You'd be forgiven if you thought that this year's U.S. Open, which is in its second and final week of action, was doubling as a high-profile food festival. The New York Times has written breathlessly of the menu offerings and restaurants by Morimoto and David Burke, even offering daily food reviews on its blog. Not to be outdone, the tennis writer and cookbook author Andrew "Toqueland" Friedland has combined his passions into daily food reviews from the Open on Tennis.com. Departures magazine's website weighed in with an article on "Grand Slam Snacking." And yes, we've recommended where to eat at the Open as well (though hopefully without the hyperbole seen elsewhere).
But The Daily News hit the winner: "Forget Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, the real stars of the 2013 U.S. Open are on the menu." Ha!
As someone who's been attending the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows since, well, let's just say since the days of the Ivan Lendl-John McEnroe/Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalries, I'm disappointed that the food options aren't more enlightened. Leaving aside the inside-baseball talk of who actually runs the Open's food programming (Levy Restaurants), I'd say that the real story here is simply that the food at the Open has merely evolved since the tournament moved from Forest Hills to its current home in Flushing Meadows, where it has become a juggernaut of the sports entertainment world that could potentially support really forward-thinking food programming.
As successful as the Open now is, attracting over 700,000 attendees over the course of its fortnight (as they say in Grand Slam tennisspeak), why haven't organizers moved to integrate NYC's bustling and influential food scene even further? It's a no-brainer, really; the crowd at the U.S. Open is overwhelmingly affluent and discerning when it comes to cuisine, and yet the "Food Village" is filled with faux restaurants like "Farm to Fork" and "Franks and Fries." The addition of Hill Country BBQ to the mix elicited the uptick in media hype, but it left me wondering why there weren't more contributions from area chefs. Morimoto's Aces and David Burke's Champions Bar & Grill are both solid if overpriced options, but you need reservations and a ticket to Arthur Ashe Stadium (no grounds pass spectators allowed) for it to be worthwhile — and you may miss a lot of tennis settling in for a lunch at these bustling spots.
This year, Heineken enlisted No. 7 Sub's Tyler Kord to create a couple of sandwiches for its limited menu in the Heineken House, and Kord's broccoli Cuban sub joins Tony Mantuano's fiery ouzo shrimp as my favorite dishes on the U.S. Open menu, though I don't think Rafa or Serena have anything to worry about should it come to a popularity contest.
In the days when I used to semi-stalk Jimmy Connors to get his autograph after a practice session — back when the star players would hit on the outside courts between matches — I'd head to the Open craving a long, snappy hot dog on a caraway seed bun, an item whose taste memory still comes back to me from time to time. In that era, the local media had less of a fawning relationship with the food at the Open. I remember a TV newsman reporting on the offerings and joking that prices were so high that he'd just put a down payment on a hamburger.
The prices have gone up from there. In recent years, I've met family members and friends for quesadillas and the signature drinks at Mojito's, a Latin-ish grill with a nice outdoor patio across from the Food Village, and even in a generous group nobody fights to pick up the bill.
All of which is fine: there's good food at the U.S. Open, it's expensive, whatever. But what if organizers decided to turn the Open into a hybrid of NYC's downtown food scene, Smorgasburg and nearby Jackson Heights, incorporating cutting-edge chefs, first-rate food truck/mobile offerings and serious ethnic options from places like Sripaphai? That I'd like to see, and I'm sure many Open fans would enjoy the opportunity to take a break from a long day of tennis-watching to have what could be a memorable meal, instead of a burger and waffle fries, or an overpriced lobster roll, in a glorified food court.
I can't imagine that this sort of great-food-leap-forward will happen in my lifetime, though, so I'll hold tight to those memories of the snappy hot dog and the Lendl-McEnroe marathons, especially since Roger Federer blew the chance at a Federer-Nadal quarterfinal by losing yesterday. Somehow, the two tennis masters have never met at the U.S. Open, which in my book should rate as a much bigger story than the presence of a decent barbecue turkey sandwich.