Together, manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette have transformed the Baltimore Orioles into a contender in the American League East, ending a long, long, long 14-year run of losing seasons in the process.
Though he doesn’t get anywhere near as much press, Josh Distenfeld, 43, has made similarly dramatic changes at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the two years since Delaware North Companies Sportservice took over the concessions operations at the park and installed the Long Island native as executive chef.
Distenfeld says that for Camden’s 20th anniversary season, he and DNC have turned the park into something of a locavore’s playground. The sausages, including the Natty Boh brat, are now produced by Roma Gourmet, a Baltimore institution for more than a half century. The seafood — mostly the 35,000-pounds-plus of jumbo-lump crab per season — comes from J.J. McDonnell in Jessup (although the chef won’t go so far as to say it’s all Chesapeake blue crab). Even the freshly ground beef for two of the major restaurants at the park is sourced from a local company, Fells Point Wholesale Meats.
“Everything here is definitely Baltimore-centric,” Distenfeld says.
What’s more, DNC has attracted a couple of local restaurants to open outlets this season at Camden Yards, including Gino’s Burgers and Chicken, the chain originally named after Baltimore Colts great, Gino Marchetti. Launched in the late 1950s, Gino’s once had locations up and down the East Coast until the Marriott Corp. bought it and converted most of the outlets into Roy Rogers restaurants. Revived in 2010, Gino’s has reintroduced the Baltimore area to the namesake Gino’s Giant, a double-patty sandwich (with special sauce) that was considered the forerunner of the Big Mac.
The other newbie at Camden is Stuggy’s, a gourmet sausage operation that opened a couple of years ago in Fells Point. Gino’s and Stuggy’s, both with dedicated fans in the Baltimore area, underscore a trend among major league parks to incorporate local flavors and operators into their concessions programs. In this sense, Camden Yards is superior to Nationals Park, where the big coup (with all due respect to Ben’s Chili Bowl) was enticing Danny Meyer to open three concepts on the mezzanine level, including a Shake Shack. Nothing like getting a New Yorker to help the District overcome its Big Apple insecurity complex.
DNC and Distenfeld also opened a home-grown eatery this season — Dempsey’s Brew Pub and Restaurant, named after the mustachioed Orioles catcher and 1983 World Series MVP, Rick Dempsey. In a nod to Charm City’s growing craft beer movement, Dempsey’s brews four of its own beers on the premises, the best of which I sampled is the Yardbird Summer Wheat, a citrusy Belgian-style product.(Note: The beers rotate every couple of months.)
If that weren’t enough, Distenfeld has created a few new items at the Jack Daniel’s stand in the right-field corner, most notably his bacon on a stick ($5), which really should be declared a narcotic. It’s a five-ounce strip of Hungarian slab bacon, seared and smoked. It’s then dipped into maple syrup spiked with Old Bay and finished on the grill.
“It’s off the hook,” Distenfeld says.
As Baltimore fights for a playoff spot, where it can show off its upgraded concessions in a postseason atmosphere, I took a dining tour of Camden Yards to eat as much as I could in one afternoon. I detail some of what I ate in the photos above and below, but here’s my takeaway message for Levy Restaurants, which runs the Nats’ concessions: It’s really time to step up to the plate.