ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays may have set their sights on moving to Tampa, but this season the team is doubling down on the good eats available in their current hometown.
When the team starts celebrating its 20th anniversary season Thursday afternoon against the Boston Red Sox, fans in sold-out Tropicana Field will run a tasty new gauntlet of smothered, melty, piled-high menu options from St. Petersburg restaurants.
Locals who visit the new First Base Food Hall will recognize The Avenue's sliders, King's Street Food Counter's pork-filled "mac & cheesus" melt and the crispy firecracker shrimp from St. Pete Beach's RumFish Grill.
Beach Drive is the name of a new stadium concessionaire concept that will feature menu items from local spots Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach and the Hangar. They will join St. Petersburg's Urban Comfort, which brought its fried chicken and buttery biscuits to the Trop last season. The craft beer lineup now includes St. Petersburg breweries 3 Daughters, Cycle Brewing and St. Pete Brewing Co.
Fans will also be able to sip nitro cold brew from the newest outpost of St. Petersburg's homegrown Kahwa coffee brand in the concourse and play giant beer pong using trash cans instead of Solo cups on the huge, outdoor party deck overlooking downtown.
That new deck is part of Ballpark & Rec, a spin-off from the nearby Park & Rec bar. That indoor-outdoor space — with ski-ball and arcade machines, a sleek bar and metal bleachers to match the vibe of the original — was the biggest jaw-dropper during Tuesday's unveiling of the Trop's upgrades to the media.
They've managed to squeeze even more St. Pete inside the dome: The urban murals that have come to define the city's streets made their way indoors. Fans will be greeted by billboard-sized signage by artist Chad Mize at the First Base Food Hall; shop for T-shirts and ballcaps in Rays Republic, the Trop's remodeled, re-branded retail store beneath a 25-foot-tall mural by local artist Derek Donnelly; and enter the outfield stands through a walkway bearing a Rays sunburst mural by ubiquitous downtown street artist Ya La'ford.
"Not just the food, but the whole experience should give fans a taste of the best of Tampa Bay," team vice president of strategy and development William Walsh said. "We instantly thought of some of the great, local artists."
I'm at Tropicana Field seeing what's new. Here's Ballpark & Rec, a spinoff of Park & Rec in dtsp. pic.twitter.com/F3xHwXZUoI
The upgrades are all part of a $7 million investment the Rays made in Tropicana Field during the offseason. Most of that went to improving the food and retail options, Walsh said.
The Rays are also turning the page on a messy (and moldy) breakup with Centerplate, their concessions operator for almost two decades. In December the team sued the concessionaire in federal court, alleging that Centerplate failed to pay the team its fair share of revenue, that inspectors found black mold, insects, poor hygiene and financial practices and left behind a "sad history" of failing to provide "first-class" service.
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The lawsuit said Centerplate also hired a sex offender, sold beer in violation of zoning laws and its CEO was captured on video kicking a dog.
Artwork by Derek Donnelly, Ya La Ford and Chad Mize is among the new additions to the Trop for the Rays 2018 season. pic.twitter.com/18sdCHlmLV
The Rays' new concessionaire is Levy, a Chicago company that handles concessions for Wrigley Field, Marlins Park, Dodger Stadium and dozens of other professional franchises across sports. Levy has "completely remade" the Trop's food options and operations, Walsh said.
Levy has also produced some original menu items for fans: a hybrid Reuben Cuban sandwich, which features some of the requisite ingredients for both, pressed on Cuban bread, with a hot dog inexplicably embedded in the middle (the Trop will also serve a traditional Cuban with a Tampa-centric slice of salami). There's also the Central Burger, which includes both chorizo and Lays potato chips piled onto a brisket and chuck beef patty, and the pulled pork slaw dog, which is self-explanatory.
Central Burger with Lays chips and chorizo, outlaw sliders by The Avenue, spicy chicken sandwich and a hot dog with pork and slaw. All new stuff at the Trop for Rays 2018 season. pic.twitter.com/wtdUSqU03V
The crowd favorite during Tuesday's tour, though, may have been this: a spicy fried chicken thigh coated in a honey-sweet-with-a-little-heat sauce and fat pickle slices served on a Martin's potato roll.
The best pun: the new Rocco Ball Deli, named for Rays player-turned-coach and Rhode Island Italian American Hall of Famer Rocco Baldelli. That cart will serve meatball subs and two types of salads, "to support the healthy lifestyle as Rocco would want it," Walsh said.
New digital touchscreens, where fans can order without talking to anyone, will hopefully reduce lines on the Budweiser Porch, as could new fountain drink stations where, for the first time, fans can get their own refills. Communal tables and reclaimed barn wood accents give it a "homier" feel.
Levy's head chef for the region, John Nicely, said the company also worked with the Rays to make changes behind the scenes to serve fresher food. More items will be prepared in the concession stands themselves, rather than making them in the central kitchen and carting them all over.
"That was one of the first things we asked for in our design process, new fryers, new ovens, things like that," he said. "To make great food, you need the right equipment. You're going to taste it."
One of the restaurants that won't be back is Ducky's, the local outpost of the Tampa restaurant owned in part by former Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who was traded to the San Francisco Giants in December.
Contact Christopher Spata at email@example.com. Follow @SpataTimes.