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BOBilicious!

Friday's Front Row Sports Grill in Bank One Ball Park offers fans an opportunity to enjoy the game while dining restaurant-style.
Erik Guzowski

It's late May, and there are 52 home games remaining in the Arizona Diamondbacks season at Bank One Ballpark. That's a lot of baseball. That's also potentially a lot of hours spent driving in circles and a lot of money wasted for sports fans unfamiliar with the best way to navigate the behemoth BOB experience.

There's the parking challenge -- almost 60 lots beckon nearby, with prices varying widely. There's finding where to eat and drink, both inside and outside the ballpark. And there's the question of tickets -- when BOB opened in 1998, folks snapped up season passes just to guarantee a seat at a few games.

The good news for fair-weather fans is that the bloom is off BOB -- attendance has dropped every year since the ballpark first opened its retractable roof. While that's not good for Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, for fans it means greater parking and seating availability. The slowdown also means that BOB management finally has taken notice of an important factor in the ballpark experience: the food.

This season, BOB's food service is under new management: Levy Restaurants, known for its four-star eateries such as Spiaggia in Chicago, restaurants for Walt Disney Company, and its management of food services for 32 sports stadiums nationwide (including Wrigley Field, Arlington Park and L.A.'s Staples Center). Manning BOB is a new executive chef, Dennis Borders, formerly of food services for Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago. Borders has raised the park's minimum standards for food purveyors, he says, and has retrained staff, down to concessionaires, on how to properly cook and store food until serving.

This year also marks the opening of several noteworthy dining choices outside the ballpark -- including a few that make venturing downtown worthwhile on non-game days.

Even fans with the skinniest wallets can find new choices inside BOB. Here's a guide for each level of experience, from frugal to flush.

The Cheap Seats:

Parking: Driving into downtown pre-game is a roadside blizzard of orange flags, with sweaty workers flapping and whirling like windsocks in a monsoon. Most close-in parking prices hover around $8 to $10. But keep driving south, to Lincoln Street. Here's a bargain paradise, and it's just three blocks from BOB's main entrance. Several lots between Second and Seventh streets charge $5, including the Tee Pee Tap Room Mexican restaurant, with a $5 park-and-shuttle service from its restaurant on the northwest corner of Seventh Street. The juiciest deal, though, is the lot serving the Phoenix Elementary School District's offices at Second Street -- and your $3 fee supports the organization.

Outside Eating/Drinking: A $2 hot dog, loaded. A $1 16-ounce bottle of ice water. A sack of peanuts, sunflower seeds or Red Ropes for another buck. Snacks outside cost almost a third less than they do inside. Vendors line the sidewalks all around the park, and, yes, it's legal to bring food and drink into the park. The rules: Coolers and lunch bags must be able to fit under a seat, a space 10 inches high, 16 inches wide and 13 inches deep. You're not allowed to bring in your own alcohol, however; the only liquids you can bring with you are sealed bottles of water or sealed juice boxes.

For my money, though, I'll show up early, and dine at one of the quality restaurants on the park's perimeter (operating hours vary, but all restaurants included here are open pre-game). Bombay Grill at 27 West Van Buren is a great choice for topnotch Indian food, with most plates priced under $10. Shrimp vindaloo is a favorite, the jumbo shrimp cooked with potatoes and chile peppers in a vibrant, spicy sauce.

Chary's Place is another ethnic gem -- just look for the mural of the Cuban seascape on the west side of the building at 20 West Adams. The painting portends authentic Cuban food cooked by real Cubans in an upbeat, colorful setting. Entrees average about $10, including a delectable picadillo habanero, lean ground beef blended with raisins, potatoes, stuffed olives and zippy spices.

The totally hip will get a kick out of MonRoe's Food & Fine Spirits. Seek out a small door at 3 West Monroe, saunter down weathered wooden stairs, and find a dark, cozy bar that on most nights rocks with live acoustic blues bands. A hefty menu features better-than-average bar sandwiches, burgers, big salads and specialties like green-chile stew, onion soup topped with garlic toast and provolone, pot roast, meatloaf with mushroom gravy, and fish and chips, almost all for less than $6.

Or, stay close to the action with Karim's Cobbler Shop & Deli at 333 East Jefferson, right next door to BOB's main entry. You can't spend more than $8 here, for a three-piece catfish plate brilliant with jumbo slabs served moist and mild in crisp cornmeal, along with fat fries and wheat toast. A barbecued-beef sandwich is another filling choice, mounded on an onion roll with lots of thick, sweet sauce. Great gumbo, red beans and rice, and fantastic homemade fruit cobbler, too. And check out the game-day special: a quarter-pound Vienna beef hot dog, chips and a 24-ounce water for just $3.95.

 

Fans on a budget should forget about cocktailing inside BOB. A large Coors, $6.50, cash only, is pretty steep. Or $5 for a gin and tonic at the premium cocktail booth? A wine cooler for $5.50? It's better to loosen up with $2.25 beers and stiff, $2.75 Greyhounds at King's Cocktail Lounge, a seedy looking but friendly neighborhood bar at 434 North Central. Be sure to ask Annie, the affable bartender, about the history of Henry the Tilapia Fish. The bar's mascot has been swimming in a tank along the back wall since it was plucked from a pond at Encanto Park.

Inside Eating: Snag a kids' meal from one of the Grandstand Grill concessions -- you can't beat $3.25 for chicken nuggets, a hot dog or a corn dog with fries, a soft drink and a toy. A 20-ounce iced cappuccino is a tasty splurge, sold for $5 at Big Train Blended Ice Coffees next to section 106. The Hungry Hill "Sangwich" stands are worth a visit, too -- $5 is a fine price to pay for homemade meatball, Polish sausage and grilled onion, bratwurst with sauerkraut, or hot Italian beef with au jus, peppers and onions. These sandwiches take two hands to hold, and an empty stomach to finish.

Tickets: Fans with more time than money can line up two hours before a game and snag one of 350 $1 seats. But you get what you pay for -- these nosebleeders hang off the top row of the stadium, on the farthest edge of the deepest foul lines. Instead, we sauntered up to the ticketing booths as the national anthem burst forth, waited in line maybe five minutes, and walked away with closer-in deep-foul-line seats for $6. These are still in high-altitude country -- lean too far forward in your seat and it feels like you'll be tumbling into the outfield -- but the view isn't bad.

Avoid the $11 picnic area seats, though -- the view is decent, but these metal benches and tables are uncomfortable, forcing fans to sit sideways.

An important note: Sometimes planning ahead doesn't pay. Fans ordering tickets by phone face a $1.25-$2.50 service charge per ticket and a $2.50 transaction fee. Online ordering is even pricier -- incurring a service charge of $2-$3 per ticket, plus a $1.75 per game service charge.

Mid-Range Mania:

Parking: BOB's Right Field Garage is worth its $8 tariff, located right next door, on Jefferson between Seventh and Ninth streets. Spaces are covered, and access is easy -- take the stairs down the back and you find yourself under the 7th Street overpass, just steps away from the park's entry doors.

Outside Eating/Drinking: For a bit more sophistication in sports, just think "S." Seamus McCaffrey's Irish Pub & Restaurant, Sports City Grill, and Steve's Grill are excellent picks for game-day gorging. Irish cuisine rules at Seamus McCaffrey's, 18 West Monroe, including a dizzying selection of Irish beers and whiskeys. The place is gorgeous -- dark and clubby, with a green marbled bar. The food is dynamite, featuring corned beef and cabbage, steak-and-mushroom pie, boxty (stuffed potato pancake) and shepherd's pie.

Sports City Grill opened last year, and it's a welcome addition, quiet in weathered brick, cool concrete floors and mirrors, plus an upstairs Sky Lounge with a retractable roof. Check out the spicy blackened swordfish and garlic/herb-massaged filet sliders, barbecued pork ribs and long list of sandwiches and burgers.

And there are no chemicals, and no frozen or processed foods, used at Steve's Grill, 139 East Adams. Instead, fans can feast on homemade soups, Maryland crab cakes with chipotle rémoulade, an ostrich burger, New York strip steak, and pasta with basil cream, chicken and pine nuts. Park yourself on a huge patio, and groove to live jazz.

Inside Eating: Levy Restaurants has brought greater sophistication to BOB's concession choices. The requisite Diamondback Dog, chicken fingers and burgers remain, of course, but check out the fancier fare. Carla's Crazy Corn comes plain, or flavored with jalapeño, Cajun spice, Parmesan or chili ($3.50-$6.50). And anything from Fielder's Choice at section 116 is excellent -- fresh strawberries and cream, salami and Cheddar cubes with fresh fruit, spinach dip with veggies, or a Southwestern chicken salad ($5-$6).

Tickets: Good, mid-price seats are the backbone of BOB. Upper- and lower-level home-plate and lower-level foul-line seats range from $13 to $26.

 

Highfalutin Fans:

Parking: Folks wanting the top of the line can pay $15 for the convenience of Bank One Ballpark Garage, Fourth Street and Jackson. Then, they can be taken by bicycle chariot the few feet from their parking space to BOB's doors ("discretionary tipping," usually $2-$5). Or, they can purchase season tickets for up to $5,395 and get free parking.

Tickets: Premium seats put the bite in the BOB experience. Lower-level clubhouse seats cost a cool $70; dugout seats $55. Field box and Infiniti Diamond-level seats run $29 to $43.

Outside Eating: Upscale has finally come downtown. Last year saw the debut of A League of Our Own in the Arizona Center (455 North Third Street). This '40s-style supper club and lounge is a charmer, with couchlike booths, live jazz, and an enticing menu featuring Chilean sea bass with wasabi mashed potatoes, wild duck meatloaf and tenderloin with forest mushrooms.

And though it shares the same patio as the rowdy Jackson's on Third sports bar at 245 East Jackson, the new Grill at Jackson's kicks game day into gourmet gear. The cherry-wood-rich eatery is open only on event days, but serves serious fare like slow-roasted prime rib with smoked onions, Asian glazed salmon with basmati rice and chicken satay with cucumber vegetable salad and spicy peanut sauce. Toast the home team with Dom Perignon at $160 a bottle.

Downtown's newest high-end player, meanwhile, is Kinkaid's Restaurant, in the Colliers Center at 2 South Third Street. Open just over a month, it's already packing people into its classy, maroon-carpeted, ornate chandelier-strewn interior. It's a chain, but doesn't taste it, with such delights as chipotle tiger prawns, grilled Fijan ono, Hunan-style rack of lamb and petite manila clams with Prince Edward Island mussels in pesto-butter broth.

Inside Eating: Chef Borders has completely reconstructed BOB's fine-dining experience. Previously, even the expensive seats chowed on the same stuff as the masses -- hot dogs, burgers, cotton candy. But now, in-seat dining service for the pricey Clubhouse ticketholders includes upper-crust snacks like an outstanding crisp-casing, chargrilled, herbed chicken-Parmesan sausage topped with slivered onions, sweet green chile chunks and mild mozzarella. A ham and Jarlsberg Swiss sandwich on pretzel bread with whole-grain mustard butter is terrific, and there's plenty of fresh radicchio and baby spinach in the Chinese chicken salad.

Pre-game diners will find a greatly improved Strike Zone Lounge (Field Level), too, with classier choices including hand-carved roast sirloin, smoked turkey, barbecued pulled pork, and corned-beef sandwiches, plus a pasta station featuring penne with roma-basil, pesto or four-cheese sauce to be topped with a variety of things such as Italian sausage, applewood-smoked bacon, grilled chicken and sun-dried tomatoes.

BOB's biggest makeover is in the Arizona Baseball Club, though, the exclusive restaurant on the suite level. Banished are tacky chafing dishes, in are live chefs serving a constantly changing buffet of carved prime rib with spicy rémoulade, turkey breast with prickly pear relish, braised pork with apple-mint relish, and pan-seared salmon with citrus-saffron sauce. Specials might include sushi, duck confit, wild mushroom and goat cheese burritos, cheese tortellini with pesto crème fraîche and imported prosciutto, mascarpone polenta, or chuka soba noodle and straw-mushroom salad in sesame-ginger dressing.

Suite guests, finally, will be pleased to know that Borders has massaged their menus, too, adding chef-manned pasta stations, lobster and specialty dessert carts including a signature Cracker Jack bar, covering fudge with frozen candy.

Downtown is still infested with too many sports bars, serving subpar food to fans more interested in drinking than dining. But things are looking up. The area is finally attracting quality restaurants. And Chef Borders has put a new face on BOB -- a handsome one indeed.

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