"A hot dog just tastes better with a ballgame in front of it."
-- Charlie Brown
Good grief: Charlie, the ol' blockhead, just may have been on to something. I mean, what else can account for the kind of dollars we've thrown at concessionaires over the years? Four bucks for a pork/chicken/beef/godknowswhat frankfurter -- boiled. Five bucks for a cheeseburger with the textural consistency of masking tape, the same for 20-odd Tostitos with a side of processed cheese goop.
Well, having a captive audience helps. If you're inside, say, Bank of America Stadium and you failed to properly gorge yourself at the pre-game tailgate party, you're going to need an act of God or a plane airdrop to sate yourself if you decide not to go the concession stand route. You definitely make concessions when you eat at a sports or entertainment event: I'm hungry, and you have what purports to be food.
In partnership with Charlotte food consultant John Sergi, Levy Restaurants and the Compass Group, the arena first polled area fans about what they'd like to see sold in the new uptown digs.
Not surprisingly, hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza -- along with lots and lots of ice cold beer -- were high up on the list. However, Sergi and Co. helped devise a menu that also manages to add a little bit of area flavor to the offerings.
So how is the food? The Charlotte Big Dawg, a Nathan's all-beef frank that is char-grilled and served on a toasted bun, is as tasty as anything you might find at area hot-dog establishments or diners. The Bobcats Burger isn't quite as impressive, though it is available with a number of Southern-style sides, including chili, slaw, mustard and onion. The Bojangles chicken tasted like. . . well, Bojangles chicken. Save your money for a nice grilled bratwurst with onions and peppers or the arena's signature barbecue sandwich instead -- real 'cue, with slaw and pickles on a nice soft bun.
Beverage-wise, you can order just about anything your heart desires; what's more, you'll probably get it. Sure, Bud and Miller still flow abundantly, but plenty of premium offerings are available, too: Heineken, Bass Ale, Newcastle and most anything liquor-related you can dream up. (Yes, liquor! Were George Shinn the businessman Bob Johnson is, he would have seen that $8 for a single and $16 for a double = A Whole Hell of a Lot of Profit, as bars know all too well.). Save that $6.50 you had earmarked for a souvenir cup of swill and knock back a Johnnie Walker Black instead. You'll not only feel smarter, but more sophisticated besides. Of course, you'll be poorer, too.
Those whose tastes run more towards the non-alcoholic end of the spectrum have plentiful options beyond just Coke, Dr Pepper, Fanta and Sprite. Real ice tea -- either sweetened or unsweetened -- is available, as is Arnold Palmers (a mix of tea and lemonade, for you newly minted Charlotteans and staunch golf haters).
The Autumn's other winner for on-site concessions (without concessions) is the Carolina Renaissance Festival. While the Fest's events are usually worth the price of admission anyway, I try and make the trip at least once a year to sample the pretty decent grub in a pleasant, outdoorsy atmosphere (also, it's interesting to see all my Dungeons and Dragons pals from fifth grade again). In addition to those famed oversized turkey legs, "steak-on-a-stake" (otherwise known as a shish kabob) and bread-bowls of tasty beef stew, the RenFest folks have also expanded their offerings to cater to Ye Olde Starbuckes crowd, with coffees, teas, chai, mochas, lattes and Italian sodas via the Cappuccino Inn. Plus, there's a full-scale "Monk's Bakery" (pastries, pies, scones, muffins, slices of layer cake), a "Stone Hearth" jerky shop (incidentally, one of the few foods offered that was actually enjoyed in Renaissance times), a chocolate shop, and something called the Tudor Rose, which boasts health-conscious choices such as veggie wraps and Caesar salads.
Mind you, the big sellers -- and, to this writer's tastes, the best values -- are the old standbys at Lancers and The King's Kitchen: fish 'n' chips, roast corn, Scotch eggs, the beef stew, and, rather surprisingly, the pizza. All are affordable, plentiful and -- with the added sauce of late fall, sunshine and a healthy, exercise-fueled appetite -- pretty damn tasty to boot.
Closer cousins, foodwise, to the French Quarter than the French Laundry, both the RenFest and the Bobcats realize that a truly entertaining evening out can somewhat overcome mediocre concession-stand offerings. Thankfully, both have also realized that offering a few more appetizing alternatives can only enhance the overall experience for all involved.
Timothy C. Davis is a correspondent for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor and the food website egullet.com. He expects Ye Olde Charlotte Bobcats to finish with 34 vyctories.