The Mets and Yankees are each getting shiny new stadiums this year, and they're introducing top-shelf cuisine to the sunburned masses. Yogi Berra had it right: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
Author Steve Kurutz Illustration Zohar Lazar
THE HISTORY OF BALLPARK FOOD spans a century or more, but it is brief in the telling. In fact, it can be summed up in two simple, sturdy American words: burgers and franks. (Okay, maybe beer, too, though its value as “food” is arguable.) But the short list is perfectly apt. A pine-tar-and-rosin, Charlie-hustle game like baseball calls for unfancy finger foods, in the way that a more genteel sport like polo, tennis or cricket lends itself to, say, tea and crumpets, with a splash of rosé afterward. Still, considering how much Americans’ palettes have evolved in recent years, it seems a bit outmoded to be rooting for modern athletic specimens like Manny and Johan while selecting from a menu that hasn’t changed since Ty Cobb wore spikes. But just as innovations like instant replay, bobbleheads and human growth hormone have snuck into the game in recent years, so have incremental improvements to its cuisine. Stadiums are upgrading ingredients, expanding menus and partnering with local restaurants to offer regional specialties and—wait for it—healthy options. Take, for instance, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, home to the defending World Series champs, the Phillies, where, in addition to standard fare, fans can devour a genuine cheesesteak sandwich made by Rick’s Steaks or Tony Luke’s, two of the city’s great purveyors of the “wit-or-without.” Or consider Fenway Park, the charming, creaking home of the Boston Red Sox, where fans can sample native treats like fresh clam chowder. They even have a signature hot dog, the Fenway Frank. Could it be that culinary daring helps clear the path to a pennant?
If so, the Yankees and the Mets, New York’s crosstown rivals, who are both moving to fancy new stadiums with ambitious food offerings, are hoping some of that magic rubs off on them. Nine years and over a billion dollars in salary costs have been squandered since the underachieving Yankees last won a World Series, so let’s begin with them. Anyone who’s ever been to the old Yankee Stadium—the so-called “House that Ruth Built”—knows that the Steinbrenner family reserved its outsized generosity for the team’s payroll, and not for the paltry concessions. For as long as anyone can remember, the most exalted franchise in sport has sold the same desert-dry hot dogs and hard-rubber chicken tenders you might find in a freezer case by the microwave in a filling station snack shop. A few years back, the Yankees installed a single branch of Mike’s Deli, a Bronx institution famed for its prosciutto and mortadella heroes—an attempt, perhaps, to make amends for inflicting decades of heartburn on fans. Of course, that’s sort of like fighting fire with fire.
The new Yankee Stadium will be a different ballgame altogether, housing not only a Mike’s Deli, but NYY Steak, a 128-seat prime steakhouse located near right field, and, one level below that—in a 31,000-square-foot glass-enclosed concourse called “the great hall”—a Hard Rock Cafe. Both restaurants will be open year-round, and both will be accessible to ticket-and non-ticket-holders. But anyone who thinks they can pony up $10 for a grilled chicken salad and watch the Bronx Bombers live, think again; the only on-field action you’ll see from inside either restaurant will be on TV.
The existence of two full-service restaurants, each with a large menu and trained chefs, is a giant leap forward for Yankees fankind. It guarantees a level of quality and consistency that a guy with a box dangling from his neck yelling “Hot sausage, here!” simply can’t deliver. Yet the fact that the steakhouse is co-run by YGE Steakhouses, an affiliate of the Yankees with no high-end restaurant expertise, along with news that it’s the first in what may be a chain of NYY Steaks, calls to mind an undercooked porterhouse at overcooked prices. The jury is still out, but expectations are low.
More interesting is what the Mets are dishing up in their new Queens stadium, Citi Field.
The Mets have always played the underdog to the Yankees, but in the area of stadium food they may have finally bested the Bronx Bombers. Borrowing a trick from the Yankees playbook, the Mets signed a talented, off-season free agent: Danny Meyer, the hugely successful Manhattan restaurateur behind foodie meccas like Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and Tabla. In recent years, Meyer has applied his upscale approach to downscale food, opening Blue Smoke (barbecue) and the Shake Shack (burgers, fries). The latter, little more than a shed in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, serves shakes and burgers tasty enough to attract crowds that rival Depression-era bread lines.
For Citi Field, Meyer has created four concessions: branches of Blue Smoke and Shake Shack; a Mexican taqueria; and a Belgian frites stand. Given the hamstrung parameters of stadium cooking, the food preparation is nothing short of revolutionary. Blue Smoke has a giant on-site smoker, and food will be made last-minute, so the pulled pork isn’t withering under heat lamps. The Shake Shack’s burger is a blend of sirloin and brisket, not ground chuck, and will be grilled to order. At the Belgian frites stand, a blend of dipping sauces and seasonings creates shape-shifting taste explosions—for instance, malt powder and salt that recalls fish ’n’ chips. And to create the perfect soft corn taco, Ron Parker, the executive at Meyer’s company overseeing the stadium project, flew to California to track down and study the secrets of legendary taco stands. “We took elements from each place,” Parker says. “We liked the garnish at one; at another, we liked that the carnitas were braised, not fried.”
Parker’s team is also honing its serving technique to speed up turnover. The notion of on-site meat smoking and made-to-order burgers doesn’t exactly scream efficiency, and a 40-minute line for food at a game—even one as slow-paced as baseball can sometimes be—simply won’t fly.
Much of what’s driving the evolution of stadium food is sports organizations’ focus on luxury suites; with VIP seating at VIP prices, fans want VIP-level food. Citi Field is no exception: For 1,600 select ticket holders, Meyer has created a full-service restaurant with a wine list, maître d’ service, and “upscale casual” dishes like Caesar salad and cold-smoked sirloin with mashed potatoes.
One wonders if Joe Ballpark, having been reared on a lifetime of Nathan’s franks, will really go for such unorthodox extravagances. But if not, one thing’s certain: We’ll always have Cracker Jacks.
Steve Kurutz is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of Like A Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band.
The Grubway Series
The Yankees and Mets had two of the top three payrolls in 2008: $209 million and $138 million, respectively. This season, they each move into gleaming new stadiums with totally rebuilt menus. For the first time in decades, the Mets may finally have an edge.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Yankee Stadium’s Hard Rock Cafe ribs
NEW YORK METS
Citi Field’s Shake Shack ShackBurger