Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Washington Nationals fell to the New York Mets on Opening Day, but there was one winner — the ballpark grub.

“It’s much better,” said Ed Gerow, with his 10-year-old son, Eddie, in tow, ready to buy a $6 bucket of Kettle Korn. “They ran out of stuff last year. The lines were longer. It was ugly.”

Major-league complaints about the lack of choices and high prices made the rounds last season, and officials blamed RFK Stadium’s age and the worn-out infrastructure for the food fouls.

It’s now official. The era of just peanuts and Cracker Jack is gone, gone, gone, like a high fly to centerfield. Welcome to nacho grande, veggie dogs and grilled panini.

“The buzz so far is that people are pretty pleased with the upgrades,” said David Freireich, who represents Aramark, the company that handles the food for the stadium. The Nationals and the District spent money putting in more heaters and electrical outlets and invited several restaurants — such as Papa John’s Pizza, Red Hot & Blue, Edy’s Ice Cream and Boardwalk Fries — to set up shop.

The efforts have paid off.

D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission head Mark Tuohey, the man who brought baseball back to the District, said yesterday that “It’s three things: It’s diverse, it’s hotter and faster.”

He was sitting with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the mayor’s wife, Diane, in the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission’s box. On the menu was chicken, cold beer and hot dogs.

Vice President Dick Cheney threw out the first pitch. Whether he downed the first Budweiser is apparently a state secret, but he did spend time schmoozing with Mr. Williams, who was wearing a Nationals baseball cap, and Mr. Tuohey in a private box.

All the while, 13-year-old Luke Bondurant from Springfield was singing the praises of the fried chicken fingers down in the lower section.

“It’s much better than last year,” he said, clearly an aficionado of ballpark food. “The chicken is not as crunchy. It’s more tender.”

“It’s better,” said 46-year-old Keith Kettell of Alexandria. “But the lines are still long. Red Hot & Blue ran out of coleslaw and baked beans by the second inning.”

There was Barbara Cochran, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation, munching on an Italian sausage next to CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery, who was licking mustard from her grilled hot dog.

There was the crack of the bat, and beer on tap under an April sky.

Mr. Freireich estimated that 9,000 hot dogs, 4,800 jumbo pretzels and 4,950 orders of chicken tenders were sold.

As for Red Hot & Blue, the small concession was a mosh barbecue pit.

“In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine lines 30-feet deep,” said Robert Friedman, the Arlington-based restaurant’s president. With his face perspiring a bit, he said they had to call their Falls Church base to have more food delivered to the stadium.

“They’ve been running down stuff all day,” he said. “The interest was a lot greater than we thought. It was just off the charts.”

Although some groused about the price of a barbecue plate — $10.95 — Mr. Friedman said it was just $1 more than what their restaurants charge. The luxury suites also ordered the Memphis barbecue, something that Mr. Friedman did not expect.

Back in the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission’s box, Mrs. Williams stood by the buffet table and laughed. Nothing fancy. And there is still one reliable staple — aside from a cold beer.

“The peanuts are always good,” she said.”

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