After months of waiting, the Nationals and Union Square Hospitality are set to debut four new eateries in the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk Tuesday evening. And while this might seem like not a big deal to the people who criticize me for writing too much about concessions, people inside the Nats front office see this remodeling of the right field upper-deck concourse as a very big deal indeed.
“I’ve been to stadiums and ballparks all over the country, and without a doubt I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Nats COO Andy Feffer, who spearheaded the project. “I think it will become the iconic, defining element of Nationals Park, the thing people leave and say, ‘Did you see that?’”
The “that” in question isn’t just the more adventuresome level of grub (and more on that below). Rather, it’s the distinctive storefront facades of the four eateries, the 15 live trees plus plants and bushes, the “park-like space” filled with synthetic turf meant to reflect baseball’s “backyard origins,” the 14 “shade sails” which the team says can reduce ambient temperature by up to 20 degrees, the 15’ by 25’ HD screen behind the scoreboard and the lounge furniture throughout the area. Feffer called it a “park within a park,” that he hoped would bring the feel of an open market or village square.
“They wanted to make a real village, and it feels like a real village,” said Union Square COO Jeff Flug, who was at Monday’s VIP opening of the space, in which I performed hard labor by tasting several of the offerings. “This isn’t your run-of-the-mill ballpark space.”
(Note: I took these awful photos with my phone; for a beautiful gallery, see JDLand.)
The employees are hired by Levy, which runs the concessions in the rest of the ballpark, but the managers are Union Square employees. (Some transferred down from New York, and others were hired locally.)
“This is really a big test for us, our first geographic expansion as a company,” Flug told me. “We needed a real partner for this, and [the Nationals] have been everything you could ask for.”
Before I get into the menus and all that, a note about pricing. Union Square has the same eateries at New York’s Citi Field; the prices at Nats Park will match the opening prices from New York several years ago, which have since been raised. And Flug said they will be within a dollar of the prices at the DuPont Shake Shack; a single ShackBurger which goes for $4.75 in DuPont will be $5.75 at the Park.
Also, I pretty much failed in my tasting duties, being a vegetarian, but I can say that I tasted at least one thing I’d have knocked over a small child to get — the “Elote Corn on the Cob” from El Verano Taqueria, which is brushed with mayo and grated Cojita cheese and dusted with cayenne.
I didn’t take a formal survey, either, but GM Mike Rizzo said he ate his ShackBurger in about four seconds, while radio hero Dave Jageler said the shakes and burgers were “both knockouts.”
“It’s taking all my willpower not to take about four more shakes and pound them,” he noted.
The Nats also announced that the Scoreboard Walk will offer $5 happy hour beer specials two-and-a-half hours before first pitch at all remaining home games.
Anyhow, on to the menus.
Shake Shack is the headliner, with by far the most registers and a look that’s supposed to pay homage to the original shop in New York. The ShackBurger is $5.75 and the double is $8.75; the vegetarian ‘Shroom Burger runs $7.75. The many-toppinged Shack-cago Dog is $5.75, and the shakes are $5.75, in vanilla, black & white, strawberry and honey-roasted peanut varieties.
There is also fries and cheese fries, custard, and a New York dog, among other offerings.
The first stand when you come up the escalator from the center field plaza is actually the Taqueria, which has “a tin roof and goose neck lighting,” according to the team. It also has the most interesting menu, with the above mentioned corn for $4.75. Entrees include chicken mole pipian, carnitas or chile-marinated skirt steak tacos, all for $7.75, or a combo platter for $10.75.
Further down the concourse is the Blue Smoke barbecue joint, which the Nats release says “evokes rustic charm, complete with wrought iron stars.” Blue Smoke sells pulled pork sandwiches for $8.75, Kansas City spare ribs for $10.25, chipotle chicken wings for $9.50 and barbecued beef bologna sandwiches for $7.75. There’s also cole slaw and the salty peanut-jalapeno chocolate bar.
The final stand is Box Frites, the Belgian fries concept whose facade ”pulls from modern European design.” The fries go $7.25 for a small box, $8 for a large box and $9.75 for the garlic-parmesan variety; the others come with either chipotle ketchup, ballpark mayo, smoke bacon aioli, blue cheese or rosemary ranch dipping sauce.
I have no idea how these places will be received or whether they will become the iconic element of a ballpark that some people have accused of lacking one. I do know, however, that there will be a damn long line for Shake Shack when the Orioles come to town this weekend.