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.

Nationals Park fan experience changes include “photo station” with giant racing president bobbleheads

The new racing president bobbleheads at Nationals Park Today the Nationals made official many changes to the Nationals Park fan experience, including new food options, a major renovation of the Red Porch, and the unveiling of seven-foot stationary bobbleheads at the “Nats Family Fun Area” in the likeness of George, Tom, Abe, Teddy, and the GEICO Gecko. Other changes include new value meals, picnic tables, live post-game shows in the centerfield plaza, and some additional food options coming for mid-season.

I have been out of the country for most of the past two weeks and have missed a lot, including today’s media tour, where the announcements are being made. While I’ve been out, the Washingtonian Magazine wrote up this blog as one of DC’s “Can’t Miss Clicks,” and season tickets were delivered including — surprise of surprises — a photo of me holding a Teddy Rally Sign on the September 10th ticket. Photo to follow.

Most of the changes will be on display tomorrow evening for the exhibition game between your Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles. The full announcement from the Nationals:

WASHINGTON NATIONALS ANNOUNCE WHAT’S NEW AT NATIONALS PARK
Team Upgrades Red Porch Restaurant and Nats Family Fun Area to Improve Fan Experience

The Washington Nationals today unveiled a variety of improvements to Nationals Park. To enhance the fan experience at the ballpark, new concessionaire Levy Restaurants was introduced in February; major renovations were completed on the Red Porch Restaurant; significant changes were made to the Nats Family Fun Area in the Center Field Plaza, including the GEICO Racing Presidents Photo Station and the Exxon Strike Zone; and additional directional signage has been installed. New statues and artwork will be displayed in the Center Field Plaza and at the Home Plate Gate. The statues and artwork will be unveiled during a ceremony on Wednesday, April 8 at 11:00am.

The Red Porch Restaurant in the Center Field Plaza, open to all fans two-and-a-half hours before game time, has undergone a complete remodeling and will open on April 4 for the Nationals exhibition game vs. the Baltimore Orioles at 6:05pm. Outdoor dining patios have been created on both sides of the restaurant with an awning covering the Center Field Plaza tables. Sliding glass panels and rollup glass doors will open to expose both the Center Field Plaza and the playing field so that fans may experience the sights and sounds of the ballpark while enjoying their meal indoors. Decorative fans and lighting adorn the open ceiling and all furniture is being replaced. The new menu will feature three styles of wings, including Thai-style chili wings, an Italian chopped salad pizzan, and a selection of Minor League Kids Meals for $6. The Red Porch will also feature a variety of draft beers and a selection of American micro-brew craft beers.

The Nationals have partnered with Levy Restaurants for food and beverage operations, the leader in premium sports and entertainment dining. New menus will be launched on Saturday, serving both traditional fare and upscale items, including regional dishes and innovative versions of D.C.’s favorites. Four new concessions concepts will be introduced at the park including a Healthy Plate cart, featuring healthy wraps, fresh salads, vegetables and hummus and fresh fruit; The Pit at the Red Loft, opening mid-season and serving traditional pit barbeque prepared on a charcoal grill; a barbeque concession stand, also opening mid-season on the main concourse, serving ribs, pulled pork and brisket; and the Triple Play Grill, located in the Left Field V and offering a pulled pork sandwich and foot-long Crab Louie sandwich. Additional menu boards have been added to 40 concession stands increasing visibility throughout the park. The team will offer three value meals at various stands, all at a cost of $7, the Nats Dog Meal, Nats Dog, 16-oz. soda and chips; Nacho Value Pack, small nachos and two 16-oz sodas; and the Popcorn Value Pack, 12-oz popcorn tub and two 16-oz sodas.

“The Nationals are committed to providing a first-class fan experience at Nationals Park,” said Nationals President Stan Kasten. “Nationals Park remains one of the most affordable entertainment options in Washington, DC with a large variety of ticket deals and value menus offered. We feel that enhancements to the Red Porch, the partnership with Levy Restaurants, the new entertainment options in Center Field Plaza and the improved product on the field will combine to create a memorable day at the ballpark in 2009.”

The Nats Family Fun Area which includes the GEICO Racing Presidents Photo Station, Sony Playstation Pavilion, Exxon Strike Zone and Build-A-Bear workshop has also undergone renovations. GEICO continues its sponsorship of the most popular in-game feature at Nationals Park with the creation of Racing President Bobbleheads, seven-foot stationary bobbleheads in the likeness of George, Tom, Abe, Teddy and the GEICO Gecko. Fans may take photos with the bobbleheads from gates open to final out. The Exxon Strike Zone has been completely revamped, providing fans with the opportunity to practice their pitching and hitting skills on the latest in simulated equipment while learning that baseball fundamentals are rooted in physics. The walls of the Strike Zone are covered in math and science facts that illustrate their relationship to the game. One wall of the new Exxon Strike Zone is devoted to the energy efficiency considerations that went into creating Nationals Park, the first LEED-Silver certified ballpark in the country. Through a partnership with ExxonMobil, fans can view tips on how to become more energy efficient in their daily lives.

The ballclub has added a variety of amenities designed to make the Nationals Park experience more enjoyable. Guests arriving at the ballpark will receive ticket information from new LED boards installed above the ticket windows at First and N Street, SE, the Main Box Office, the ticket windows adjacent to the team store and above the Center Field Gates. Fans that enter the ballpark through the Center Field Gates will get a glimpse of the games starting line-up as displayed on the façade of Parking Garage B, listed by position on large Topps Starting Line-up Cards. Johnny Holliday and Ray Knight will host MASN’s pre- and post-game show live from Nationals Park on a stage located in the Center Field Plaza. Picnic tables have been added on every level of the park throughout the concourses and 75 Nationals baseball cap-topped recycling bins have been provided by Coca-Cola to make it easier for fans to recycle. Additional directional signage has also been installed throughout the ballpark.

The Nationals will unveil the ballpark’s new statues and artwork on Wednesday, April 8 at 11:00am. Through a partnership with the Commission on the DC Arts & Humanities, Omny Amri of Timeless Creations, Inc. has created three white bronze statutes to honor the legends of Washington, DC baseball history – Josh Gibson, Frank Howard and Walter Johnson. These statues, along with The Ball Game – a mobile designed by Walter Kravitz and located at the First Base Gate, will debut at a public ceremony next week. A media advisory with information on this event will be distributed shortly.

Photo courtesy of Miss Chatter

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