Always at the forefront of food trends, California is the place to experience an exciting spin on the way event fare is prepared and presented.

Here’s a look at a few culinary experiences and food-centric venues around the state, some of them in unexpected places.

Hilton San Francisco Union Square

While cutting-edge food service isn’t normally associated with a convention hotel, that’s exactly what groups enjoy at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square where Executive Chef Mike Vaughn pushes the boundaries on banquet fare.

Even when it comes to addressing today’s diverse dietary preferences, Vaughn enjoys stepping up to the plate.  

“We love to develop flavors that you wouldn’t even know are vegan or gluten-free,” he said. “We’ve done a barbecue menu with caramelized wild mushrooms that taste just like brisket burnt ends—even meat lovers enjoy it. What’s important is that the vegan or gluten-free person isn’t relegated to a boring special plate. They get to share in the ‘wow’ factor with everyone else.”

Vaughn noted that he especially likes upping the “wow” factor for young tech groups by getting creative with food stations.

“They want interaction and a fun element,” he said. “We’ll do things like making ice cream with liquid nitrogen and then mixing it into boozy floats or crafting a giant wall of donuts.”

Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove

For Greg Lepesh, executive chef at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, drawing on the abundant seafood and produce from Monterey Peninsula and nearby Salinas Valley is the way to provide customized culinary experiences, no matter what size group.

“We get an amazingly eclectic crowd here, whether it’s a spiritual group with Deepak Chopra or the Ecological Farming Association, so I have to get creative, especially with vegetarian items,” he said.

“We’ll work with each group to meet their preferences, whether it’s items like vegan stuffed peppers or grilled fresh sardines from Monterey Bay.”

Asilomar dining experiences take place in the Crocker Dining Hall, designed in the early 20th century by Julia Morgan, or in an outdoor plaza with fire pits and sweeping views of ocean and dunes.

Little Italy, San Diego

San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood is emerging as one of the city’s hottest culinary destinations, according to Margie Sitton, vice president of sales for the San Diego CVB.

“Kettner Boulevard, which is unofficially known as Restaurant Row, is a great walkable area for dine-arounds and progressive dinners,” she said.

The neighborhood’s latest offering is the 10,000-square-foot Piazza della Famiglia, a European-inspired central gathering place for farmers markets, concerts and events. Also available for private events, the adjacent Little Italy Food Hall is a new social dining space with six food stations.

There’s also a mobile outdoor chef’s area featuring cooking demonstrations with local icons like Sam the Cooking Guy and a bar serving local microbrews and craft cocktails.  

City Market South, Los Angeles

One of Los Angeles’ newest venues, City Market South is actually one of its oldest sites, a one-time wholesale produce market dating from 1909.

Located in the downtown Fashion District, the site houses a growing number of businesses and event spaces, including the City Market Social Hall, a warehouse venue operated in partnership with the city’s most famous chef, Wolfgang Puck. The venue offers over 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space and sophisticated AV and production capabilities.

City Market South is also home to the group-friendly Rossoblu, a Bolognese restaurant operated by Chef Steve Samson. Open for events, the restaurant features an outdoor plaza, serpentine bar, dining room with an open kitchen and a wine cellar that doubles as a private dining room.

This article is part of our 2018 Meetings Today California Destination Supplement.

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