Where Men Bite Dogs
Petco Park fits downtown like a ball in Khalil Greene’s glove——and the new Bark Park is a full plate of eclectic edibles
By David Nelson
FOOD FIGURES IN THE FUN at Major League Baseball’s newest temple to the Great American Pastime. Petco Park is a big bowl that brims with good times when the San Diego Padres are in top form. An outing can stretch the budget—since the cost of a basic, grilled frankfurter and regular-size soft drink is $7.25—but there’s a near-Pavlovian connection between baseball and certain foods. Many fans foretaste helmet sundaes and kettle corn while waiting to buy tickets. The early-season kinks that plagued the concession stands now seem largely to have been unsnarled. Prompt food service is more common—much of the time. Still, a patient man in a non-moving, four-person line at one night game observed, “The concession workers obviously are not paid by the number of people they serve.”
Management is sensitive to the complaints. “Next to the product on the field and security, food is our most important consideration,” says Padres president Dick Freeman. “A stadium is not an efficient way to run a restaurant. We’re open 81 days a year, and serve most of our food between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. This makes the prices higher, but we’re competitive with other entertainment venues.”
Freeman also points out a recent sea-change in fans’ culinary expectations. “There used to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that assumed everybody wanted a hot dog and a beer,” he says. “Now we try to appeal to a diversity of tastes.” This must explain why the Friar Franks concession stands sell a Smart Veggie Dog ($4), a protein-rich, vegetarian tube steak innocent of the sinful ingredients that make real hot dogs irresistible.
In the name of scientific research (and because this reporter refused), Petco Park director of food and beverage Doug Martin took a large bite of a Smart Dog, and made a truly interesting face. Martin, an executive of ballpark caterer WellBread/Sport- Service (divisions of giant, Buffalo-based Delaware North), says insiders regard the Friar Franks in Section 115 as one of Petco’s best concessions.
Friar Franks offers diversity in dogs. Besides the Smart Veggie Dog, there is a half-pound Wienerschnitzel “Big Dawg” that has won the hearts, appetites, praise and $6 of many fans. It’s good and filling, but Hebrew National makes the quintessential ball-yard dog, which sells for $5, and—within the parameters of the topic—is, quite simply, elegant. Juicy and well-flavored, it wants discreet amounts of mustard, relish and chopped onions to point up its virtues, and wants to be eaten hot, which may mean not waiting until you’re in your seat.
For some reason, Petco offers these choices only in the Friar Franks stands and the private clubs. Other stands retail a basic, grilled hot dog ($3.25) of middling appeal. It wouldn’t be fair to say that this dog barks, but it does not rival a Hebrew National frank.
Travel around Petco, and you find a good range of food. Highlights include Southern fried chicken prepared according to the recipe of Alicia Gwynn (wife of retired slugger Tony Gwynn), and Randy Jones’ pulled-pork sandwiches doused with good barbecue sauce. Both are sold along the promenade that links the Seventh and 10th avenue entrances.
La Comida stands specialize in Rubio’s fish tacos, and thick, heavily laden slices of Oggi’s pizza are available at the Padres Pizzeria in the Field Level Marketplace Grille and other locations. The overpriced ($5) pizza is okay, sort of, but wouldn’t fly at Shea Stadium. The food court–style Marketplace Café offers all the ballpark basics, from peanuts and Cracker Jack to ice cream and giant pretzels.
According to Martin, the outdoor deck of the Hall of Fame Bar & Grill is known as “the poor man’s suite,” and a seat here is sweet. Located on Level 5 in the Western Metal Supply Company building, the ballpark bar cum beanery features display cases filled with memorabilia from Dave Winfield, Jerry Coleman, Buzzie Bavasi and others. The one-price ($9.50) menu offers such items as hand-carved roast beef sandwiches and a deluxe nacho plate piled high with beans and “taco meat” (remember, the caterer’s parent is based in upstate New York). “The real die-hard baseball fans hang out here,” says Martin.
THE FANCIEST FARE IS RESERVED for Founders Club members, who pay up to $20,000 a year for choice to ultra-deluxe seating and amenities. On the Field Level and along Toyota Terrace are members-only venues such as the swanky Omni Hotel Premier Club, a great place for Sunday brunch, thanks to made-to-order waffle and omelet stations, salad bar, dessert table and a hot buffet with such items as grouper with mushroom-Chianti risotto. Tall-hatted, white-jacketed chefs cheerfully cook eggs and slice roast meats. There’s also inseat service—for fans who refuse to miss a pitch.
“We’ve been told this is the best club meal in professional baseball,” says Padres vice president of operations Richard Andersen. On Toyota Terrace, the Wind & Sea Lounge has a great view and features sushi prepared by a chef who also makes what Chicagoans call “bait” at the Gaslamp Quarter’s Octopus Garden. Members pay plenty (some club memberships include food and drink), and an order of such “gourmet maki” as the Padres roll (six kinds of seafood, avocado and cucumber) costs $24. In the private Baja Bistro, the enjoyable Baja shrimp cocktail tops Sea of Cortéz shrimp in salsainspired sauce with a raft of crisp tortilla shreds ($11.95).
All 181 annual memberships in the Sony Dugout Club sold quickly, at prices of $17,500 to $20,000. The club provides privacy, valet parking, concierge service and seats located as close as 45 feet behind home plate. (Padres owner John Moores and wife, Becky, reportedly use the Dugout Club as their private box.)
Besides a comfortable bar and a small “Chef’s Table” room open to the kitchen, dining room windows overlook the batting cages used by the Padres, and create a remarkable intimacy with the players. The extensive food selections remain mindful of the location—hot dogs and popcorn always are on offer.
BEFORE AND AFTER GAMES, crowds pour through the Gaslamp Quarter and East Village like a rogue wave rolling over Mission Beach. These areas offer a zillion or so alternatives to dining or partying at the ballpark, from free (and you can’t beat that) to prices that seem more South Beach or Vegas than San Diego.
If you can’t wait to bite a dog, head to the southwest corner of 10th Avenue and Market Street before any game and look for the bright red umbrellas over a cart marked David’s Hotdogs. A smiling guy named David charges just $3.75 for a full meal (in ballpark terms) of a Hebrew National frank, bag of chips and can of soda.
Another pre-game bargain is in a much classier location—the bar at Morton’s of Chicago (285 J Street). Between 5 and 7 on weeknights, bartenders pass silver trays of juicy, grilled tenderloin sandwiches. You don’t actually have to buy something to get one, although it does seem more polite. Postgame hunger pangs can be cured by Morton’s memorable cocktail of four truly colossal shrimp—you wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley— and flavorful sauce ($18).
Next to Petco in the towering Omni Hotel, McCormick & Schmick’s marks the Seattle-based chain’s second try in San Diego. Talented local chef Brian Johnston impresses with an extensive, printed-daily seafood menu that has offered ono with coconut rice ($17.95) and a plush “Pacific pan roast” of assorted shellfish ($21.85). The wait staff? They’re trying.
One block from the ballpark, on Seventh Avenue, Ventanas offers a clever décor inspired by windows, of all things, and a competent, creative Mexican menu that features crisp chicken in mango sauce ($14.65), a grilled New York steak with south-of-theborder garnishes ($33) and multi-ethnic sushi tacos ($13.95). The joint jumps after the game, but cool as it may be, $10 seems a lot for a cocktail.
Then again, the Side Bar at Sixth and Market is reservations-only after 8:30 on Friday and Saturday nights, when deejay-played music and a tres hip crowd are the attractions. According to a server, there is a two-bottle minimum at a table for a group of four or five, and the bottles cost $250 each.
This ain’t your father’s San Diego —buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!