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Nats '09: Great Crab, New Flags, But Will They Come?

The new Crab Louie sandwiches are genuinely good--not ok for a ballpark, but genuinely high-quality. The big hit among stadium food offerings last year was the half-smokes from Ben's Chili Bowl, so there'll be more of them at Nationals Park this year--a new Ben's outlet on the upper deck, and four additional Ben's carts sprinkled around the stadium. The racing presidents, the ballpark's most successful gimmick, are now works of art--life-sized bobblehead sculptures right at the stadium's main entrance, standing ready for your snapshots.

The Washington Nationals--facing the triple whammy of the sophomore slump at a new stadium, a miserable economy that's expected to suppress attendance through all professional sports leagues, and a failure to offer fans much prospect of climbing out of the cellar in the National League East--are trying to lure folks back by sprucing up the fan experience. Ticket prices are lower this year, the team's new food concessionaire is introducing a bunch of value meal packages including, say, a dog, soda and chips for $7, and the stadium's been given a bunch of upgrades. (Ten teams in baseball cut ticket prices this year; another six--for a total of more than half the teams--barely changed their prices.)

But as I said in yesterday's column, the neighborhood around the stadium remains largely a collection of empty lots and postponed plans.The bustling avenue of eateries and watering holes envisioned in the developer's drawings still plastered onto the walls around some of those vacant lots is years away from reality; this season, there are more surface parking lots, but that's about the only improvement to the stadium area that fans will see.

There is hope, however. Nats President Stan Kasten told me there's still a possibility that water taxi service to the stadium, presumably from National Harbor in Prince George's County and from Old Town Alexandria--who knows, maybe even from Georgetown--could begin this summer, which would be a lovely way to get to and from a game.

Jacqueline Dupree, the author of the blog JDLand, which has long provided the most detailed coverage of changes to the ballpark area, tells me that six buildings have opened since last Opening Day, including four residential structures, which are about one-third full, and two office buildings, which are mostly empty.

One of the new office buildings, which sits atop the Metro station one block from the stadium, will be the temporary home of Art-O-Matic, the sprawling, unjuried independent art show that has become a staple of the Washington culture scene--this year's show runs from May 29 to July 5. And there are unconfirmed reports that a restaurant will open in the building's ground floor before the end of this season.

But aside from the quality of play on the field--which may be grim judging by the hapless performance in Florida this week (see The Post's Chico Harlan's predictions over at Nationals Journal)--the major factor determining whether fans keep coming to the park will be the overall experience, and that's what Kasten has spent the off-season trying to improve.

There are new picnic tables, flags of all the teams flying high over the scoreboard, a cool new baseball-card display of the game's starting lineups, and lots more bar space. Even a slew of new recycling collection cans, decorated with Nats cap covers, seem cheery.

The big news, however, is that for the third time in three years, the Nationals are trying a new food vendor. Last year's effort, by a company called Centerplate, failed to provide reliable service, though the food was at least considerably better than that what fans got via the nightmarish Aramark performance at the old RFK Stadium.

Vendor #3 is Levy Restaurants, a Chicago firm that also runs the high-end restaurants at the Abe Pollin Center downtown (I've never had the pleasure of trying their offerings there.) Levy works a long list of major league arenas and stadiums, and judging by the spread they put out for scribes last week, this should be a step up from what Nats fans have had in past years. But the big question remains whether they can provide decent service of the good food they make. That was Centerplate's downfall: The food was fine, but the service was slow and bizarrely limited. Stands often closed after the fifth or sixth inning, leaving fans clamoring for food.

From an expanded Red Porch dining and drinking facility in centerfield (including a menu of beer offerings blessed by The Post's most discerning Sports Bog denizen, Mr. Dan Steinberg) to a barbecue smoker that will be installed in mid-season, the food service facilities are bigger, which should help with service.

And the company's executive chef at Nats Park, Phil Bucco, says the food will taste better too. He's certainly right about the foot-long Crab Louie, a sub roll with big chunks of crab meat in a light mayo with a tangy kick. There are a slew of vegetarian and other healthy options added to the menu this year, an innovation that Levy launched two years ago at Dodger Stadium (where else?) and is adding here, making Nats Park only the second in the majors with this new emphasis on healthy eats (hummous and carrot sticks at a ballgame? Well, ok.)

The shrimpburger is a terrific addition to the offerings--grilled shrimp chopped up and shaped into a patty, but alas, served only in the club level seating (well, I've had my last one of those.) Not so successful were the crab cakes, which the media diners at the preview universally panned as overly bready and dry.

The standard-level dogs are fine, your basic, pork-heavy hot dog, but Levy is offering them Buffalo-style, in a peppery sauce accompanied by a blue cheese dressing a la Buffalo chicken wings. The sauce lives up to the name. (There are also kosher dogs at an all-kosher stand.)

Also winning praise were the quesadillas and the Italian meatballs. Not yet tasted among the new items at the park: The Cuban sandwich, and Buffalo chicken sandwich.

Bucco says most of the 700 or so stadium food workers will be returning from last year, a promise the company made to the team and its employees. But Levy officials say the four intensive days of training they put the workers through will produce faster and friendlier service. (To be fair, we heard this from Centerplate last year, too.) Actually, I don't think friendliness was lacking last year; most workers were totally happy to chat--with fans, with each other, with anyone who might distract them from the job of putting a dog in a bun.

Levy's regional vice president of operations, Cindy Van Rensburg, assures me that the training and practice sessions with 1,000 guests from the Washington Navy Yard and from the stadium's immediate neighborhood have produced a staff that's ready to serve, even on a challenging Opening Day, which Kasten promises will be a sellout (not yet!).

"You'll find a lot more variety, at a much higher level," Kasten says of the new food offerings. "It was never where I wanted it last year."

Just like the team on the field. Come Monday, we'll see where the improvements really are--on the diamond and in our mouths. Play ball.

By Marc Fisher |  April 10, 2009; 8:21 AM ET  | Category:  Baseball , The District
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All this sounds well and good, but Marc, if the Nats REALLY want to improve the ballpark experience, they must ditch "Sweet Caroline" once and for all. It's a damn Red Sox song, and I don't want anything from the New England Evil Empire polluting our park. Let the usher find another song to dance to, something original.

Posted by: VPaterno | April 10, 2009 9:28 AM

I wish the best for the Nats, I really do, but as a Pirates fan, this just reeks of the Pirates. Focus all your time and energy on making the ballpark itself entertaining enough that you reach the threshold where just enough people are interested in coming on occasion to make it profitable, then you won't have to worry too much about fielding a good team.

Posted by: dr_klahn | April 10, 2009 9:43 AM

The other broadsheet in town says the President will not throw out the first ball.

Posted by: doubleuefwhy | April 10, 2009 9:45 AM

Is it confirmed that President Obama will throw out the first pitch on Monday? I have heard the opposite.

Posted by: baseballphotosbycheryl | April 10, 2009 10:26 AM

Thanks, all, for the questions on the presidential first ball bit--I've checked back and found that the earlier word that it would be happening is now very much not confirmed and indeed not likely, so I've pulled that reference from above.

Posted by: Marc Fisher | April 10, 2009 10:38 AM

Completely agree about Sweet Caroline...get rid of it! The team seems to be stealing ideas from other teams instead of creating its own traditions.

And while we're at it, get rid of Clint. His pretentious announcing is annoying at best and more often makes me want to throw something at the jumbotron.

Posted by: jeffgopack | April 10, 2009 12:18 PM

The New Mets stadium will have the best food Marc check it out.
Kasten lost me as a fan forever when he went after the Philly fans. I have purchased 5 tickets to 60 games on average usually more since the team arrived but no more Stan. I will never set foot in the park again to see a Nats team. Take your sorry team with a front office that makes the Deadskins look competent and leave. You and Lerners could run a hotdog cart successfully bubba. Just go you are a disgrace! God I wish Bob Short owned the team!

Posted by: sheepherder | April 10, 2009 2:25 PM

Where exactly is this slew of vegetarian options? I checked every booth in the park at the exhibition game last Saturday, and only found one place with veggie dogs, and two with veggie burgers (and of course, they didn't actually have them for the exhibition game).

Posted by: jasper12 | April 10, 2009 2:50 PM

Since when are standard ballpark hot dogs "pork heavy"? Every ballpark I've been to (including RFK and Nationals Park) has offered all-beef hot dogs. Hopefully, Nationals Park will continue to do so, and not just at the tiny Kosher stand.

Posted by: JB2009 | April 11, 2009 4:13 PM

What about the ONLY reason some of us (many of us?) who are DC residents won't be attending Nats games this season? That is, the fact the Nats have never paid rent for the stadium we 'gave' them. Why didn't Fisher mention this? Or have the Nats dropped that whining and finally paid their rent? If so, they should announce that, and one would think Fisher would make that clear.

Posted by: JoeOnTheHill | April 13, 2009 3:49 PM

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