Some cheers and a few jeers for the new food options at Nationals Park

When the Washington Nationals brought in the Levy Restaurant group to replace Centerplate a year ago, expectations were high for a major improvement in concession variety and service.

Perhaps they needed a year to get their bearings, because Levy has followed the incremental changes of 2009 with a number of very large wholesale changes for the 2010 season that begins today at Nationals Park.

THE GOOD

Nationals Park Red Porch RestaurantRed Porch Expansion. Rows of seats were removed to create more in-stadium dining tables for the centerfield Red Porch restaurant, and the menu was expanded to include new items like a Southwestern Steak Salad that’s big enough for two. You can reserve one of these tables in centerfield for one hour of any game during the season by calling 202.640.7947. [2011 UPDATE: The Red Porch no longer takes reservations.]

Flippin PizzaNo more Papa Johns. Since RFK days, Nats fans — especially Nats fans with kids — have suffered with tiny, doughy, Papa John’s mini pizzas, while Club level ticketholders enjoyed the option of Flippin’ Pizza slices.

Thankfully, Papa Johns has been banished from Nationals Park, replaced by Flippin Pizza stands selling actual slices on every level of the Park (behind Sections 115, 214, and 311).

Nationals Victory Knot PretzelVictory Knot Pretzel. Only available in the Red Loft, this popular item imported from other stadiums where Levy runs concessions is a 2 pound pretzel in a pizza box with three sauces for dipping — a sweet cinnamon creme, a spicy chipotle honey mustard, and savory beer cheese. You definitely want to share this item.

Healthy Cart. Give the Nats high marks for listening and trying. Fans on restricted diets, or who just want to eat healthy — even at a ball park — will find gluten free items, chopped vegetable salads, low fat wraps, and yogurt parfaits at this cart which moved to a better spot on the very busy main concourse behind the 3rd base stands. Alas, on Saturday afternoon, when the lines were 15 minutes deep at every concession stand from hot dogs to beer, the Healthy Cart was the only visible vendor in the Park with no waiting.

THE BAD

Ridiculous waits. You really want to cut these people some slack since it’s the beginning of the season, but 2 years of experience tells us not to chalk this up to “working the bugs out.” As in previous years, we saw people reach the front of the line and still have to wait 5 minutes for simple food orders while a more-than-capacity staff stood around waiting for the next guy to fill the order.

Hard Times Cafe at Nationals ParkReally, people. The limited menu at your food stand is designed to keep things efficient and fast. So why do I wait several minutes for a hot dog after I’ve reached the front of the line? A notable exception continues to be the Hard Times Cafe concession, where every employee seems to understand why they are there, and the line always flies.

Signage.The menu signage continues to prioritize adherence to corporate design standards over actual usefulness. The reimagined Taste of the Majors stand is a case in point. Gone are the wonderful garlic fries and other goodies from major league parks. Now pretty much all they sell is foot-long hot dogs. The menu, unfortunately, lists “DC Dog,” “Phillies Dog,” “Braves Dog,” “Mets Dog”… You can wait in line for 15 minutes to get to the front before finding out what the difference is between these various foot longs. By the 4th inning of the exhibition game, the staff had already given up on explaining the menu, and was just asking people when they got to the front what they wanted on their hot dogs.

Bottomless popcorn. A new gimmick this year is the Bottomless Popcorn available at any Nats Dog stand. For $5.75, you can get a huge bucket of popcorn — enough to make anybody sick. For $7.00, you can get the “Bottomless Popcorn,” which comes with free refills throughout the game. The catch? You can keep coming back for refills, but the Bottomless bucket is about 1/3 the size of the regular-sized bucket. Is this a smart way to please your customers and keep lines short? Adding insult to injury: my sister just asked for the smallest size popcorn, and was sold the bottomless variety.

Nationals Park Chicken & Waffle sandwichThe Chicken and Waffle Sandwich. OK, I’ll admit I haven’t tried it, but I really am scared of this thing. Available at the new Change Up Chicken stand behind Section 130 on the main concourse, it features fried chicken on top of waffles, covered in syrup. Defibrillator not included.

Running out of food. When you charge $11 for a sandwich or $9 for a hot dog, I assume your margins are high enough to account for a little waste, so it’s really frustrating when you run out of food in the 5th inning. The Dupont Deli behind section 227 used to have some very nice salads, but notoriously was supplied with only 4 or 5 of them to last the whole game. This year, the salads have been replaced with hot panini sandwiches — grilled cheese, italian, or turkey. They were out of grilled cheese before Saturday’s game even started.

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