Beef Bulgogi

Grilled Korean-Style Beef & Rice

Booth Price Rating
South Korea $6.50 5/10

Chicken Bulgogi

Grilled Korean-Style Chicken & Rice

New for 2021
Booth Price Rating
South Korea $6.00 4.3/10

Korean BBQ Pork Ribs

Spicy Chili BBQ & Gochujang Slaw

Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
South Korea $6.50 5.8/10

Virginia

Booth Location Avg. Dish Score
Virginia Heatherdowns 6.6/10

The Virginia Booth served us the pleasant She-Crap Soup, which was recognized as Best in Booth. We enjoyed the creamy sherry, crisp crouton, and surprisingly large serving of crab. I will reiterate my usual recommendation: skip the Bacon & Cheddar Hushpuppies and get the Gamba Fritters instead. They were overcooked, burned, dry, and greasy. Ours were served with barely any honey and had only the faintest hints of cheddar or bacon. The Strawberry Lemonade, a perennial favorite, was tart and refreshing, and full of real strawberries.

Bacon & Cheddar Hushpuppies

Cornmeal Fritters & Honey Butter

Booth Price Rating
Virginia $4.25 5.25/10

She-Crab Soup

Crab Bisque, Old Bay Crostini, and Chesapeake Blue Crab Salad

Highly Rated
Best in Booth
Booth Price Rating
Virginia $6.00 8/10

In summary, while we had some concerns about the execution of the event itself, we thought the food was improved this year. Maybe in the future the Food & Wine Festival will be expanded and more closely resemble the BeforeTimes. Until then, we hope our review proves useful as you explore Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s tastiest event.

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