SPOTLIGHT : MEAL TICKETS : Ballgames, Concerts Serve as Entree to Cornucopia of Entrees

In the recent past, the following choice for a night out was a necessity: A full-on dinner or an evening at a sports event, show room or concert hall. Not both. You'd settle for grabbing a snack before or after if you chose from the latter three.

Today it's different. Movies remain our most popular diversion but, interestingly enough, about our most restrictive one when it comes to filling the stomach. Food service at most movie theaters is limited to popcorn, hot dogs, nachos with cheese and assorted and sundry commercial candies, just what most health-conscious folks dream about eating, right?

Go to a ballgame, a concert, even a museum, though, and you've often got more dining options than you can count on one hand. You'll find an accomplished tearoom at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, the wonderful Topaz Cafe at the Bowers, full-service dining at dinner theaters such as Elizabeth Howard's, snack fare at comedy clubs and well, the list stretches on and on.

So I recently did a little field work on this subject--what with the Angels' first homestand underway and the summer concert season about to follow--and have put together a short report on my findings. Just be aware that this represents a limited cross-section, because practically every venue from golf courses to libraries has some form of food service nowadays.

(Now, if only movie house mogul Jim Edwards would find more evolved snacks to sell in his Edwards Cinemas, I'd be a happy camper.)

Anaheim Stadium

You'd better come hungry if you come to the Big A, because this ballpark offers up a cornucopia of foodstuffs.

I'm betting the eclectic demographics of Southern California make this so. The concessions are managed by Ogden Corp., a $2-billion plus catering industry giant that supplies, among other things, sporting venues around the country. The caterer offers a truly mind-numbing array of things to eat, everything from sushi to hot cinnamon rolls to Polish sausages, along with the ever-present peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs and beer.

I visited on opening day this season, this past Monday, and the lines were long and fierce at most of the stands. (Veteran fans tell me the concessions are staffed with lots of new people at the beginning of the season, but service speeds up after the new staffers gain more experience.)

As expected, the best thing I tasted was the stadium's vaunted cinnamon roll, a bargain at $2. They are baked fresh on game day--oversized sticky, yeasty pull-apart buns, studded with chopped pecans, or plain, if you prefer. If you have a sweet tooth, it's better to eat it right away, as opposed to carrying it all the way back to your seat, given how fast these things cool and dry out.

Most of the food concessions are on the entrance level, places with names such as California Deli, Sausage House, Fish Bowl and Sushi Sushi. One site where the lines were tolerable was the Potato Hut, where you get a pretty fair-sized baked potato and an obscene amount of calorific toppings, including cheese, bacon, sour cream and chili, all for $4.75. I liked my Italiano Potato, at the same price, a mess of marinara sauce, Parmesan and sweet sausage. The potato tasted hot and fresh, and the sauce had a generous amount of sausage.

And the fish and chips, another popular item, seems to have improved drastically from three years ago, the last time I tasted the dish at this park. Back then, I found the fish greasy and flavorless. On Monday, what I ate was hand battered and quite tasty, a huge portion. We'll forgive the fact that the stadium uses the lowly pollock, and not the Icelandic cod you'd get at a more tony venue.

If you want pizza, a Tombstone franchise offers pies whole or by the slice on the entrance level, while upstairs on the terrace level, at Mamma Mia's pasta house, the pizzas are made with a Boboli crust. I prefer the ones upstairs, and it is interesting that Tombstone was allowed to sneak into the Big A, because this stadium, unlike Dodger Stadium, limits its "branded stands."

Most of the good sausages come from Farmer John, but my favorite, Chef Jack's Special Sausage ($5), comes from a recipe invented by the onetime personal chef of Gene Autry. It's a sort of mild, crumbly Italian sausage with a sweet spice, maybe basil, in the meat mixture and traces of liver in the finish.

As to the much-maligned idea of having sushi at the national pastime, I'm tempted to say that real men . . . well, let's just say that this version, the California Roll, is rather void of flavor, enough to give Japanese food a bad reputation. I lived in Japan for three years, and I never saw men eating sushi in Yomiyuri Stadium, where the Tokyo Giants play. Yakisoba-fried buckwheat noodles, yes, but not sushi.

Sushi Sushi, the Japanese food concession here, also offers teriyaki chicken and deep-fried egg rolls, but it has covered all bases and offers yakisoba as well. Lucky you. I'd rather have a double bag of peanuts.

Anaheim Stadium. 2000 Gene Autry Way, Anaheim. (714) 254-3100.

The Irvine Improvisation

Being hungry isn't the only reason for dining at the Irvine Improv. Anyone who comes for dinner gets preferential seating near the stage, well within the clutches of the comedian performing that evening. The thin-skinned had better consider the second row.

This is one big black box of a comedy club, with only the brick wall behind the stage providing any sort of warmth. Dinner begins about two hours before the show, delivered by a team of surprisingly humorless food servers. Hmmph. And you thought everyone wanted to be in comedy.

What you eat holds few surprises but should be adequate for the surroundings. The Improv has a full bar, so you can start with original mixed drinks with names like Sex on the Stage or Barrel of Laughs, a beer, wine or a soft drink. You can ask the food server to apply whatever you drink to the club's two-drink minimum. I can't imagine the request would be refused.

The best appetizer here is probably ceviche, cut-up pieces of mahi mahi and bay shrimp that have been marinated in lime juice, then tossed with chopped onion, cilantro and tomato.

The fried cheese isn't bad, either, lightly battered mozzarella sticks served with marinara sauce. The huge dinner salads come in large glass bowls, with a hefty portion of croutons and the dressings astride in plastic tubs. They aren't, however, included with dinner.

Prime rib is the entree of choice, a good-sized slab that is both flavorful and juicy. It's a bargain at $11.95. A slightly tired chicken Cordon Bleu is the most filling one. It's a huge chicken breast stuffed with ham and Swiss, blanketed with a floury Mornay sauce. There's always a broiled fish on hand, and there is a ponderous baked manicotti for pasta lovers.

I didn't try any dessert, because the ones on the tray just weren't inviting enough. But the coffee here is fresh, will keep you properly on edge for the show, and can be applied to that pesky two-drink minimum.

The Irvine Improvisation, 4255 Campus Drive, in the Marketplace Shopping Center, Irvine. (714) 854-5455. Dinner for two, $22-$35.

The Pond

I never expected to enjoy my meal at the Pond, the spiffy new home of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, but that's what happened.

It seems the Ogden Corp. has decided to make the Pond its showcase for state-of-the-art concessions food.

This is good news for Orange County concert-goers and sports fans, who can now nosh on designer sausages at Sausage Haus, terrific Italian beef sandwiches stuffed with meat trucked in directly from a Chicago meat packer at Main Street Deli, reasonably tasty calzones and pizzas at Pizza Supremo, Mexican fare complete with salsa ranging from mild to "suicidal" at Chili Peppers and even Yoshinoya's Japanese beef bowl, all situated in strategic spots around the Pond.

But it is in the semi-exclusive Anaheim Club, where NHL officials, Mighty Duck season ticket-holders and even Barry Manilow groupies convene, that the building's upscale food is truly available to the masses. Anyone, you see, can make a reservation in this restaurant (a curved, wood- and cloth-paneled room with a decor that I'd describe as being a couple of steps up the charm ladder from what you'd find in an airport.) A reservation here allows visitors to rub elbows with celebrities and to access the building's snazzy club level, where the bars, private boxes and club seats are found.

Food in the Anaheim Club is simple and elegant, anything from a homey ossobuco-braised veal with marrow to a rather risque Jamaican jerk chicken.

I find the food almost remarkable, considering the context. Rod Stewart was performing the night I visited, and almost everyone came in at once. Nonetheless, my onion soup had a finely browned crust, my wife's Caesar was crisp and gutsy and the dish I selected, mixed grille, had good sausage, premium lamb and reasonably moist grilled chicken on it, each lapping up its own respective sauce.

Jalapenos play a large part here, both in the rolls and in the sauce on the restaurant's best dessert, an original mixed berries with a sweet jalapeno sauce. Executive chef Michael Glover deserves a lot of credit for overseeing all the concessions and dining kitchens, and Anaheim Club manager Norm Santos gets kudos for the intelligent wine list.

The Ducks season is over, but if your budget doesn't allow you to dine at the Anaheim Club when you visit for a concert or soccer game this summer, then building manager John Nicoletti suggests you "wait until after the event begins to hunt up something to eat, when the lines subside."

That's what I personally would do. I'd wait until the first song started, and then I'd head over to the Main Street Deli on the Terrace Level for a beef sandwich with sweet peppers. Unless, of course, I was lucky enough to find a friend with a private box. Then, I'd let him do the ordering.

The Anaheim Club at the Pond. 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. (714) 704-2450. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $40-$65.

The Coach House

Some of my friends find it hard to get excited about meals at the Coach House, where one dines at long tables on rock-hard chairs, with complete strangers. But if you think of dining here as a convenience--and are in the mood to make new friends--then by all means come to the concert early.

If you haven't been to a show here, this is another dark box of a room, with a country-style bar to the rear and a red, 1941 Singer automobile on a side wall, purely for effect. (Owner Gary Folgner says: "I traded a guy $1,000 worth of tacos from my Mexican restaurant for it.")

Reserve early enough, and you might get lucky and score one of the half-dozen-odd booths to have dinner in and watch the show from. Come close to 8, however, when the music usually begins, and you can count on a hard seat and a more limited choice from the menu.

No one can deny that the Coach House features the most eclectic, hip and daring mix of performers in Orange County. I wish I could say the same for the menu. But it must be said that this is another mass-production type kitchen, where the strengths depend more on the quality of the products than on the skill of their preparation.

And in that regard, the Coach House scores good marks. Both the New York steak and the swordfish are fine, generous cuts, there is a good salsa for the gloopy nachos and the side dishes, rice pilaf, baked potatoes and good mixed veggies, are appealingly done.

The kitchen bakes up apple pies fresh daily, and even concocts mud pies, the chocolate kind, from scratch. I like this mud pie, an Oreo type crust, chocolate ice cream in the center and a thick smear of fudge across the top. After 8 p.m., rely on the good burgers or cheesy potato skins to ward off those munchies.

The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. (714) 496-8930. Dinner for two, $19-$35.

A Few Others

Fans of the symphony or legitimate theater had better make plans for an early dinner elsewhere if they plan on combining food with entertainment.

South Coast Repertory, the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the Irvine Barclay Theatre don't have much more than perfunctory refreshment for their patrons.

Greg Patterson of the Performing Arts Center offered a small apologia for the lack of red wine, coffee, cookies or sandwiches, but he says, "That's the way it is for now."

South Coast Rep does have cookies from a company called Taylor's Mom's as well as upscale boxed candies, besides a full bar.

The Irvine Barclay serves good, designer cookies such as white chocolate macadamia nut, as well as a good strong cup of coffee.

So for now, you can count on good restaurants such as Gustaf Anders, Diva, Scott's Seafood and Amici in the South Coast area, and places like Chinatown, Zuni Grill, Bistro 201 and Bistango in Irvine.

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