Home Plates: Baseball just wouldn't be the same without the food and the beer

American baseball at its best may well be summed up at home plate. Not the plate at the batter’s box – the dinner plate.

Ballpark concessionaires pitch more than peanuts and Cracker Jack. Fans’ choices now run the gamut from gourmet hot dogs to haute cuisine. From the traditional red hot and beer to prime steaks and vintage wines, ballparks across the country feature food experiences that bring the best of local flavors to their menu lineups.

Rick Abramson, president of Delaware North Companies Sportservice, began his career with the company as a ballpark vendor and agrees that fans have become foodies. And why not – ballgame food has always been a vital element to the entire baseball experience. It’s a tradition that’s been with the game almost from its beginning. As the nation’s oldest private ballpark concessionaire, Sportservice has seen many trends come and go.

“Food continues to evolve at the ballpark,” said Abramson. “In the off season, our chefs, many trained through the Culinary Institute of America, spend their time creating new, innovative menus that they will introduce during the season. This year, organic and sustainable cuisine was the challenge, so many of the ballparks are introducing some type of organic menu item – mostly in the clubs and suites.”

Besides the menu-board staples, ballparks have added hometown favorites to promote local pride and team sprit. T.R. Hughes Ballpark in St. Charles, home of the Frontier League’s River City Rascals, taps a Rascal Brew produced by the O’Fallon Brewery, dishes up Fitz’s Ice Cream and grills brats that are specially made by Schubert’s Meats in Millstadt, Ill. At Busch Stadium, local favorites abound, from vendors such as Super Smokers BBQ to the season’s newest addition, Luther Dryer’s Lemonade Ice Cream.

Highlights from around the league

At Jacobs Field in Cleveland, home of the Indians, pretzels are twisted into the team logo “I.” Other Cleveland hometown favorites are the baseball-shaped funnel cakes and the signature Johnny Applestix, deep-fried apples with a choice of dipping sauces, including lemon cheesecake, peanut butter or chocolate.

Rubio’s fish tacos have become a traditional favorite at Petco Park in San Diego. For the 2005 season, a handful of new concessions were introduced, including an eatery named Anthony’s Fish Grotto, which will continue the ballpark-seafood trend by offering shrimp cocktail and clam chowder in a bread bowl. But if seafood during the game doesn’t sound appealing to you, Dreyer’s Ice Cream presents their sundaes drizzled with Ghirardelli’s chocolate topping.

Texas Rangers’ Ameriquest Field offers action off the field with “live-action grill carts” stationed throughout the ballpark, where turkey legs and smoked briskets become both dinner and performance art. Add an order of the park’s famous garlic fries to make the meal complete.

Ethic foods are always popular, which brings us to bratwurst and Milwaukee. Like any city in America’s Dairyland, Milwaukee is proud of its cheese and its German heritage. The Brewers’ Miller Park has mixed them together and introduced the Cheese Grillwurst. Beyond those cheese-filled brats, if you’re lucky enough to get a suite ticket for a Brewers’ game, you can pass on the Grillwurst and order up Swedish meatballs or the new Cajun Mixed-Grill Brochettes, shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage skewered with peppers and onions.

Boston’s Fenway Park, the nation’s oldest ballpark, has more to offer than its infamous Fenway Frank or Monster Burger. Julie Jordan, Aramark’s general manager at Fenway, reports its big concourse offers fried chicken, steak tip sandwiches and Fenway’s own Italian sausages. But the best food experience in Bean Town is Yawkey Way.

Yawkey Way, the street that borders Fenway Park, is closed to traffic an hour before game time, when it becomes a Mecca for serious baseball gourmands. Yawkey’s most sought-after delight is the Cuban sandwich (Cubano) from former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant’s operation. A Cubano is stacked with ham, pork, pickles and mustard and grilled on a press with an end product similar to a panini. Tiant oversees each Cubano while signing baseballs for fans, adding untold flavor to the experience.

Back to the best baseball town

Here in St. Louis, we’re not considered the nation’s best baseball town for nothing – and that includes the food. All the area stadiums are proud of their classic ballpark fare.

Gateway Grizzlies fans at GMC Stadium in Sauget savor “baseball’s best hot dog,” according to the team’s media director, Jeff O’Neill. “We worked up what we call baseball’s best hot dog by piling on the extras – cheese, onions, bacon, peppers,” said O’Neill. “People like ‘em – plain and simple.”

Grizzlies fans also like the prices. This dressed-out dog is only four bucks. “We have a different experience here than at Busch Stadium,” said O’Neill. “It’s important to keep our concessions affordable for families. From the dogs and brats to our 75-minute all-you-can-eat buffet, you don’t have to blow your mortgage to eat at our ballpark.’’

Although ticket and concession prices are higher, you can’t beat the Major League experience at Busch Stadium. And, according to the national stats, St. Louis is the World Series champ when it comes to nacho consumption. More nachos are served at Busch than at any other ballpark in the country.

“We’re always looking to add the freshest local products to the menu whenever possible,” said Jeramie Mitchell, executive chef for Sportservice at Busch Stadium. “From our concessions to the white tablecloth dining here at the [Stadium] Club, we’re using the best ingredients we can find.”

The Stadium Club’s menu boasts Alaskan halibut that’s less than 72 hours from the sea and Missouri-raised organic lamb chops. Steaks are U.S. Department of Agriculture prime, and all the herbs are fresh. “We don’t play around up here – we want everything to be the best. Even the buffet gets the best products,” said Mitchell, who noted that the signature buffet changes every game.

During the June 24 Pittsburgh matchup, Mitchell’s buffet menu included Baked Lobster Conchiglie, Chicken Romano with Gorgonzola Cream and Pancetta Encrusted Strip Loin of Beef. Fries made of portabellas, served with a lemon-garlic aïoli, are also available through the end of the season, which is the good news. The bad news is the Stadium Club concept will not be brought to the new Busch Stadium.

“We’re going to miss it,” said Mitchell, “but the new park is going to have several new surprises. We’ll be smoking our own ribs and brisket next year, and there’s a concept for wood-fired pizza ovens.”

Although many of Busch’s familiar food service hangouts will be gone, the 2006 starting lineup is promising. “Obviously, the menus aren’t set yet,” said Mitchell. “We still have a lot of time to decide what we will actually serve.” So what’s been cooking in the minds of the chef and the Cardinal front office?

Among the stadium’s new eateries slotted for level four is Dizzy’s Diner, which will pitch hungry fans patty melts, buffalo chicken sandwiches, dressed-out fries, sundaes and homemade milkshakes. The Riverview Corner will feature pork and beef sandwiches, brisket and baby back ribs. The Gashouse Grill and the Plaza Grill (level three) will sport ballgame dogs, brats, Double Header Burgers and Fire Ball Burgers dressed up with jalapeños and nacho cheese. There’s been talk of adding shrimp or pork kabobs – selections that are definitely upscale for the traditional nosebleed section. The locations of Broadway BBQ and Triple Play are yet to be announced.

A wood-burning pizza oven is the planned centerpiece on level three along with a carving station for gourmet sandwiches at the Red Bird Club. The Left Field Pavilion will have classic dogs, burgers, pretzels and peanuts on deck with, no doubt, a bevy of Cracker Jack. Level two is designated for deluxe suites, party rooms and the Scoreboard Patio for catered events.

Fifteen concession outlets are the current estimate for level one, where La Colina will offer visitors toasted ravs, cannelloni, garlic cheese bread and Caesar salads. El Birdo Cantina’s tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos will vie for fan affections with El Birdo’s Gourmet Nachos, where chili and churros will share the menu board with, of course, nachos.

Let’s not forget the drinks. The Backstop Bar on level one will mix up frozen concoctions while countless concessions will tap soft drinks and our hometown’s frosty-cold AB brew. After all, this is BUSCH Stadium.

But that’s next year – and this season’s not over yet, so catch the flavor of Busch while you can. There are still games to play – and that means the kitchen and concessions are open. So order up – and play ball.