Food, parking, organ music, and other changes at Nationals Park for 2013

The swagger that comes with high expectations wasn’t the only new thing on display at Nationals Park on opening day Monday. The Nationals have made a number of small changes to the ballpark experience for 2013.
Championship banner at Nationals ParkNationals Park Scoreboard Walk PhotoNationals Park Clubhouse Team StoreNationals Park Organist - Washington Nationals

In the park itself, NL East Champion banners now hang above the centerfield gate entrance, above the center field HD scoreboard, and outside the Presidents Club. The giant Scoreboard Walk photo has also been changed to feature Jayson Werth’s walk-off home run in the 2012 playoffs. In the scheme of things, the signage changes are small, which makes the recent whining by a prominent Phillies blogger all the more perplexing.

More significant are the retail changes. One of the two banks of ticket windows on N Street NW has been replaced by a flagship team store, and several team concessions inside the park have been renamed “Clubhouse,” with new locations added around both the main and mezzanine concourses. In some cases, these new concession locations block formerly open views of the field from the concourse.

For those who drive to Nationals Park, expanded retail development in the area is taking its toll on Nats’ official parking lots. Since Nationals Park opened, lots G, J, M, N, V, and HH have disappeared from the Nationals’ official parking options.

This season, the disappearance of $5.00 lot HH from the official parking map caused concerns for budget-minded drivers. We recommended this parking option in previous years, so it was some relief to find that the lot is in fact still operating on a cash basis. The price is now $10, and still a bargain.

The Nationals had an organist playing in the center field plaza before Monday’s game, and word on the street is that it was a trial run, with the Nats’ brass considering making it a permanent fixture at games. Notably absent from Monday’s opener were persistent scoreboard cheer-starters, noise meters, and other artificial enticements we’ve come to expect. Logic holds that if the Nats keep winning and selling out, it shouldn’t take more than a little organ music (and a couple of Bryce Harper home runs) to get the crowd going.

Nats fans still mourning the departure of slugger Michael Morse via trade got a bittersweet surprise during the seventh inning stretch. After “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” fans were treated to A Ha’s “Take On Me,” Morse’s walk-up song that became a crowd favorite in 2011 and 2012. Morse may be in Seattle now, but if fans continue to sing along, expect the Nats to keep using it.

Turkey Hill Ice Cream and Papa Johns Pizza at Nationals ParkShawafel at Nationals Park - Felafel SchwarmaShawafel at Nationals Park - Felafel SchwarmaShawafel at Nationals Park - Felafel SchwarmaPresidents Race Intro Video2013 brings new food options to Nationals Park, some of which may not be welcome. On the pizza and ice cream front, Flippin’ Pizza and Breyers have been replaced by Papa Johns and Turkey Hill. Papa Johns was the team’s pizza purveyor from 2005 through 2009, and fans cheered its departure three years ago when their bland mini pizzas were replaced by actual slices by Flippin’ Pizza. Unless the product has changed, this feels like a step backwards.

In the centerfield food court, local favorite Red Hot & Blue has been ousted in favor of H Street Lebanese mainstay Shawafel. Shawafel serves a selection of Lebanese wraps containing shawarma (chicken or beef/lamb), felafel, or fried cauliflower, plus french fries that are unquestionably the best at Nationals Park.

Shawafel is a nice, if redundant, addition. Max’s Kosher Grill serves superior felafel and shawarma on the other side of the concourse, but being kosher, they are closed on Fridays and Saturdays.

Up in the Club level, we’re told to expect cupcakes from Fluffy Thoughts Bakery in McLean. These are hands down the best cupcakes in the DC area, and Fluffy Thoughts is concocting some special baseball-themed flavors for Nationals Park. More on that later.

Of course, 2013 brings a major change to the fourth inning presidents race, where the Nats have introduced a fifth racing president, William Howard “Bill” Taft. The presidents are being introduced by a new video that was created during February’s cross-country trip to Mount Rushmore, with presidents dashing from Mount Rushmore through various landmarks on their way to the starting line at Nationals Park.

Perhaps the biggest change to the off-the-field experience is the introduction of Ultimate Ballpark Access cards for season ticket holders. The program promises many benefits that have yet to be introduced, so we’ll withhold judgment for now. The Nats have been very quick to fix early mistakes with the way cards are managed, so as flawed as it may be, it may be wise to wait a few months to see how the the program develops. One exception: Season ticket holders looking for a souvenir paper ticket are being charged $3.00 each for something that looks like it came out of an inkjet printer. The Nats should kill this fee if they can’t at least improve the quality.

What do you think of the changes so far?

Shake Shack burgers, Box Frites fries highlight revamped Scoreboard Walk at Nationals Park

26,759 fans came to Nationals Park Tuesday to welcome the home team back to DC, and the evening didn’t disappoint as the Nationals followed their winningest road trip in years with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Miller Lite Scoreboard WalkMiller Lite Scoreboard WalkShake ShackShake Shack at Nationals ParkShake Shack at Nationals ParkShake Shack's 'Shroom BurgerShake Shack Concrete Take Me Out to the Ballgame with chocolate truffle cookie dough, peanuts and caramelBox FritesGarlic-Parmesan FritesEl Verano Taqueria at Nationals ParkEl Verano Taqueria at Nationals ParkElote Corn on the CobBlue Smoke at Nationals ParkBlue Smoke Pulled Pork at Nationals ParkBlue Smoke Kansas City Spare Ribs at Nationals ParkBlue Smoke's Salty Peanut-Jalapeno Chocolate BarNationals Park Scoreboard WalkFans had been drawn in by the return of Ryan Zimmerman, a $2 ticket promotion, great weather, a big draw opponent, and the long-awaited debut of the revamped Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk behind the right field bleachers.

The myriad updates to the popular Scoreboard Walk include a 4,000 square foot lounge area with artificial turf, chairs, sofas, trees, plants, and a large number of stylish new “shade sails.”

The sails stretch over the lounge area as well as the queue lines for each of several new dining options, providing sun protection when waiting in line on hot summer days. These new lounge and queue areas are all within view of the big new TV screen that premiered this season behind the outfield scoreboard.

As nice as the improved amenities are, the buzz on Twitter and in the Park tonight focused on the four new restaurant options that line the Scoreboard Walk. After tonight’s debut and a sampling of all the menus, it’s safe to say that Nationals Park food options rank among the best in the majors, albeit at some fairly steep prices.

No stand was more anticipated than Shake Shack. The most famous of the four new options from Union Square Restaurant Group, Shake Shack features hot dogs, fries, shakes, and natural Black Angus burgers. The burgers live up to their reputation, with a nice coarse grind that highlights the flavor of the meat more than the predecessor at the same location — DC’s Five Guys Burgers and Fries. A single is $5.75 and a double runs $8.75.

Shake Shack also features the Shack-cago Dog, a mostly authentic Chicago-style split grilled Vienna Beef hot dog smothered in relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, pepper, mustard and celery salt. If you’ve never had a Chicago dog, this is pretty close to the real deal, though Shake Shack opts for a potato bun over the traditional poppy seed variety. It’s a bargain at $5.75.

The sleeper and my personal favorite of all the new food options may be the ‘Shroom Burger, a portobello mushroom split and filled with muenster cheese, deep fried, and served on a burger bun. Truly decadent and delicious for $7.75.

For the first time since Giffords Ice Cream left Nationals Park this spring, fans can get once again get a milkshake in the stands at Nationals Park. Shake Shack’s namesake treats are made from frozen custard and come in four flavors.

At $5.75, the shakes are indeed quite good, but the buzz was around the Concrete, a dense cup of custard blended with chocolate truffle cookie dough, peanuts, and caramel. A straw will do you no good with this concoction. Price: $6.75 plus a week at the gym.

Shake Shack has fries on the menu, but spud connoisseurs will likely shuffle down a few feet to Box Frites, where fresh cut fries can be ordered by the box with your choice of toppings or dipping sauces.

The movie theater-inspired pricing gets you a reasonable-sized portion for $7.25, or a family-sized box for $8.00. You only get to choose one of the five dipping sauces (additional sauces are a whopping $2.00 each). Blue Cheese was the surprise runaway pick among our group of tasters. Chipotle ketchup is a fine second choice. Rosemary Ranch, which sounded promising, tasted like liquid pine tree.

But for the ultimate in decadent fries, the consensus pick is the Garlic-Parmesan Frites, which are light on the garlic but heavy on the parmesan, and more than suitable for sharing at $9.75.

If cholesterol just isn’t your thing, then the new El Verano Taquería offers some fresh options and more welcome variety to South Capitol Street.

The simple menu features three types of tacos served in soft corn tortillas with lime, cilantro and fresh salsa.

Options include medium rare skirt steak, carnitas, or chicken “mole pipian,” a braised green concoction. The combo platter has all three and is a lot of fresh variety for $10.25.

El Verano Taquería also offers “Elote,” or Mexican grilled corn. This classic street food is a steamed ear of corn dipped in a lime-spiked mayonnaise sauce, rolled in crumbly cotija cheese, and dusted with cayenne pepper for $4.75. If you like your food spicy, the Elote is your best bet at the ball park. Consider yourself warned.

The new restaurants facing the Miller Light Scoreboard Walk feature distinctively designed facades, and none stands out more than the new Blue Smoke Barbeque, with an attractive weathered wood veneer that’s visible over the right field stands from about half of the ball park. Nice touch.

Nationals Park needed a good pulled pork sandwich to replace the departed Teddy’s Barbeque, and Blue Smoke delivers with a flavorful if slightly dry version for $8.75. Make sure to get extra sauce. There is no pulled chicken option, but you can get wings — one of the few dishes I did not manage to try.

It will be interesting to see if the Barbecued Beef Bologna sandwich takes off in DC. This southern staple features pickles and raw onions atop a single thick slice of bologna that’s been grilled and topped with barbeque sauce for $7.75.

It tasted like… well.. bologna.

Blue Smoke’s signature item is Kansas City Spare Ribs, which were meaty and nicely carmelized. They are a fine choice, but with three modest ribs running $10.25, and relatively light on smoke flavor, it left me longing for the Rough Rider at the dear, departed Teddy’s Barbeque.

The surprise treat of the night? Blue Smoke’s Salty Peanut-Jalapeño Chocolate Bar. It isn’t very spicy, but the complex dark chocolate and salted peanut flavors are more than satisfying, and it’s certainly the only $4.75 desert
at Nationals Park that’s suitable for sharing.

Nationals’ COO Andy Feffer took a lot of heat today for appearing to imply that the new Scoreboard Walk was more important than the game.

I find it hard to believe that any journalist actually believes that. Others have more legitimately complained that the new restaurants are not DC-centric. While I agree with the latter criticism, I can’t deny that the fan experience has been improved.

What do you think?

R.I.P. Teddy’s Barbeque

Baseball fans know that change is an inevitable rite of spring. One can only hope that the gains outweigh the losses — that for every lost Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, there’s a Jayson Werth or Bryce Harper to get excited about.

The Rough Rider at Teddy's Barbeque, Nationals ParkSo, too, is the case with the rest of the ball park experience, especially at Nationals Park, which is revamping some of its foodservice offerings for the fourth consecutive season, eliminating both Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and my personal favorite, Teddy’s Barbeque.

Teddy’s Barbeque was a mid-season acquisition in 2009, and was home of the Rough Rider — a jumbo beef short
Xtreme Loaded Dawgs at Nationals Park in Washington, DCrib brined for 12 hours then smoked for 12 hours more. Five Guys you can get anywhere, but the Rough Rider was ours — the Park’s closest thing to a unique signature dish. It looked like something Fred Flintstone would eat. It was delicious, and there was always a line.

The big steel smokers still stand in the same centerfield location, but
The Nach-Yo Dog at Xtreme Loaded Dawgs, Nationals Park, Washington, DCbeginning this season they’re being used only for hot dogs — or should I say Dawgs.

Yes, Teddy’s Barbeque has been replaced by yet another hot dog stand. I can confirm that those smokers impart a great flavor, but the real twist at Xtreme Loaded Dawgs is the toppings.

Choose from The Deli Dog with kraut
The Big Kid Dog at Xtreme Loaded Dawgs, Nationals Park, Washington, DCand thousand island dressing; The Heater with buffalo wing sauce and blue cheese slaw; the Nach-Yo Dog (top right) with pico de gallo, peppers, cheese and sour cream; the Frito Pie Dog with chili, cheese, and Fritos; or the most outrageous of them all: The Big Kid Dog (bottom right) with macaroni and cheese and Fritos on top.

Whether you find the concept cute or disgusting depends on your perspective, but one thing’s indisputable. The flimsy buns can’t hold all those wet toppings, so grab plenty of napkins.

New restaurants at Nationals Park, Washington, DCWhile it feels like we’ve traded down in the centerfield concourse, the team has been working to upgrade the fare just up the escalator at the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk, with the addition of four new stands from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in New York.

Coming soon are four established concepts imported from New York’s Citi Field: burgers and custard from the Shake Shack, pit barbecue from Blue Smoke, Belgian-style fries from Box Frites, and Mexican food from El Verano Taquería.

Nats fans should welcome any attempts to upgrade the foodservice and the fan experience, yet these off-season moves leave a bad taste in my mouth. It feels like we’ve traded away a unique signature player for some journeyman ones that will just help Mets fans feel more at home at Nationals Park.

UPDATE: While the new Miller Scoreboard Walk restaurants aren’t open yet, Teddy’s Barbeque has been set up under a tent up there. Unfortunately, they do not have the Rough Rider rib, but they do have the pulled pork and pulled chicken. Location is on the upper level directly across from the scoreboard under a white tent.

Rough Rider photo courtesy of Flickr member Kevin Harber

Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smoke makes MSN’s “Home Run Hot Dogs” list

Yesterday MSN’s Delish.com published it’s list of Home-Run Hot Dogs: The Best Dogs from America’s Baseball Stadiums, and cracking the top 24 was our own Nationals Park Ben’s Chili Bowl Half Smoke, “All the Way,” of course.

I’ve written in praise of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smoke before. It was nice to see it crack the list, but it definitely deserved a spot higher than #22. Writer Kiri Tannenbaum chose to give higher billing to a variety of dogs topped with oddities like blue cheese, bacon, brisket, tortilla strips, and even mayonnaise.

Comments are open, if you’d like to let Kiri know what you think.

Flickr photo by Steve Masters

In Praise of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smoke

I must admit that I was among those uninformed who just didn’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong. When it was first announced that the new Nationals Park would feature Ben’s Chili Bowl among the restaurant concessions, I was pleased. I’d always wanted to pay a visit to the legendary Ben’s, but despite best intentions, had yet to do so.

The crowd in front of Ben’s Chili Bowl at Nationals Park on opening night.

Plus, I figured anything we could call our own and help make Nationals Park a uniquely DC experience was a good thing.

Then I got my first glimpse of the famous Ben’s half smoke chili dog on opening night, along with the horrific lines at the the Ben’s Chili Bowl stand behind the 3rd base line, and thought this doesn’t look that special, and certainly can’t be worth the wait.

Well, let the record state that I am now officially a convert. I took a group of people
from my office to Nationals Park on a chilly May evening, and from our perch that night in section 418, I indulged in my first Ben’s Chili Bowl half smoke (all the way, of course). Perhaps it was the altitude in the upper right field gallery, but I felt a little closer to heaven.

A Ben’s Chili Bowl half smoke “all the way” (with chili, cheese, onions, and mustard) has been a staple of each subsequent visit to Nationals Park.

A word to the wise: If you’re heading the the park an want to indulge yourself, don’t be intimidated by the long lines at the Ben’s Chili Bowl stand. You can get yourself an authentic Ben’s half smoke at ANY “Nats Dogs” stand or cart throughout the stadium.

Extra napkins recommended.

Photos by flickr users Scott Ableman and stvmasters

Outside food policies at Nationals Park (UPDATED)

Food Policies - Can you bring outside food to Nationals Park?Many of us have had questions this spring about whether there will be new policies at Nationals Park regarding outside food, cameras, or other restrictions. To date, nothing has appeared on the team’s web site, but we have dug up the outside food policy, and here it is:

All food items must be contained in single serving bags within a soft-sided container or cooler that does not exceed 16″x16″x8″. Metal, plastic or glass containers of any kind (except for clear, factory-sealed or empty, plastic water bottles, no larger than one liter, juice boxes, insulin containers, and baby food) are prohibited at Nationals Park. Only one water bottle per person will be permitted. 

Regarding food, “single serving bag” sounds quite broad and lenient. Even for those of us eager to sample the new food vendors this year, it’s awfully nice to know that you can bring in a big bottle of water.

Outside food permitted at Nationals Park

This group packed a whole picnic and enjoyed it on the tables behind the right field bleachers. Stick to soft-side containers and you’ll be fine.

Brownies at Nationals Park

Hard plastic is technically a violation of the Nationals Park food policy, so attempt at your own risk.

UPDATE 2018: The Washington Nationals food policy has hardly changed over 10 years, and in practice, the enforcement has been quite friendly.

For example, multiple sealed water bottles have been permitted in practice, as long as the total doesn’t exceed 1 liter per person for all the people in your party, and even that is relaxed on hot summer days. The water simply must be unopened. In other words, if you are with a family, and have a backpack with 8 half-liter bottles of water, they aren’t going to turn you away.

Outside food is similarly lenient. Yes, you can bring in a 12″ sub if you like, or a bag of burgers from Five Guys, or even a container full of cookies. As long as you’re not bringing in a big Igloo cooler full of food, you’re probably fine.

If you want to sail through security, bring your outside food in a clear bag. Your subs can be wrapped in paper, but carry them all in a clear bag and things will move faster.

Flickr photo by Scott Ableman

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