Madison Square Garden Brings Gourmet to its Concession Stands


Chef Andrew Carmellini is set to bring gourmet to concession stands in Madison Square Garden (after its reopening in October.)  With restaurants like the Dutch and the Locanda Verde on his CV, the upscale food he will bring to Madison Square Garden, in all of their concession stand glory, is sure to wow.

After being closed for 20 weeks, Madison Square Garden is about to unveil its new upgraded carte du jour as part of a six-year, $850 million refurbishment.

Sausage Boss by Andrew Carmellini is one of four new concessions that high-end restaurateurs have created to serve mainstream food at the 43-year-old arena. Jean-Georges Vongerichten will offer Simply Chicken, Drew Nieporent will serve up burgers at Daily Burger and Jeremy Marshall of Aquagrill will open Lobster and Shrimp Roll, which pretty much describes his fare.

Also coming will be pastrami, corned beef and knishes from the Carnegie Deli; chopped brisket — and hand-carved prime rib — sandwiches from Hill Country; kosher food from Carlos & Gabby’s; a gluten-free concession; and desserts from Magnolia Bakery (home of fabulous cupcakes).

“We are quite passionate about the food,” said Hank J. Ratner, the arena’s president.

The new menu board won’t be available until November, he said, because of construction, but Mr. Ratner promises 50 percent more concessions by the end of the multiyear arena revamping in 2013, as well as 40 percent more restrooms at New York’s venerable, noisy, often controversial and still beloved sports mecca.

When the Garden opens its doors October 22 after the first of three summer renovation shutdowns, fans will be presented not only with the replacement of more than half its seats but also a transformation in its culinary philosophy.

“Since the whole world is changing, given the appreciation of better food,” Mr. Vongerichten said, “why wouldn’t people want wonderful food in an arena?” The inspiration for Mr. Vongerichten’s concession arose at the Atlanta airport, more than a year ago, as he noticed a line at a Wendy’s. He spontaneously decided to join it, and when a woman in front of him ordered a chicken sandwich he followed suit. “I’d never had it; it was delicious, and it opened up something in my head.”

Mr. Vongerichten’s version, however, will have a tad more under the hood: organic chicken marinated in rosemary and olive oil, and spicy mayonnaise with the Asian chile sauce sambal oelek and quickly brined pickles.

Mr. Nieporent’s burgers will use a Pat LaFrieda blend of short rib, brisket and Angus beef that will be grilled, not griddled, “for the flavor the fire imparts,” Mr. Nieporent said.

Mr. Marshall will be adding wild Pacific Ocean shrimp to his Aquagrill lobster roll “for the texture,” he said, “which ramps it up to a different level.”

Mr. Nieporent, an owner of Nobu and Corton, has operated the Acela Club at Citi Field for two years. But to Mr. Vongerichten, “an arena is new territory for us,” he said. “It will be a great learning curve. But there’s nothing that unusual about sophisticated food in a casual place. The quality is important — white tablecloth, or an arena. Good is good.”

Mr. Vongerichten will also be doing a menu for the Garden suites — “six or seven dishes from Spice Market, ABC and others,” he said of his restaurants.

The thought of “arena food” has long been able to set off the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. Nevertheless — as in airports, country clubs, stadiums and even sports bars — sophistication has been eroding the arena’s grand tradition of culinary ineptitude.

“There are fewer arena greasy spoons, because over time the general evolution has been upward,” said Malcolm M. Knapp, a Manhattan restaurant consultant. “Even ordinary hot dogs and popcorn just have to be better.”

Beyond that, the Garden is attempting to shrink the annoyance threshold as well. Instead of the lines that baseball fans endure at that Lobel sliced-steak cart at Yankee Stadium, or at the Citi Field Shake Shack, which can cost two innings per ShackBurger, Garden customers will find two dozen high-end food outlets over 10 floors of the cavernous bowl with its 19,763 basketball seats.

Mr. Vongerichten will sprinkle six concessions throughout the arena. Mr. Carmellini will have five, as will Mr. Nieporent; Mr. Marshall will have two. Some will be in the topmost section.

The dispiriting warren of walls and claustrophobic corridors is being peeled back to create wider concourses, some with window city views and many with “party decks,” where “you can stand and eat and see the game and not be in a suite,” Mr. Ratner said.

Ultimately the transformation — which has employed 1,200 to 2,000 workers this summer around the clock — will offer upgraded suites, party-deck concession areas and scoreboards, as well as a new Seventh Avenue lobby and two pedestrian bridges spanning the arena to join seating areas.

The Garden is being renovated without state or city subsidies, although it will continue to benefit from its longtime property tax exemption. To pay for the work, the Garden has said that the cost of Knicks season tickets will jump an average 49 percent, and Rangers seats will go up by 23 percent. Twenty new courtside-access suites (fitted with bathrooms and fireplaces) have a yearly rental fee of about $1 million each; all are spoken for. Their food spectrum will be drawn from Mr. Vongerichten’s suite menu and the other upscale concessionaires.

When the arena closed last April, hot dogs already cost $5.75, eight-inch individual pizzas $7.50 and popcorn $5.50. The Garden will not disclose the new food prices, but some concessionaires have advocated holding the line at about $10 for the fanciest sandwiches and burgers. Mr. Ratner said only that “we haven’t priced out the menu items yet.” Will the cost escalate like the seat prices? “We hope to have price points to reflect all tastes,” Mr. Ratner said.

Is it possible that the Garden, in offering food that fans might actually want to eat, is responding to the overhang of ticketholder resentment for years of disappointing play and periodic team-management dysfunction?

Mr. Ratner said only that excellent food in an excellent Garden was his priority. Mr. Knapp ventured that the new Garden offerings “weren’t a sop to sports fans; they are there to make more money, they are running a business, and they have to upgrade like the Mets and the Yankees did.”

The new menus share a home-cooked genesis: all the new high-end concessionaires are Garden habitués. Phil Suarez, Mr. Vongerichten’s partner for 24 years, has been a Knicks season ticketholder since 1969. Mr. Suarez was captain of the George Washington High School basketball team in the 1950s when it played in the old Madison Square Garden on 50th Street. “It’s almost as if I’d been brought up at the Garden,” he said. Mr. Vongerichten has been a frequent guest of Mr. Suarez and “he made me a Knicks fan,” the chef said.

Mr. Carmellini said he is a Knicks and concert devotee, and Mr. Marshall is a Rangers season-ticketholder who attends “35 Ranger games a year.”

Mr. Nieporent, who has also been a hockey season-ticketholder, said he has “lived in the Garden,” one of the reasons that “I wanted to put up a culinary flag there,” he said of his first burger stand.

Why? “It’s the Garden,” he said.

Source: NY Times

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