AMONG REASONS to be grateful in the weeks before Thanksgiving is that Washington's athletes don't have to eat where their fans eat. I wouldn't go so far as to say that in winning years the sports arenas serve worse food than in losing years, but one does get the impression that fans are not expected to notice the food.
Gamblers and sports fans are known to be satisfied with a single winner, and that apparently applies to the dinner plate as well as the playing field. They don't seem to mind if everyone around them is a loser, and are happiest when they have inside knowledge of that winner. So the stadium food services always sneak in a few goodies among the rations.
Armed with these serious warnings about eating in sports palaces, I set out to try them myself, hoping to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn't. But I learned a few more Truths along the way.
AT RFK Stadium I verified that nobody waits decades to inherit Redskins tickets because of the food at the stadium. I was also reminded that hot dogs really do taste better at ballparks. Better than what? Better than the other jockjunk the ballparks sell.
Food at RFK Stadium is sold at the entrance level and the fourth level (where the restaurant and cafeterias are located), as well as from vendors in the aisles. While the food is pretty much the same upstairs and downstairs, the prices vary, with hot dogs more expensive (75 cents) downstairs than upstairs (70 cents). When you think of ballparks you think of hot dogs, partly because RFK won't let you forget them. There are regular hot dogs, foot-long hot dogs with a smear of chili and peculiar plastic-textured skin ($1.25) and fat beer wurst with sauerkraut ($1.25). None winners, some serious losers. But if you want to know how bad things can get when you stray from hot dogs, try the reformed-meat-flake square called a steak sandwich ($1.25 with chips and pickles, $1 without) or the crimson cellophane-wrapped sponge that turns out to be called pizza (85 cents, but I'm warning you). For about $2 you can get through the game with a respectably plump and spicy pastrami sandwich or the likes of barbecue or ham. Extra points are won by the packaging - closed polyfoam containers that keep them from slopping and oozing as you carry them to your seat. The roast-beef sandwich - dry, grainy, tasteless - is to be commended only for its poppy-seed roll. Best deal is the fried-chicken box, $2.25 for three healthy-looking pieces of lightly battered, crisp chicken heavily peppered and packed with french fries.
Gone are thedry days of D.C. stadiums; now the beer and wine flow, and the Shower Room snack bar on the fourth level has good labels on its liquor bottles, TV and Lowenbrau on tap. There are two such eating places upstairs, plus the creme de la creme of Redskins Game Dining, the Locker Room, which serves brunch before the game.
The Locker Room, far from the sweaty corridor its name implies, is cutesy-bright red and blue, decorated by large-screen television (which you can return to watch at halftime and after the game if you remember to ask for a ticket). The brunch buffet is served from 11:30, and costs $10.50. It's worth it if you can eat enough oysters and clams on the half-shell, or if you get a special thrill out of seeing your name on the table reservation game plan at the entrance. The waitresses are as enthusiastic as Redskinettes, and you can eat and run. You wouldn't want to linger anyway over the dense, chopped and repacked steaks in greasy flour paste, or the watery-tasting scrambled eggs. The luxurious cliches - chicken crepes, miniature bagels withlox and cream cheese - are about what you find at government cafeterias, as are the mealy fried potatoes, factory Danish and biscuits. For the squeamish, the fresh fruit cup will do, and the sausage is pleasantly spicy. That's it, except for orange juice squirting from a fountain, and acceptable coffee. The question is whether you can eat ten bucks' worth of oysters and clams.
At Capital Centre, people rave about the pizza. It's all a matter of comparison; if you have to eat something at Capital Centre, make it pizza. It costs 70 cents, has plenty of cheese, and not only is it served hot, you are forced to eat it hot because there are no napkins or plates to hold it.
Around the perimeter of the Capital Centre are stands selling hot dogs (75 cents and weighing 1 1/4 ounces, at least an inch shorter than the roll) and superdogs ($1.55, a better buy at 3 1/4 ounces plus a better-quality roll). They have freshly popped popcorn or popcorn in bags, Louis Sherry ice cream cones (55 and 70 cents), french fries (70 cents to $1.60) and two versions of fried chicken so vile that they might be anti-American sabotage. The fried-chicken box ($2.15) contains two cement-hard brown objects so heavily coated you can hardly tell the leg from the thigh. Inside - chicken-flavoured chewing gum. Then there is a filet of chicken sandwich ($1.55), a somewhat chicken-flavored paperweight on a bun.
Slim pickings, but at least there are beer ($1 to $2.45) and coffee and hot chocolate and two stands selling hard liquor.
But you don't need to wander and stand up at Capital Centre. You can sit down at the Showcase Pub and Eatery, in redcarpeted splendor, with beer by the pitcher and wine by the glass. Its cafeteria display includes knackwurst and sauerkraut, meatballs and sausages simmering in red greasy gravy lakes. Hot sandwiches are $1.70 to $2.40, but I didn't have the heart. Nor was I compelled by the refrigerated case of cold sandwiches, soggy of roll and dry of meat.
The Capitol Club is a restaurant based on the concept of status. Season ticketholders can join by paying an annual fee, but it's open to the public for the first two games of the season and for some concerts and shows. It's said to be a place to see and be seen, but I couldn't find anybody to be seen by, since only a few other tables were occupied, none of them by anybody I particularly wanted to see, either. Besides, the chairs were so low that no matter who was there, I would have trouble both seeing and being seen.
Nevertheless, the Capital Club is one of those restaurants you hate to knock, because the staff is so enthusiastic. They couldn't help telling about the kitchen's wonderful new chef and how much better the food is than it was last year. They kept wanting to know if we were enjoying it as much as they expected.
I couldn't tell them. I couldn't break the news that the frozen quiche ($3.90 as an appetizer) tasted of little but bacony smoke, and was curdled besides. I couldn't reveal that the veal oskar, at $12.50, was cafeteria-quality baby beef, heavily breaded, layered with canned white asparagus, still-frozen king crab and a hollandaise tasting of nothing but salt, with a red spiced apple ring garnish leaking all over the sauce to turn it red. This is a quick-thaw kitchen, if my samples were typical. Even the egg slices on the salad bar were from rolls of fabricated eggs. But the clams casino were an unexpected winner, and chocolates with the check are a nice touch. You need it, with the main dishes running $6.25 to $13, and dinner easily running $25 a person.
And it's not even the most exclusive dinner site at the Capital Centre. There are, after all, the sky suites. In sky suites, waiters will deliver roast-beef sandwiches (rare, not the overcooked gray meat of the cafeteria) and hot dogs (kosher). They will bring a bag of pretzels or a drink (beer 70 cents, cocktails $1.65 to $1.75). And if you order 24 hours ahead, they will bring a whole party: cold cuts, shrimp, vegetables and dips, hors d'oeuvres. It's pretty good stuff, nothing fancier than sliced American and Swiss cheeses or turkey breast, but it's actually turkey roll, and the corned beef is well trimmed. The platters are even decorated with pickle fans and radish roses. The insiders' choice in the sky suites is the Chicken Salad Luau Tray, the meat tossed with pineapple and candied ginger and stuffed into pineapple halves (then inexplicably decorated with canned pineapple). But the Captive Audience maxim plays here; the luau platter, those two chicken-filled pineapple halves with a pile of crackers, costs $27.75. Cheese and crackers for ten costs $26, corn chips and bean dip $13. The cold-cut tray with a tray of cheese and a bowl each of potato salad and coleslaw costs $40, though it does include bread. Add house wine at $16 a gallon plus automatic 15 per cent tip and 5 per cent tax, and your sky suite couldturn sour.
Racetracks are another matter. A happy bettor is a continuous bettor, and it wouldn't do for the track fans to be grumpy or suffer from indigestion. So Harry M. Stevens, caterer to the tracks of America far and wide, feeds them well. Whether it's Bowie or Laurel or Rosecroft or Charles-town, it's Stevens. It's Stevens in New York and Stevens in Miami. Someone once asked Stevens in Atlantic City if they threaded the clams on a string so they could run them through the chowder day after day and dump them in the last day. "Nah," was the answer. "We take the clams on to the next track."
Even so, Stevens' clam chowder is a favorite at the track. The only reason I can figure is that it's an ecumenical clam chowder, designed to please everyone from Boston to Texas. It's a pale salmon color - Manhattan red modified by New England white - and is flavored with cumin so you could pretend it's chili if you don't like clam chowder.
Stevens' favourite and winner is its crab cakes. They're fat and light, crisp around the edges and falling apart at the touch of a fork, made from a lot of fresh backfin crab with just a little breading and seasoning. They cost $1.65 on a bun from a stand, or $6.50 to $8 for two crab cakes plus side dishes at lunch or dinner in the restaurant.
This year's long shot that came in is the Big Smokey, an enormous half-smoked sausage, plump and juicy, for $1.35. A track will sell a thousand on a good night.
If you're eating from the snack bars at the tracks, you do well with soup and crab cakes, half smokes or fried chicken - a large leg-thigh piece from a proud, moist bird for $1.85 with french fries. You can of course, get a burger or a sandwich and pizza (with something called "pizza garlic" to sprinkle on it). You can get hard or soft drinks. And at some tracks, you can get more. Stevens, in covering the country, does inject a little regional flair in the menu. In Miami the track serves potato knishes. The new Laurel Raceway has Italian, Chinese and French booths. Bowie has chewing tobacco.
If you want to feel like a loser, you can eat in Bowie's National Fare cafeteria, which looks like the dining room of a Bulgarian political rehabilitation center. It's the only cafeteria I have ever seen that serves pre-wrapped beef stew.
The big-money men, of course, eat in the Clubhouse restaurants. The big-money men ask Russell, the maitre d'hotel, for a window table (Russell seems to be everywhere, last verified at Bowie). In the Bowie Clubhouse, where everything that has a color is gold - the tablecloths, the napkins, the walls - the big-money men can eat fat, briny shrimp cocktails and steaks. But the big-money men I have seen eat lightly - a salad or a club sandwich (which is a lightweight one). The insiders eat the soup and crab cakes. They mention that the drinks are strong and the coffee weak - besides being served in smaller carafes than it used be, with refills extra. They might splurge on the lemony rice pudding with its little pitcher of cream, or a pecan-coated ice cream ball with fudge sauce, if things are going right. And by the time the check comes, with its $1 to $2 seating charge, 25 cent bread charge, and $15 to $20 per person total, they are expansive if they've won or resigned if they've lost. And vow that next time they'll put their money on the crab cakes.