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Nats' New Eats: Ben's, Boardwalk, Gifford's, Hard Times

Ok, the new Nationals Park may be tough to drive to and even harder to park near, but once you get there, you should be happier with the food options. The Washington Nationals just announced the lineup of local eats that will be available at the new ballpark starting next month, and it's a huge step up from the grim Aramark fare that fans complained about incessantly during the three years at RFK.

Leading off, the half-smoke and the chili dog from Ben's Chili Bowl. Hallelujah.

Batting second, Boardwalk Fries, an Ocean City native now making its home in Columbia in Howard County. Not unique to Nationals Park, but a vast improvement over the generic fries Aramark served at the old stadium.

Batting third, Gifford's Ice Cream, a Silver Spring original that went through a rough time in the 80s but has been revived and is expanding throughout the D.C. area. Ice cream, always a sore point for fans at RFK--the food services folks said the paucity of electrical power in the old building made it hard to keep freezers running there--has to be center stage at a baseball stadium. No word yet on helmet sundaes.
Gifford's staffers will hand scoop at the ballpark, a promise that the company's managers are a bit nervous about. In a test run at the company's downtown scoop shop last month, Nats pitchers Mike Bascik and Tim Redding lent their valuable arms to the effort, serving cones to fans. Gifford's will also sell "Dingers," a novelty ice cream sandwich created for the ballpark.

The cleanup spot goes to Hard Times Cafe, born in 1980 in Old Town Alexandria and now with 15 locations from Frederick to Fredericksburg. Hard Times will sell chili, chili mac and chicken wings at the ballpark.

Batting fifth, an old favorite from RFK, the barbecue from Red, Hot and Blue, which opened its first location in Arlington 20 years ago. RHB is a byproduct of the sausage-making factory on Capitol Hill, where the late Republican master strategist Lee Atwater and then-congressman Don Sudquist joined with a couple of Hill cronies to start up a southern barbecue joint that has added locations in nine states and the District.

The number six slot goes to a rookie, Noah's Pretzels, a 2007 startup at Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg that will offer Curly W pretzels as well as a special product designed for autistic children--the company donates a portion of its proceeds to autism support groups.

Batting seventh, another relative newcomer, Mayorga Coffee, a Rockville-based roaster that has stores around Maryland, at National, Dulles and BWI airports and as far away as Pittsburgh. The company's best-known store is in downtown Silver Spring. They'll be serving cappuccino, espresso and lattes from four carts around the stadium.

In the eighth spot, La Piccola Gelateria will sell gelato and sorbetto.

And batting ninth, Cantina Marina, which has had a tropical hideaway on the Southwest D.C. waterfront since 2003, will sell frozen drinks and Cajun food.

Even the bench offers some local color, including snow cones from Krazee Ice, a Prince George's County-based company formed by two women known for their 20-plus flavors such as Confident Coconut, Zany Cherry and Coo-Coo Cotton Candy.

The stadium's general food offerings will also be a big change. The Nats took advantage of the move to the Anacostia waterfront to get rid of Aramark and switch to Centerplate, the South Carolina-based food service company that handles concessions for 10 NFL teams including the Redskins, seven baseball teams including the Yankees and Nats, and a long list of arenas and convention centers, including the District's Walter Washington Center.

Will Centerplate be an improvement over Aramark? Too soon to say, of course. A scan of fan message boards covering some of the other facilities they handle shows a mixed picture, but we can make our own judgments starting March 30.

By Marc Fisher |  February 25, 2008; 1:52 PM ET
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Anything vegetarian? RFK's mediocre cheese pizza and pitiful (and not-always-available) veggie dogs got a little old.

Posted by: ArlVa | February 25, 2008 2:14 PM

The only thing missing if Five guys, but that would have to have limited toppings. We have the best fast food hamburgers in the country, we should have it at the stadiums.

Posted by: Natsural | February 25, 2008 2:55 PM

Steinberg scooped you:

Posted at 1:11 PM.

And he's got a cool picture of Ben's Chilli bowl.....

Posted by: Kim | February 25, 2008 3:21 PM

Seems like an improvement.

I'm fairly sure Boardwalk fries are veg. they cook in peanut oil.

I saw the jumbotron screen on over the week. Wow is that bright, and huge.

Posted by: EricS | February 25, 2008 4:19 PM

Sorry, but if you're going to be a true D.C. stadium you've got to offer a stand selling pupusas and empanadas as well. I hope the reason these items were left out is because no one applied.

Posted by: Adams Morgan Chick | February 25, 2008 5:01 PM

French fries alone do not constitute adequate vegetarian fare.

The first season at RFK, the vendors served very good veggie dogs (SmartDogs, if I recall correctly). Since then, the veggie options have plummeted. The Papa John's pizza was close to inedible, the veggie dogs switched out to an inferior brand (which was seldom ever replenished in a timely fashion), and the fries were, well, fries. There needs to be more offered up: veggie burgers, salads, falafel, and so forth.

If there can be tons of good veggie options at music festivals, a ballpark - with more permanent prep facilities - should be able to do as good a job, if not better.

Posted by: Rudi | February 25, 2008 5:09 PM

That's all very nice, but those of us who enjoyed bringing in sandwiches want to know if we'll still be allowed to bring food and water into the park.

My guess is no, that they'll try to extract every possible dollar from us.

But I would love to be wrong.

Posted by: Meridian | February 25, 2008 5:10 PM

Ben's and Hard Times both have vegetarian options on their menus -- I hope that expands to the ballpark. I hated spending $7 a beer and having to choke down gross pizza at RFK. Besides, I don't want to have to walk all the way around the park to find the *only* place that (may or may not) sell veggie dogs.

Posted by: Veggie in DC | February 25, 2008 5:14 PM

From the season ticket holder package :

One water bottle per person and softsided coolers or bags with food contained in single serving bags not bigger than 16x16x8 are allowed

Posted by: Foodisallowed | February 25, 2008 5:55 PM

I might be a bit "old fashinoned", but all I want at the ballpark is a decent hot dog, pretzel, and either a soda or beer. I'm there to watch a baseball game. If I wanted different food, I'd go to a restaurant instead.

Posted by: wlevey | February 25, 2008 8:25 PM

During Year 2 at RFK, the Hard Times concession sold vegetarian chili. Hard Times did not return for Year 3. So looking forward to a break from the dreaded Papa John's cheese pizza.

Marc, you didn't mention pizza -- will Papa Johns be back? Something new?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 25, 2008 8:25 PM

five guys is right across the street on 3rd.

Posted by: dcsubguy | February 25, 2008 8:32 PM

For C.S. people! Are you there to watch a ball game or film the next series of the Food Network?! This is a baseball game. Enjoy it for what it is. What will you snots require next? Massages and personal shoppers at the ballpark? Would you like a bathroom attendent to hand you a moist towelette? Maybe highlight your hair while your savoring your pate...

Posted by: Old School Will Never Die | February 25, 2008 8:55 PM

I always get the quite good veggie chili at Hard Times, and I think Ben's has a veggie burger on its menu.

Posted by: eo mcmars | February 25, 2008 9:36 PM

Old School - get with the program. MLB hasn't been about the baseball for a while. Because if was we wouldn't be spending anywhere near this amount of money on the stadium.

So eat your cuisine and STFU. :-)

The worst part about it that you're not wrong. And that SUCKS. Big time.

Posted by: wake up | February 25, 2008 10:45 PM

Nats Stadium could serve filet mignon from Morton's for all I care. The biggest problem is with the food servers. Never before have I met a more surly, ill mannered, and impolite group of people than the food servers at RFK the past three seasons. The majority, not all, but most of the servers at RFK couldn't be bothered to do their jobs and the phrase "thank you" was seldom heard.

Posted by: So there's new food, big deal, what about the food servers? | February 26, 2008 8:47 AM

How could Centerplate possibly not improve food service over what Aramark delivered?????????? I'm normally not one to use excessive punctuation for emphasis, but are you serious? They'd have to be peeing in my Coke to be any worse than Aramark.

Posted by: Lindemann | February 26, 2008 9:23 AM

You gotta have Ledo's Pizza...and Roy Rogers would be nice too!

Posted by: Chris | February 26, 2008 9:48 AM

It would be great if Chick Fil-A did the customer service training. That is the only fast food restaurant I know of where you consistently get wonderful, fast, and pleasant service

Posted by: Chris | February 26, 2008 9:50 AM

Enough about the food. Whats beers are going to be available?

Posted by: TB | February 26, 2008 10:02 AM

To echo some others, I'd add Five Guys and Ledo's. Also, the fish "sandwich" (four pieces of fried fish and two slices Wonder bread) from Horace & Dickie's is as DC as Ben's, so I'd add that as well.

Posted by: zann | February 26, 2008 10:30 AM

I strongly doubt Aramark was allowed any choice in hiring their servers, and I imagine that the District government has probably imposed the same kind of mandate on the new food service providers. It's a jobs program to ensure that people who would never be hired for any other kind of work can gain some real-world work experience. So a few rich yuppie suburbanites have to suffer by waiting 15+ minutes for a cashier to hand them a hot dog? Big deal. It's a small price to pay for levelling the region's socio-economic distortions.

Posted by: athea | February 26, 2008 10:34 AM

Regarding concerns about food service, it looks like the sports & entertainment commission has gotten pretty serious about upgrading the quality of stadium employees. This is from the recent job fair announcement:

"Residents with police records should also apply, as there will be many positions where a criminal record will not be a problem. Also, residents who have little work experience, but are reliable and willing workers will be considered for positions for which they have acquired the needed skills during their lifetime."

What are you guys worried about?

Posted by: Section 553 | February 26, 2008 10:43 AM

I want to see Marc get his hair highlighted while savoring his half smoke.

Posted by: Tee-hee | February 26, 2008 10:58 AM

I certainly hope that the Nationals Park variant of the menus from these fine establishments is not just lip service. I wont be impressed by names if they're just posted above a four-day old vat of canned chili or Syscodogs labeled as something I've heard of.

And, ahh, boardwalk fries. Nothing says quality like food coming out of a machine with a sun-faded sign.

As for customer service... I dont see why you guys have a problem with the staff insulting you. It's just local culture.

Posted by: up in the cheap seats | February 26, 2008 11:03 AM

I'd love to have Ledo's (a staple for several generations of University of Maryland students), but I fear we're stuck with Papa John's. Well, perhaps they will open a restaurant near the ballpark.

Oh, and Stan Kasten: Please, please promise that "Sweet Caroline" will be left behind at RFK. If you Red Sox-loving Ivy League yuppies need it so much, go up to Fenway. We don't need you.

Posted by: Vincent | February 26, 2008 1:09 PM

Natsural: Five Guys the best fast food burger in the country? Please tell me you have not been to California. Five Guys is pretty good, but I can think of 4 fast food chains in California that do a better burger.

wlevey: I completely agree. Give me a dog and a beer. Maybe add a bag of peanuts, and that is really all one needs to enjoy a baseball game.

Posted by: LoDuca's chemistry boost | February 26, 2008 1:40 PM

Trust me you'll be no more pleased with Centerplate than the existing concessionaire. What will help the situation is that all the vendors will benefit from brand new state of the art prep facilities. RFK had decades old facilities and little was done to step them up after the Nats arrival. No one could have provided decent service with the logistical problems and general conditions at RFK.

Unless you're seated at the club level in a white tablecloth restaurant or in a suite, it's going to simply be ball park food anywhere you go. On good days it may reach the level of Food Court fare at an older mall......

Posted by: CW | February 26, 2008 1:56 PM

Agree with LoDuca, Five Guys is nothing compared to In N Out Burger, NOTHING.

Cap City Brewing company will be the local suds at the game.

They should have a great blend of new school and old school things to see, do, eat at the game. Baseball isn't just for baseball fans anymore.

Posted by: G-town | February 26, 2008 2:10 PM

Hate to say it, but I agree - In N Out burger blows Five Guys away.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 26, 2008 5:51 PM

Red, Hot, and Blue? I hope they have a Pepto Bismol booth at the stadium.

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Posted by: sinusafforinfo | February 26, 2008 8:32 PM

Sorry to break it to you, TB, but I've been told by someone who works at the local Capitol City Brewing Co. brewpub that their plans to have "Cap City" beers at five places in the new ballpark fell through earlier this month when Miller Brewing Co. (who must have the macrobrew concession) wouldn't allow them to put up any signage larger than their tap handles.


Enough about the food. Whats beers are going to be available?

Posted by: TB | February 26, 2008 10:02 AM

Posted by: Partial Plan Ticket Holder | February 27, 2008 9:42 AM

I can't think of anything worthwhile that comes from California. Just fall into the ocean already.

Five Guys beats all, including In-n-out Burger.

Posted by: k | February 27, 2008 10:08 AM

k, too funny! But they have ARNIE! And a bunch of fruitcakes....and too many illegal immigrants....

Posted by: HA! | February 27, 2008 9:05 PM

Let's see how the customer service is at the new ballpark. I'm not holding my breath considering the hiring pool they have to choose from.

Posted by: HankTheCat | February 28, 2008 6:37 AM

Applicant pool? You mean the fresh-out-of-college, perky, energetic, go-getter that has spent the past four years preparing to slap a weiner on a bun just for you? AND getting paid minimum wage in doing so...just for you? AND all the while listening to you telling the next suburban snoot in line how your children are so much better than everyone elses children? Get real!!

Posted by: Eat your weiner and shut up | February 28, 2008 8:39 PM

Heh.. Can this be true?
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Posted by: Vendkneex | March 6, 2008 6:11 PM

Seriously, how can they talk local eats without Ledo's and Five Guys?

Posted by: DMD | March 8, 2008 11:27 AM

Just responding to some other comments... Yes, a Five Guys would have been so great! I heard that they were trying to open one. I wish they had. As far as veggie options go, I know that Hard Times Cafe usually has a veggie chili option and and I think Ben's has a veggie dog as well so you should have some choices. I also wanted to say that I am VERY excited to see that Mayorga Coffee was selected. They have, by far, the best local espresso in the area (aside from counter culture) so I just wanted to give a shout out for Mayorga!

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