The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t like the pricey food at Nationals Park? Bring your own.

The author’s under-$25 meal at the D.C. stadium consisted of food bought from Harris Teeter. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
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Somewhere in the sixth inning, as the Nationals spanked the fins off the Tampa Bay Rays during an afternoon game in early June, I pulled an orange from my thermal lunch bag and began peeling the sucker. Within seconds, the fruit’s sweet citrus aroma started to permeate the heavy air around me, tickling the nostrils of fellow bleacher bums in right field.

A guy behind me suddenly leaned in and stage-whispered, “You know that eating healthy at a ballgame is un-American.” He laughed. I laughed. I feigned an apology. “I won’t let it happen again.”

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Such is the risk of bringing your own grub to the ballpark: You might get mistaken for a communist if you don’t conform to the beer, dogs, peanuts and soft-serve-in-a-plastic-helmet diet that has defined American baseball fare for generations. Even radical noncomformists seem to turn tea-party rigid about their food choices once they walk through the gates of a Major League Baseball park.

Believe me, I understand the mind-set. A game ticket is essentially a day pass to eat like Joey Chestnut, the human garbage disposal of wieners. No stadium glutton wants to sit near someone who nibbles on a rotisserie-chicken­salad sandwich and roasted almonds with pink Himalayan sea salt between sips of probiotic apple-cider vinegar juice. Not unless their form of gluttony also includes chewing up and spitting out fans who want to break from the tyranny of overpriced concessions.

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Like every other pro ballclub, the Nationals regularly update the offerings at their park. If you desire, you can suck down a DC Brau instead of a 25-ounce tall boy of Bud Light. Or bite into a Haute Dog instead of a Nats dog. Or spoon into Dolci Gelati instead of that mosaic of frozen pebbles known as Dippin’ Dots. These three local brands — which, incidentally, if ordered at the park, can cost you up to $33 total — are all serious improvements over their concessionaire counterparts, even if none of them strays far from the kinds of food that have been sold at stadiums since Babe Ruth gobbled down a dozen dogs and eight sodas between games of a doubleheader.

Bringing your own food opens up new worlds of flavor for the fan who can stand the general hassle and/or the public teasing that may come with flouting the standard baseball diet. There are limits, of course, to what you can bring to Nats Park, which, unlike movie theaters, allows you to pack your own dinner. All outside food and drink must be contained “in single-serving bags within a soft-sided container or cooler that does not exceed” 16 by 16 by 8 inches. So you can forget about lugging a paella pan to the game.

But as I learned over the course of three visits to Nats Park — two losses and a victory for the home team, pretty much par for the course this season — you can cram a lot of food into that small container. For my trial run, I stopped at the Harris Teeter in the Navy Yard (401 M St. SE; 202-554-0164) and combed the store for items that were, in descending order of importance, delicious, easy to fit into my bag and not typically found at the ballpark. If I wanted to enjoy a wedge of Saint-Andre triple-cream cheese with a mini baguette while Anthony Rendon put on a hitting clinic for his birthday, I wasn’t going to let a few quizzical looks distract me from my private Georgetown party at the park.

My initial marching orders were to cobble together a meal for under $25. The task soon proved to be easier than baiting a troll on Twitter. My Teeter run resulted not only in the cheese, the baguette, the almonds, the chicken salad sandwich, the probiotic juice and the orange, but also a Kit Kat bar. I had nearly $3 leftover and plenty of food to take home. When was the last time you had leftovers from the ballpark? I mean, aside from a half-eaten bag of peanuts roasted during the Bush administration?

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For the second trip, I made a fast-casual run, which was even easier than the stop at the Teeter. The streets around Nats Park practically groan under the weight of these restaurants. I strolled into three shops along First Street, starting at the subcontinental Rasa (1247 First St. SE; 202-804-5678) for a chicken tikka bowl whose name I didn’t care to utter aloud: Tikka Chance on Me. I also ordered a side of mini samosas. I stopped next door at Roti Modern Mediterranean (1251 First St. SE: 202-747-2636) for a side of hummus and pita bread, plus a can of San Pellegrino Limonata. Finally, I popped into Taylor Gourmet (1259 First St. SE; 202-851-3220) for a Lemon Cooler, a name that aptly describes one of my favorite cookies in Washington. Total price: $21.52.

With my fast-caz haul, I ate better than any of my friends at the game. We even ended up passing around the chicken tikka bowl as if it were a three-foot water bong on which everyone could take a deep, exhilarating hit.

Here come the BonChon imitators

One key to toting outside food into the park is finding an entrance where you won’t stand in a Disneyesque line while your dinner turns into a soft gruel. The first base entrance is your best bet — unless the Nats are facing the Boston Red Sox, whose fans seem to crawl out of the Anacostia River for every D.C. game. I roasted in line so long — on a day when the heat index was 110 degrees — that by the time I reached my seat, I could have eaten myself.

On my third trip to the park, the heat and humidity proved to be a knockout combination to my final meal, for which I decided to break the bank. I spent a total of $36 in search of an ideal dinner. On this evening, it was a fool’s errand.

My six-piece order of drumettes from Bonchon (1015 Half St. SE; 202-488-4000) was clinging to life, the chicken’s crisp outer shell reduced to a semi-soggy crunch. The Crazy Feta dip from Cava (52 M St. SE; 202-536-2522) had started to break down into oil and curds, and the pulled pork sandwich from Willie’s Brew & Que (300 Tingey St. SE; 202-651-6375) was a bland pile of pig meat. I couldn’t blame the weather for that last bite, and, to be honest, I could have selected foods that stood up better to the high temps. I’ll take some of the, well, heat for this botched experiment.

So, when your planned meal is essentially sacrificed to the sun gods, you have little choice but to suck it up and suck down a $16 beer. And to order one of those Nats dogs that everyone seems to think is the only meal fit for a true baseball fan.