Summer has flown by hasn’t it? And it’s left us with memories of many sunny weekends spent enjoying our gorgeous waterfront.
We’re really spoiled here in Burlington with back-to-back festivals, events, and parties hosted on our sprawling lakefront lawn, beautiful beach and quaint downtown streets. Starting with Sound of Music in June followed by Canada Day, A Taste of Burlington, Saturdays in the Square, Chefs Around the Block, the Sandcastle Festival and so much more — it’s almost as if the party on the waterfront never stops. That is, until Canada’s Largest Ribfest signals the end of summer over the Labour Day long weekend.
But there’s one party I had never tried before until this year, and I don’t know why it took me so long. Lakeside à La Carte is perhaps not as widely known as some of these other events, but we found it holds true to its promise of being Burlington’s Ultimate Summer Party.
Here are a dozen reasons why.
1. It’s been a non-stop party since the Vengaboys were big.
The song of the summer in 1998 was the Vengaboys, “We Like to Party.” That year, the Rotary Club of Burlington Central wanted to prove that they too could throw a great party and — unlike the Vengaboys — haven’t stopped since.
Lakeside à La Carte has been the group’s annual gourmet food and wine fundraiser for over 15 years now. Back in the day, it was a smaller-scale event but has grown to attract almost two dozen restaurants, one dozen Ontario wineries and a few breweries too.
2. (Half) million dollar smiles were financed here.
Over the years, Lakeside à La Carte has raised over $500,000, with donations going to local charities that fund smiles: organizations like Joseph Brant Hospital, the Teen Tour Band and other child and youth causes.
For one price ($110), you get to sample it ALL — over and over again if you like. Better yet, a good portion of the cost is tax-deductible ($65). This year, over 500 people liked the sound of that deal and descended on Spencer Smith Park for the foodie feast.
3. It offers the best of the city in bite-size bundles.
The line-up of participating restaurants reads as a who’s who of Burlington’s best eateries. Each restaurant donates their time and food as a way of giving back to the community.
This year (like every year), the team at Emma’s Back Porch and Water Street Cooker really went all out. With an attractive tray of local produce to draw guests in, they served a refreshing, cold tomato gazpacho topped with a single poached shrimp. Accompanying this was a mushroom bruschetta crostini with goat cheese and a spread of roasted tomatoes.
SB Prime is another downtown favourite. They showcased their delicious braised shortrib slider that had me doubling back for a second round.
5. It’s just like the Hamptons.
If you happen to be a socialite in the Hamptons, you’ll attend a major white-tented event like this almost every weekend of the summer. But, for us ordinary folks here in Burlington, the large festival tents erected in Spencer Smith Park are an impressive sight.
As we headed through the tented entrance corridor, we really felt like we were arriving at something special — and it turns out we were right.
4. We can sit idly by.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m eating a plate of food, I like to sit down. This is not always possible at outdoor events.
But here, the massive main tent is lined by dozens of linen covered tables offering enough seating for everyone. Groups of eight or more are invited to reserve their own table. And this outdoor event uses real plates, wine glasses and cutlery. I told you it was special! They even have those neat wine glass plate clips that allow you to hold your drink and appetizers with one hand.
6. We can eat, eat and repeat.
Now, me being me, this was my favourite part of the day. Even more so than #7, below. There was an insane amount of gourmet grub to be sampled!
My favourite dish was served up by the crew from Spencers at the Waterfront. Located on the other side of Spencer Smith Park (and named for the park too), they were on their home turf so it’s a good thing they brought their A-game. I love the taste of southern BBQ. Their smoked tri-tip beef served with baked beans, jalapeno puree and “pickled pineapple salsa” seemed like it had been made just for Mr Burlington!
Ivy Bar and Kitchen served grilled Atlantic salmon over an asparagus and red quinoa pilaf, topped with a roasted corn and tomato salsa. Delicious.
At Eatalia, we sampled stuffed jumbo ravioli, so good!
7. Our cup runneth over.
Yes, there are plenty of adult beverages to enjoy here too. And, yes, and you can go back for more if you like.
Our hometown brewery, Better Bitters Brewing Co. brought what looked like the world’s largest keg featuring four built-in taps of Nickle Brook. They also served a selection
of their canned and bottled beers. A friend recommended the one-of-a-kind Green Apple beer which is a pilsner combined with natural apple juice and essence — smooth, crisp and refreshing; definitely a nice alternative.
Then there was the el Jimador tequila! This is the number one selling tequila in Mexico. It was served with a lemonade mix and hard to resist.
We found a new favourite wine that we’ve since purchased at the LCBO and will be buying again — a Riesling Gewurztraminer from Strewn Winery in Niagara on the Lake.
8. We can make fair weather friends.
The guests, the vendors, the volunteers — everyone was all smiles and enjoying the festive atmosphere. Whether the weather for this event is perfect or the sun doesn’t shine, the setup is such that conversation between strangers flows easily. Perhaps this also has something to do with #7, above.
Coffee Culture on Brant offered hot cups of coffee and cold cups of ice cream.
Craig Kowalchuk, owner of Emma’s Back Porch, and Paul Sharman, my ward Councillor, agreed to pose for a cheesy photo — my speciality.
9. Top chefs get personal.
Many of the featured restaurants had their head chefs on hand to personally prepare their best bites. It’s a treat to be able to chat with these guys one-on-one and hear them describe their ingredients and techniques.
I first met Tobias from Red Canoe Bistro at Chefs Around the Block. At Lakeside, he served up fried potato cakes with ham and cheddar gravy capped with a dill pickle — nice touch!
10. It hits all the right notes.
The live jazz ensemble had a relaxed, upbeat sound that was a terrific backdrop for socializing.
11. It knows that silence is golden — literally.
In the centre of the tent were long tables filled with dozens of silent auction items. There was all kinds of choice here — everything from one-of-a-kind experiences to electronics, heaping gift baskets, fine art prints and framed gift cards.
At the end of the day, each auction winner walked away proud of both their win and their contribution to Rotary programs that make a difference in the lives of many.
12. We got a kiss goodbye.
And then there was the departing gift of a carnation for the ladies on the way out, a nice memento of our day. Well done, Rotary Club.
The Ultimate Summer Party? Definitely. There’s no other event in the city that can pull all these elements together like Lakeside à La Carte.
The next time you’re looking to dine out, consider giving your business to a restaurant that gives back at events like this. Lakeside à La Carte is one of the largest fundraisers of the year for the Rotary Club. Without the generous support of local businesses, the group would not have been able to raise a half million dollars for our Burlington community over the years through this annual event.
See you back there next summer because, like the Vengaboys of 1998, “We Like to Party!”