Up to the Plate

Ballparks nationwide are hitting home runs with their upscale, gourmet offerings.
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Applewood-grilled salmon with singed orange and saffron cream sauce; five-peppercorn seared beef tenderloin medallions with port wine demi-glace; a layered phyllo pastry shell rolled with sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese.

These aren't menu items from an upscale Manhattan restaurant or a three-Michelin-star bistro. In fact, they're all from a most surprising place: Major League Baseball parks.

The gastronomical appeal of baseball's signature food -- the preservative-laden hot dog -- used to be enough to send many fans reeling from the park.

Anyone who's foraged for a decent meal in a ballpark full of hot-dog vendors and $5 bottled water might agree that the lyrics for

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

could be changed to "buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I ever go back."

Traditional ballpark offerings have lost their luster, thanks to endless seasons of limp french fries, tasteless chicken fingers and cardboard-like pizza headlining anemic menus.

But now, thanks to consumer-driven demand, ballpark cuisine is finally being salvaged.

Stepping Up

Catering to the needs of a growing foodie culture and a society keenly conscious of diet trends, a shift toward fresh, upscale offerings has hit ballparks nationwide.

Nowadays it's not unusual to find Astros fans munching on beef tenderloin stuffed with pecan-smoked lobster. And amid the excitement of watching Big Papi's latest homer graze the Green Monster, Red Sox fans are careful not to overturn any of their cups of rich clam chowder.

At Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves have been working with concessionaire company

Aramark

since 1966, but in the past four years, the menu at the park's exclusive 755 Club has undergone a total overhaul. It all started with the hiring of executive chef Orazio LaManna, who not only created an exquisite menu but also changed the concept of the buffet to improve his food's quality.

"We've moved away from putting hot food out in chafers," says Rich Johns, Aramark general manager at Turner Field. "We put food out in smaller quantities under heat lamps, which has allowed us to replenish more often, so the food is fresher. Instead of leaving something out there that stays on the buffet all day, it allows us to create things on the fly."

Per Chef LaManna's desire, Turner Field has also implemented action stations, which allow chefs to prepare food right in front of the customers. Fans have a wider variety -- a pasta, panini and chef's station -- without the unsanitary buffet stigma.

The new appeal of ballpark food has further changed the fan experience by becoming an attraction itself. Take, for example, Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners.

Scott MacNair, general manager of Safeco's concessionaire company Center Plate, says fans no longer have to fill up before heading to the ballpark.

"A lot of people would forgo eating at the ballpark, eating beforehand, but now people can come here and eat and enjoy the game," MacNair says.

Seattle fans are presented with myriad dining options, from local favorites Ivar's Seafood and Thai Ginger, to sushi, gourmet pizza and even the exclusive Diamond Club lounge and bistro.

MacNair says the menu's expansion since the ballpark's 1999 inception has been exponential and completely reliant on fan demand.

"I've been in this business for 20 years, and we used to have ... seven items on our menu. ... Now at Safeco Field, we have exactly 299 different items. ... Here, you have the ability to have a hot dog one day, seafood the next day, Thai food the next and Japanese food the next day. You have to be able to cater to the fan who comes to the ballpark every day," he explains.

And Safeco Field is health-conscious to boot. Following the recent nationwide trend, the club's goal is to be completely free of trans fats, starting this season. The Mariners have already made the switch with oils and eliminated several food purveyors that didn't provide trans-fat-free items.

Parks like Dolphin Stadium in Miami have also jumped on the health bandwagon by offering vegetarian-friendly items. The Marlins' venue was rated as one of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal's Top 10 Veg-Friendly Ballparks, thanks in part to their popular and tasty veggie dogs.

Local Flavor

Somewhere in the middle of the jump from corndogs to caviar, most ballparks also still offer middle-of-the-road items.

Reflecting regional tastes, these dishes are often local specialties that are more accessible to the average fan than the upscale items found in the exclusive club restaurants.

At AT&T Park in San Francisco, Gilroy garlic fries -- American brewery Gordon Biersch's concoction of French fries covered in ground garlic, herbs and parmesan cheese -- have become iconic.

Boog's Barbeque in Baltimore is a popular destination for Orioles fans, who flock to the pit in droves for hickory-smoked beef, pork and turkey, all swimming in a rich, smoky sauce.

And at Minute Maid Park in Houston, the barbecue-stuffed baked potato -- an obscenely large tater covered in cheese, stuffed with pulled pork, slathered in barbecue sauce and topped with onions and jalapeno peppers -- is the hot ticket.

Several parks have solicited help from local restaurants to feed their fans. Like Ivar's in Seattle, local legend Primanti Brothers has teamed up with PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where Pirates fans can try to fit their mouths around the famous overstuffed sandwiches.

"It's a Pittsburgh tradition," says Steve Musciano, Aramark general manager at PNC Park. "You can get a sandwich with everything on it in one shot. You get your fries, your coleslaw, tomatoes, your meat, your cheese, on this great thick bread, all on one sandwich. People know that it's here and they expect to be able to come here and get their local favorites."

And though the Primanti Brothers' sandwiches are the biggest draw, PNC Park adds more local flair with Manny's Barbeque, where former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen can be found greeting fans and signing autographs at most home games.

Pittsburgh is just one of six cities with such a feature -- there's also Boog Powell in Baltimore, Greg Luzinski in Philadelphia, Luis Tiant in Boston, Larry Dierker in Houston, and announcers Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren in Atlanta.

Ballpark food has come a long way from hot dogs and pretzels, thanks in large part to the demands of food-savvy fans. And likewise, where baseball's cuisine goes in the future is also for the fans to decide.

"It's all about the fan experience," Johns explains, "so we make sure we cater to their needs. It's absolutely fan-driven."

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Kristen Aiken is a freelance writer and editorial producer for MLB.com living in New York. Her articles also appear in several New York Yankees publications.