A walk in the park

There was a time when eating at the ballpark meant peanuts, Cracker Jack, hot dogs and beer — and little else. Now, you can get almost anything you want at Ilitch's restaurant.

Sportservice, a subsidiary of Delaware North Companies, handles the food operations at Comerica, as it does at many major sports arenas. But the menu, according to manager Greg Read, relates to local tastes. And our tastes are apparently less refined than those at San Francisco's AT&T Park, where they serve eggplant paninis along with Barry's homers or those at Boston's Fenway where Legal Seafood's clam chowder is a culinary hit.

First some ground rules. You can bring your own food into Comerica, along with a sealed water bottle, but coolers are not permitted. This means that you may purchase a brown-paper bag stuffed with peanuts (unsalted available) for $1 from the vendor north of the expressway on Woodward and bring it into the stadium where a somewhat larger bag (salted only) goes for $4.

The most difficult problem in reviewing or even identifying the vast array of Comerica comestibles is that the Tigers provide no food and price guide or concession map. This means that only serendipity will lead you to discover the tiny, obscure stand on the first level that offers sushi ($8), hummus with pita ($8) and fruit cup ($6). Apparently, the Tigers planned on serendipity. They want you to wander around the stadium, even while the game is going on, discovering haphazardly arranged food or entertainment destinations in every section on every level.

This most bizarre scene I recently witnessed involved a group of teenage boys waiting in line to play video baseball games on a ramp from where they could hear a real crowd roar but could not see what was happening on the field. And it's not just the younger generation — I also found a crowd of men sipping beer at wooden tables in the artifact-laden Tiger Beer Hall watching the game on television. Of course, the ultimate diversions for kids — and their accompanying parents — are the carousel in the center of the Big Cat Food Court and the Ferris wheel adjacent to the Brushfire Grill.

OK, it made some sense not to watch the Bengals over the past decade, but this year there is no excuse for missing a minute of the action on the field.

The longest lines at the aforementioned Big Cat Food Court are inevitably in front of the Chicago- ($4) and Coney-style hot dog concession. The lines are a result of the labor-intensive preparations needed to create those specialty red hots. Long lines also await those who must have an individualized, multicolored daiquiri ($7.50) in a foot-long plastic glass. True daiquiri fanciers may find them a bit sweet, however.

Shorter lines obtain at the Tiger Den concession that constructs gyros ($7), Philly cheese steaks ($7) and chicken Caesar salads ($8.50). The cheese steak, with its sweet onions and red peppers, is preferable to the gyro with its silky yogurt dressing but dry thin slabs of lamb, and the Caesar, which offers a good number of chicken chunks and admirably crisp greens but comes with soggy croutons and a lame dressing. None of the above, which need a knife, fork and plenty of napkins, can be eaten very gracefully while sitting in the stands. Among the predictable kid food in the Den are corn dogs ($3.50) and elephant ears ($4).

The most popular item sold at the park is Little Caesars pizza, with the best deal the multi-item combo priced the same as the plain pie at $13.50. As with Ilitch's pizza concession stands, Ballpark hot dog stands are sprinkled throughout the park with the traditional grilled dog ($3.25) blander than the kielbasa ($5). Legendary Tiger Stadium Pelican Mustard, alas, has been replaced by French's. Hebrew National frankfurters, Italian sausages and knockwurst are available at somewhat fewer venues. Bear in mind that the Ballparks sold by those hard-working vendors in the stands are steamed and not grilled.

Another dining option is the picnic-table-lined Brushfire Grill, where $8.50 will score a basket of two hot dogs or a hamburger or a turkey leg, along with chips, slaw and pickles, but no view of Pudge or Maglio. Or, if you're interested in barbecue, there is the Montgomery Inn out in center field, from where, at least, you can still follow the game live, albeit at quite a distance.

Teetotalers and youth can wash all of this down with lemonade, soft drinks and water ($3.50), while a wide variety of beer is on sale throughout the park at $6 for 18 ounces and $8 for 24. Wine, however, is clearly an afterthought, available only at three stations, with $6.50 buying about 6 ounces of vin ordinaire from the cellars of Vendange, Copperidge and Gallo at the bar on the third level.

And for dessert, young folk line up for Dippin' Dots, a small cup of tiny pebbles of cryogenically frozen ice cream, somewhat overpriced at $5. But a high price for food and drink is what we expect at a ballpark, where a good deal of the revenue to pay our heroes comes from those markups. Consumer Reports estimates that ballpark food is priced from three to seven times the cost of the ingredients you can buy at a supermarket.

On the other side of the ledger, the Tigers do employ volunteers behind some refreshment stands who work for community charities.

Whatever the inflated cost, much of the mundane food, particularly the hot dogs and the pizza, does taste better at the ballpark than it would at a restaurant or even in your own back yard. And it has rarely tasted better than this year as the thrill-an-inning Tigers "go get 'em."

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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