Step Up to the Plate
At Nats Park, Fans Find Food to Cheer About, But Prices Draw Boos

By Margaret Engel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Happy first-nighters at the new Nationals Park on Sunday were greeted by concessions that offered abundant portions, uncommon choices -- and prices that left some of them grumbling.

The ballpark experienced few of the problems seen at other major league stadiums' first games. There was sufficient, well-trained help, and shortages were not widespread, with reports of only a few vendors running out of some items in late innings.

Fans were pleased by the size of what servers dished onto their plates. But smiles faded into sticker shock at the cashiers' stations.

"The prices are high! $16 for a burger, fries and drink for my nephew," said Ralph Collins of Woodbridge, gesturing toward 7-year-old Charles Cobbs IV, at the park for his first baseball game. "We couldn't find any kind of kids' meals."

The tally for six members of the Moore family, from Leesburg, was $88.50 for four burgers with fries, two hot dogs, six drinks and one pretzel. "It's expensive, but worth it for Opening Day," said Betti Moore as son Tucker, 19, added some dollar bills for the tab. "It's comparable to what you pay at FedEx Field."

But third-generation Washingtonian Brett Kaplowitz, at the park with son Scott, 13, of Potomac, was blissful as the two navigated the generous mounds of chili atop their three Ben's Chili Bowl half-smokes ($28). "Compared to the circus, it's cheaper," he said. Licking his fingers, Scott chimed in with some advice: "Get lots of napkins!"

The next morning, Kaplowitz said: "To paraphrase a commercial: hot dogs, water, fries, ice cream, hot chocolate during the game, $57.50. Taking my son to opening night and creating lifelong memories, priceless."

A survey of the food offerings at the ballpark found that the unusual and hometown products were scoring higher than stadium standbys. Some harder-to-prepare items -- the fluffy, flaky potato knishes at the Kosher Sports kiosk, for example -- outshone simpler fare such as chicken, which was often dry and tasteless.

The hands-down favorite, judging by the long lines, was the half-smoke smothered in chili, mustard and onions from Ben's Chili Bowl. What many fans did not realize was that the same item -- tasting just as good -- was being sold by arrangement at the Nats Dogs stands and by Noah's Pretzels, where lines were shorter.

The chili mac, spicy chicken wings and enormous plates of nachos sold by Hard Times Cafe were popular and tasty, as were the lavishly topped burgers at Five Guys. For authenticity, the intensely flavored gelato at the single stand of La Piccola Gelateria was far superior to the generic gelato finding its way into many Washington cafeterias.

Carbs ruled the concourse. Many fans were seen shaking Old Bay seasoning into the brown paper bags containing Five Guys' greasy and wonderful french fries. Ditto for the crisp Boardwalk Fries, which happy and guilty eaters justified as an exception to their doctor's advice because they were at the ballpark.

Decent healthful choices were available, if not front and center. Dupont Deli had boxed Greek and Caesar and chicken salads for $7 to $9, and fresh-fruit cups were sold for $7. Hard Times had a thick and satisfying vegetarian chili, but the bowl was small, unlike most portions in the ballpark.

Fans went out of their way to praise local vendors. "We were so happy to see Hard Times here," said Christy and Cian Chang of Sterling, who were carrying a $33 order of wings with hot sauce, two chili dogs and nachos.

The grandson of Walter Johnson, a famed Washington Senator and Washington baseball's biggest legend, gave a nod to the food purveyor with the longest local presence. "How great to have Gifford's here," said Hank Thomas. Gifford's Ice Cream, in business locally since 1938, was passing out free samples of its famed soft caramels and selling 10 flavors of its ice cream. Thomas, a lifelong baseball fan who lives in Arlington, has spent 20 years in food service. What rankled him was a stadium hit -- big-kerneled popcorn being popped on the premises -- being turned into an error by over-salting. "My mouth feels like it won't taste anything for a week!" he said.

Baseball- and Washington-theme titles graced many of the concession stands: Steak of the Union, Senators Sausages, Change Up Chicken, Slice Down the Line.

There were some surprises. Few stalls dealt in ethnic foods, which have become mainstays at other major league parks. The selection of beers on tap was better than expected, as was the polite and plentiful service. The condiment tables often included Old Bay seasoning and malt vinegar. Hand-turned dispensers let you twirl raw onions onto your hot dog to your stomach's content. But there was no brown mustard. And the Nats Dog, a big cut above the unfairly famed Dodger Dog, had a terrible bun: pure cotton ball.

Most of the errors appear fixable. Lay off the popcorn salt, find better buns for all dogs and burgers, skip the pricey, unappetizing crab cakes and improve the pizza.

But overall, fans seem to have a lot to smile about from the Nats' concourse fare. It will undoubtedly stay true, however, that some of the longest lines, after Ben's, will remain at the PNC cash machines.

Margaret Engel is the co-author of three editions of Fodor's "Ballpark Vacations" and has reviewed baseball stadiums coast to coast.

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