In addition to its star music lineup, Outside Lands attracts visitors with San Francisco’s best artists, food, beer and wine. // © (c) Jim Lemke/FilmMagic
Most big cities have their own blockbuster music festivals. Since the lineups tend to have overlaps, there is not much incentive to travel much farther than a few hours — unless, of course, the festival happens to be in a glamorous foreign country, for which any excuse to travel to will do.
This, however, is not the case for Outside Lands, a yearly summer music festival in San Francisco’s beautiful Golden Gate Park, which began in 2008. I've been going since its first year, when I was lured by the headliner, one of my favorite bands and an impossible ticket: Radiohead. Since then, the festival has grown into one of San Francisco’s premier events — not merely a music festival that happens to be in San Francisco, but a music festival that embodies the finer details of the city. Year after year, Outside Lands adds more San Francisco-based restaurants, wineries, breweries, artists and community organizations to the fold, embodying the city’s pride in its strong locally-owned businesses.
“Our company ZeroCater — a San Francisco catering service that provides companies with customized lunch from the city’s best restaurants — works with nearly half of the vendors at Outside Lands,” said Stephanie Park, director of account management at ZeroCater. “These popular restaurants represent the diverse flavors of San Francisco. The vendors are San Francisco residents and their food reflects not only their ethnic backgrounds, but city influences as well.”
The San Francisco gourmand’s love of craft is fully represented at Outside Lands, through a total of 16 breweries, 36 wineries and 83 food vendors including the city’s finest restaurants, food trucks, food carts and, yes, even pop-up restaurants. Though beer, wine and even well-made artisanal cocktails are available throughout the festival, two dedicated areas attract the crowds: Beer Lands is a craft beer drinker’s dream curated by San Francisco craft beer spot, Magnolia Brewery, while Wine Lands offers a mini Napa Valley — flanked by one vendor selling local artisanal cheese plates and another hawking freshly sliced charcuterie. This year, the weather was mild, but even the mistiest cold of San Francisco cannot deter the image of San Francisco projected by Outside Lands.
Here are some of my favorites (besides the many music highlights, including headliner Paul McCartney’s three-hour set and fireworks finale):
Pacific Brewing Laboratories
California craft breweries do not lack for their riffs on the IPA style of beer and neither did this festival, which also featured crowd favorites such as Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA and Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA. While those are relatively easy to acquire, Squid Ink by Pacific Brewing Laboratories is not — the nanobrewery (a very small brewery operation with a limited brew system) does not produce enough of its beers to show up at all the best beer bars in the U.S., so it was a treat to be able to try (several times) Pacific Brewing’s India Black Ale, which perfectly balances sweet malts with a smooth kick of hops.
The Little Chihuahua
Though there were even more food vendors to choose from this year, including booths from some of San Francisco’s best restaurants (such as Rich Table, which was selling sardine chips and porcini doughnuts), I couldn’t forget one of last year’s highlights: The Little Chihuahua. I started out Outside Lands 2013 the same way I started Outside Lands 2012: with a fried plantain and black bean burrito. Handheld, filling and nutritious (enough), it is the perfect festival food and always makes me feel like I am midnight dining in the Mission.
As for Rich Tables’ porcini doughnuts? They looked like fluffy beignets, were sprinkled with porcini mushroom shavings and served with ricotta. Lamb poutine, chocolate-covered bacon, fried chicken and waffles, French toast, pork belly burgers, fried mac and cheese, gourmet pork rinds and stuffed arepas were among the other decadent dishes spotted at the festival.
Joining the mix of local wineries this year was what was probably the least local of all the vendors present: Momokawa, a craft sake based in the faraway land of Oregon. That’s okay though: Oregon is a lot closer to San Francisco than Japan, and the ability to get Junmai Ginjo sake, on draft, at a music festival, is worth the few extra miles of travel time.
Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
One of the most popular coffee vendors in San Francisco was serving single origin pour over coffee as well as New Orleans style ice coffee. By day two, I barely blinked an eyelash when they were able to substitute some organic soy milk to my slightly sweetened, rich cold brew. I was at Outside Lands, after all.
Living Greens Juice
What other music festival features a table of produce, such as celery, kale, lemons and other fresh fruits and vegetables, waiting to turn into cold-pressed juice upon order? The pure nutrition of a green juice was exactly what I needed to start off my second day at the festival and made me feel a little less badly about the beers that followed. Also on offer? Thai young coconuts and hot detox tea.
San Francisco-born and Northern California-based Ricky Watts was among the artists creating daily live paintings on the festival grounds. His mural, created with spray paint, attracted festival goers with its bright colors and patterning. Watts was one of several visual storytellers selected by Outside Lands in partnership with artist and curator Jeben Berg and San Francisco’s Juxtapoz magazine.
Samba Street Circus
Greeting me at the entrance of the festival was none other than a line-up of circus characters drumming, dancing and running around in stilts. The dynamic parade featured all kinds of sounds and black and white outfits: life-size cardboard tribal masks, leotards, fishnets, helmets, top hats, furs, features, lace, ruffles, capes and so much more. The energy of the Brazilian drumming and colorful characters was so seductive I missed a chunk of one band I wanted to see, and even chased after the circus later on in the day for a photo with my friends.
San Francisco Community and Sustainability
Several San Francisco-based companies (from non-profits to start-ups) have booths or areas at Outside Lands. My favorite for the last two years has been The Wigg Party, a community organization that is based in The Wiggle, a bike route in the Lower Haight and Panhandle neighborhoods. At Outside Lands, the urban sustainability group dons fun George Washington-style wigs and essentially creates a party with what else — nature. At the booth, festival-goers can create accessories like bracelets and hair pieces with a variety of gorgeous flowers or a chalkboard necklace featuring a personalized message.
At the PG&E area, music fans took breaks from everything else to build homes as part of the PG&E Solar Habitat program, which has helped build more than 500 solar-powered Habitat for Humanity homes for working families. From nailing and drilling to painting, many Outside Lands attendees lent a hand for a good cause.
Outside Lands in Luxury
This year, several properties offered Outside Lands packages. JW Marriott’s sold out VIP Travel Package, priced at $2,329, included:
- Three nights at the JW Marriott San Francisco Union Square for two people
- Two, three-day VIP tickets to Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival (which includes exclusive Polo Club w/ shade, lounge seating, activities and massage services; viewing areas at the Lands End and Twin Peaks stage; special restroom facilities; access to special VIP food concessions; access to beer, wine and spirits services; commemorative poster and more)
- Two Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival T-shirts
- Shuttle transportation between the hotel and festival