Stadium Eating: Can the Food Inside the Verizon Center Compete with the Food Around It?
Verizon Center executive chef Kevin Holler shows up to every game in uniform. With his chef whites and an absurdly tall toque above his 6 foot 1 inch frame, his height rivals that of the Washington Wizards players on the court. Holler roams around the 200 level, or Club Level, of the stadium like it’s his own personal bistro, greeting employees and guests. In a way, it is: He oversees the Club Level’s four themed concession stands and a full-service restaurant. On a busy night, he and his 60-cook team could serve 5,000 or 6,000 people.
“I have an à la carte menu that I think competes with some of the best restaurants in the city,” Holler says as we begin our tour of the stadium’s eateries.
Those are bold words in an establishment where “gourmet” more often means mustard instead of ketchup on your hot dog. But as Chinatown’s dining scene grows with new and better restaurants, the Verizon Center is trying hard to compete. Yes, you can still get a hot dog and a Bud Light. But now, you can also get a lobster roll with beers from local craft breweries like Old Dominion Brewing Company and Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company.
It’s jarring to see a chef roaming the concessions. In an arena, “in-season” typically has more to do with who’s on the court than what’s on the plate. But in the year since Holler came on board, the stadium has sought to be even more restaurant-like, in part by emphasizing Holler’s role in designing its food. Holler has integrated more ingredients from local farms and bakeries, added regional dishes like crab cakes and wings with D.C.’s signature condiment, mumbo sauce, and created a daily menu and “chef’s table” at the Acela Club restaurant.
The Verizon Center is also opening up its food offerings to a wider audience. As of October, the Club Level is accessible to people throughout the arena, not just season ticket holders. In addition, anyone can now access the Acela Club, which was previously limited to members only, with a $15 day pass. According to Levy Restaurants Director of Operations Kevin Hill, who helps oversee the Verizon Center’s food service, the change is aimed at getting more people to try the revamped eating options, and in turn, improve their overall experience.
“The days of just doing hot dogs and beer, those businesses are dying. Those are the arenas that are closing,” Holler says. “It’s almost expected now. You come to an arena and there better be something better than hot dogs and beer.”
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Concessions have already gotten an upgrade at Nationals Park. In 2011, the venue brought in four concepts from renowned New York restaurateur Danny Meyer—Box Frites, Blue Smoke, El Verano Taqueria, and Shake Shack. But people tend to have low expectations for stadium food, and Holler, who’s been cooking in sports venues throughout his career, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about it. He points out that diners wouldn’t be surprised to find a lobster roll on a restaurant’s menu. But at a stadium? That might raise eyebrows. “They think that it’s frozen or there’s not real cooks here,” he says. They don’t realize those cooks do things like smoke their own brisket for 12 hours. “It’s easy for the guy down the street to do it. But to feed a thousand people? It takes some skill.”
It’s a skill Holler has honed in his 23 years working for Levy, which provides food service for sports and entertainment centers around the country, including the Verizon Center and Nationals Park. The Pittsburgh native started culinary school with ambitions of opening a gourmet doughnut shop, but instead of becoming a pastry chef, he went straight to work for Levy. Among his roles, Holler was part of a 16-chef Levy squadron at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Before coming to the Verizon Center, he spent two years overseeing the food for the Kentucky Derby and surrounding equestrian events.
This isn’t Holler’s first time cooking at the Verizon Center, either. He helped open the place in 1997 as a sous chef. Back then, he recalls, there wasn’t much competition to satisfy sports fans’ appetites in the neighborhood. The shops that now stand down the block were no more than a parking lot. “We had the Chinese restaurants, but there wasn’t much personality after that,” Holler says.
Today, the surrounding blocks have a variety of food options: high-end Proof and Jaleo, midrange options like Matchbox and Ping Pong Dim Sum, and fast-casual spots like Chipotle and Chop’t. Development is quickly moving east, with the arrival of Graffiato, Fuel Pizza, and soon-to-open ramen and izakaya spot Daikaya. Yo! Sushi, Del Campo, and Chicago-based Townhouse Restaurant & Wine Bar are also on the way. Not to mention the construction happening at City Center, which will make the area even more of a dining destination.
But Holler doesn’t want the Verizon Center to be the place you come after dinner; he wants it to be the place you come for dinner. Over the past year, he’s been gradually making changes at the Club Level’s four concessions: Nothin But Net, BBQ Pit, Zona, and Hill Grill. BBQ Pit now offers vegan options like the “Sloppy Jane” made with tempeh. Hill Grill uses brioche buns from D.C.-based Lyon Bakery. And this week, with the Washington Capitals season finally starting, Holler is rolling out a crab cake, “crab shack” fries with Old Bay, and a lobster roll at Nothin But Net. (The name previously refered only to a basketball net, but Holler now uses it to refer to a fisherman’s net.) The Club Level also occasionally has “action stations,” where chefs prepare dishes ranging from shrimp scampi to “build your own sausages” in front of customers. It’s the stadium chef’s version of a daily special.
The food Holler really thinks should rival surrounding restaurants, though, is at the Acela Club. (Yes, Amtrak sponsors it.) “This is where I flex my muscle as a chef,” Holler says. He tells me he’s added five to eight cooks to be able to make his own marinades, smoke his own meats, and compose more labor-intensive dishes.
In the Acela Club, Holler has introduced a “chef’s table,” which is actually a glorified buffet, rather than the kitchen-side tasting menu that phrase usually describes. “We think the ‘buffet’ is kind of cheesy,” Holler says. “But ‘chef’s table,’ that’s my food, that’s my menu … You’re in my living room.”
This is not Fiola or Proof, to be sure, but the five-table spread ($39.95) looks better than your average buffet, with charcuterie, farfalle pasta salad, slow-roasted beef brisket (carved in front of you), lamb cassoulet with cannellini beans, and a whole dessert table. The “chef’s table” menu changes daily—something Holler is able to do because of his large kitchen staff. He doesn’t want season ticket holders to get bored. There’s also an à la carte menu broken down by “land” and “sea” as well as appetizers (like the mumbo sauce wings), salads, and desserts.
Sometimes the “chef’s table” food ties into the team playing. When the Atlanta Hawks came a few weeks ago, Holler integrated peaches throughout the menu. For the Brooklyn Nets, he offered build-your-own Reubens. And during a hockey game before the Super Bowl last year, Holler assembled an entire table of New York food with black and white cookies and thin-crust pizza, plus an entire table of New England food with seafood chowder and lobster mac and cheese.
While you can still spot giant Sysco cans in the kitchen, Holler is keen on playing up the “house-made,” “local” food he’s trying to incorporate—just like every other hot new restaurant in town. He estimates that about a quarter of the food at his “chef’s table” incorporates local ingredients, depending on the season. In the future, Holler would like to serve local crabs and oysters. He also envisions bringing in local farmers to talk about their livelihoods and showcase their products, with wine pairings.
“I have to stand up, excuse me,” Holler says, abruptly, as we sit in the white tableclothed dining room. The National Anthem has started. With all the food, I’d started to forget there actually was a Wizards game about to begin.
As soon as the song finishes, Holler breaks right back into the conversation: “We can’t have a winning team every year. We can’t go to the playoffs every year. It’d be great to play the Lakers every game,” he says. “The restaurants around here, they have the advantage of having that market outside of the arena. Well, we have to work twice as hard to get people to go, ‘You know what? Come to the arena. You can have a great meal here.’”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery