Ask Johnette Isham what's going to make this year's Bradenton Blues Festival the best ever, and she doesn't immediately mention the music.
Sure, the music lineup is especially strong this year, with headliner Marcia Ball topping off eight hours of some of America's best blues musicians. But Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton, which organizes the festival, mentions something else first.
"We're stepping up the food this year," she said.
And it looks to be a giant step up.
Never miss a local story.
There was nothing wrong with the food in the festival's first two years, Isham said, but it was typical festival food: hot dogs and pizza slices and the like.
This year, the food comes from some of the best restaurants in the Bradenton area.
Oh, you'll still be able to get a burger, but it will be a "burger with an attitude," created from all-Angus patties by Chef Justin Swisher of S.O.B. Burgers.
But if you're in the mood for something different, you can check out the chicken-sausage gumbo, based on Marcia Ball's recipe and prepared by YachtSea Grille.
There'll be all sorts of gourmet foods, most of them with a Southern touch.
The impetus for serving finer food at the festival came from Dave Shiplett, the chef-owner of SOMA Creekside. He contacted Isham asking if he could offer his food at the festival.
His reason, he admitted, was selfish, and didn't even have much to do with business.
"I've been wanting to go to the blues festival," he said, "but I always have to work on Saturday."
Once SOMA was on board, festival organizers started enlisting other local restaurants, plus a local craft brewer. They ended up with a food lineup that's as impressive as the music lineup:
This restaurant in the Village of the Arts features authentic Sicilian and Mediterranean fusion-style cuisine.
Blues festival menu: Sicilian Chili, Chocolate Pâté.
The nautical-themed eatery and bar near the Bradenton Riverwalk specializes in steaks and fresh seafood.
Blues festival menu: Bayou mac-n-cheese, Polynesian pork shanks, and chicken-sausage gumbo.
This downtown Bradenton restaurant serves "Southern-style with a California attitude" cuisine.
Blues festival menu: Mangrove snapper and short-rib tacos, crispy calamari salad and local fried green tomatoes.
Cedar Reef Fish Camp
Chef owner Dean Donnelly prides himself on fresh entrees at an affordable price.
Blues festival menu: Shrimp and grits, blackened-gator chowder, mini-Key lime crème brulee.
Anna Maria Oyster Bar
The restaurant specializes in traditional coastal and American dishes.
Blues festival menu: Fish-n-chips.
Ranked the third-best barbecue by USA Today, the restaurant specializes in Virginia and North Carolina barbecue.
Blues festival menu: Deep-fried BBQ ribs, pulled-pork sliders, loaded yucca.
Darwin Brewing Co.
The brewery combines modern techniques and equipment with ancient traditions in creating artisan brews.
Blues festival menu: The Bradenton Blues Brew (an authentic German Pilsner).
This burger joint offers innovative burger combinations with a touch of humor.
Blues festival menu: The VooDoo Burger and homemade French fries.
Pop Craft prides itself in being a healthy alternative to traditional processed, frozen treats, using only locally sourced whole foods to create frozen confections.
And there's even more great food after the festival itself ends.
On Sunday, Soma Creekside will host the Gospel Blues Brunch. There'll be live music, and Shiplett will offer shrimp and grits and a variation on eggs Benedict. The Benedict dish will use Soma's trademark fried green tomatoes instead of an English muffin.
They'll be served buffet-style, so diners can create their own dishes and add a variety of toppings.
"I'll also have a sushi-style menu," Shiplett said. "So if you don't want to get up, you can just check off which items you want and the servers will bring it to you."
The Gospel Blues Brunch at Soma runs from noon until 2 p.m. Sunday. It costs $25 and reservations are suggested. Call 941-567-4001. Soma is at 1401 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow him on twitter.com/martinclear.