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Bite Of Seattle

27th Bite of Seattle returns to its roots, offers smaller tastes

Can the Bite of Seattle get its "bite" back? Perhaps you've had this experience: You arrive at Seattle Center to chow down with a half-million...

Can the Bite of Seattle get its "bite" back?

Perhaps you've had this experience: You arrive at Seattle Center to chow down with a half-million of your closest friends, thinking the "Bite" will be your chance to nibble a little this and a little that from a variety of eateries.

Instead, you find that to get the really good stuff, you have to shell out six or seven bucks for an entrée-sized portion or a combo plate, using up your appetite and budget pretty quickly.

Take heart: As the 27th annual edition of the Bite of Seattle opens at 11 a.m. today, backers of the event are responding to your plight — and, in a way, getting back to their roots.

"A lot of people have told us they'd like to go back to more of a tasting," said Cindy Stohr of Festivals Inc., which produces the event. In response, at least five restaurants will be featured in a "Just a Bite!" section where small tastes go for $3.75.

In addition, many of the other 50-some restaurant booths will offer at least one item for less than the maximum $7, and each booth is required to have a "right bite" item, particularly light or healthful.

Stohr acknowledged that the "Just a Bite!" section, which will be north of the International Fountain, features only a small percentage of the participating restaurants. But if the concept is successful, it will likely be expanded in future years.

The Bite itself, anticipating some 450,000 people this year, is a far different event than the one that debuted at Green Lake in 1982, drawing 75,000. The goal of that inaugural was to expose Seattle residents to some of the city's finer establishments, enticing people to visit the restaurants themselves, which at the time were struggling through a recession.

Over the years, the percentage of high-end and independent restaurants has slid, replaced with chains, casual-dining restaurants and special-event concessionaires. Some independent restaurateurs, Stohr said, found it impossible to deal with the high-volume logistics of the Bite and still run their own restaurants.

Panda Express and California Pizza Kitchen, both new this year, represent that shift. Thursday, workers were busy at both booths installing signs and equipment.

"We're really not sure what to expect," said Justin Jordan, who manages the California Pizza Kitchen at Northgate. He said he landed the spot at this year's Bite because last year's pizza vendor bowed out.

"We'll try to be ready for anything," Jordan said.

While setting up the pizza oven in the booth near the International Fountain, Jordan saw one thing that he particularly liked: a side window of his booth opens directly to the event's beer garden, giving him access to a captive audience.

At the Panda Express booth, David Lim, the area manager, said his company decided to try out the Bite after participating in last summer's Freedom Fair in Tacoma. "I think we are ready for a bigger event," said Lim. He anticipates 5,000 to 6,000 customers a day to line up for his orange chicken, egg rolls and Beijing beef.

A variety of high-profile restaurants are represented in an area called "The Alley," where a $9.50 admission gets a meal of seven samples, and proceeds benefit Food Lifeline.

Among the Bite's most faithful participants is 19-year veteran Robert St. Thomas, who will again serve thousands of portions of his New Orleans Cookery offerings, highlighted by a gumbo of scallops, shrimp, crab, chicken, fish, sausage and crawfish tails.

St. Thomas doesn't have a restaurant but has served Cajun fare at up to 40 events a year across the country. Now that he's 61, though, he's cutting back to 25.

The Bite of Seattle is one of his favorites, but this is a difficult year, he said. "The price of food is up. The price of fuel is way up. Everybody's struggling."

Bite backers appear likely to have one thing in their favor this year: perfect weather.

Stohr said rain cut last year's attendance to about 375,000. And she's encouraged that temperatures are forecast to top out in the 70s. "When it gets in the high 80s or up around 90, people don't want to eat. They just want to lie in the grass and drink water."

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