ST. PETERSBURG — Vegan bowls, grilled vegetable sandwiches and salted edamame are among the new eats being offered at Tropicana Field when the Tampa Bay Rays open their season Thursday against the Houston Astros.
And there’s no need for meat lovers to stew: Stadium chefs will be smoking ribs on site, bagging up mesquite-dusted pork rinds and serving bacon cheddar burgers with fried onions and whiskey barbecue sauce.
Some of these new offerings will be available in a couple of indoor restaurants four hours before each game, when the parking lots open for tailgaters.
Several local restaurants have partnered with the Rays this season to provide a menu featuring fried fish, coconut shrimp and gourmet ice cream sandwiches.
We were invited Monday to sample some of the new menu items and to see the changes made to the stadium during the off-season. The modifications are part of a two-year, $15-million renovation that includes new turf, new hospitality areas and new entrances.
A new first-floor, full-service restaurant called the Outfielder Bar & Grill is opening in the location of the former Everglades Brewhouse. Some of the menu items were developed by chefs at Urban Brew and BBQ on St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue.
In an attempt to be a more fan-friendly destination, the Outfielder Bar & Grill and the upstairs Ballpark & Rec indoor-outdoor space will open four hours before games and are accessible directly from the parking lot.
“You can come here for a pregame tailgate and they’ll have great promotions for beer, food and alcohol,” said Bill Walsh, vice president of strategy and development for the Rays.
American Freedom, a local bourbon distillery owned and operated by former Green Berets, will be pouring its signature bourbon at the ballpark. Each bottle is stamped with a piece of steel from the World Trade Center twin towers destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Chef Javier Delgado with the Levy group (the Rays’ concessionaire, hired last year to replace Centerplate) said he’s most excited about the chicken satays to be served this season at the Lead Off Wok in the third base concourse.
He pointed out that it’s easy to handle a satay in one hand and a beer in the other.
“We wanted to do what really pushes the envelope and raises the expectations of what people think of ballpark food,” said chef Mike Malone, also with Levy.
Southern Fried, a new restaurant on the centerfield street level, is ready to serve up hand-battered chicken tenders and bourbon bread pudding with ice cream.
Other new restaurant partnerships include that with Beachside Hospitality Group, operators of Salty’s Island Bar & Grill, Crabby’s Bar & Grill and Crabby’s Dockside. On Monday, the group was serving coconut shrimp that will be available at Beachside Bites in the First Base Food Hall. Pacific Counter on Central Avenue will offer its edamame and sushi bowls from Beachside Bites on the First Base Food Hall. Also new: Fried grouper sandwiches by the Hunger Thirst Group can be purchased on the Budweiser Porch in centerfield.
The Draft Room for season ticket holders will have a few new features as well, including lower “fan-friendly” prices on regular fare like hot dogs and an Italian-themed concession.
Tampa Bay’s Kahwa Coffee Roasters is bringing iced coffee to its existing offerings on the first floor of the stadium. And at Sweet Stack Shack, opening at the new Gate 5 near 16th Street, fans can make their own ice cream sandwiches.
Beach Drive, the location for foods by Beach Drive restaurants Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach and the Hangar, is still open this season, along with several breweries selling local craft beers.
While the Rays won’t be moving to Ybor City anytime soon, team officials decided to take some of the options from the proposed new stadium and implement them in the existing indoor ballpark. On Monday, crews were still installing ‘patio’ boxes and tables in an area called the Left Field Ledge. The new seating is in formerly tarp-covered area made unusable after last year’s construction of the walkway around the field. The tables of four are available to purchase for a package of games or, for larger groups, single games.
“It’s kind of a premium-meets-social seating idea,” Walsh said.
The new Gate 5 was created in a former concession area to ease some of the congestion before and after games.
“Hopefully it gets people in and around the ball field quicker,” Walsh said. The new premium entrance at nearby Gate 4 also has been renovated with new floors and large artwork featuring Rays players being doused with ice after walk-off homers.
“This is the best Tropicana Field has ever looked,” Walsh said.