The last time I went to a game, in Dodger Stadium, I was sorely disappointed: Too much time had elapsed since my previous visit, and I was taken aback by the constant pandemonium that the management had decided was needed to please today's discriminating audience. I left feeling like I'd been inside a pinball machine. It didn't help that different levels featured different food stalls, and I had to trek down (and then up) several flights of stone steps in heels to fetch a box of cold Krispy Kremes.
Ever since I hit this town, Janice and Chester and my dad and I have been saying we'd take in a game at Pacific Bell Park. But we stall until I realize that Janice and Chester's move to the East Coast is imminent. There are half a dozen upcoming home games that appeal -- a Bay Bridge series with the A's, a once-upon-a-time Subway series with the (ex-Brooklyn) Dodgers against the (ex-New York) Giants -- but our choice is made when I am able to get tickets for only one out of the six possibilities: a Monday night game against the Dodgers. (My father is relieved: Janice and Chester have become fervent A's fans, whereas he's loyal to the Giants: "It might have been awkward!") I also make a reservation at Acme Chophouse for a 5 p.m. dinner.
When I go to Pac Bell to pick up our tickets at noon on game day, I learn that there is a tour of the stadium at 12:30, so, what the hell, I buy a ticket for that, too. I browse among the bobblehead dolls and T-shirts in the stadium shop, manfully resisting the lure of adorable $4 key chains and a Joe DiMaggio-signed bat for $1,899, until I spy the Giants Appetizers cookbook, which is kinda steep at $18 but lists, in addition to 35 recipes (only 10 percent of which specify Velveeta), the guys' favorite S.F. and on-the-road restaurants. (It seems that Morton's sells a lot of steaks to the Giants.)
The statistic-heavy tour (hey, it's baseball!) is surprisingly enchanting. It's a glorious day, and when we enter the top level and are smacked with the amazing panorama of the bay beyond the stadium, I get tears in my eyes. The cheap seats have a much more stunning view than the luxury suites. I'm also thrilled when we get to visit the dugout and walk onto the field (but not on the exquisitely manicured Kentucky bluegrass).
A few hours later and we're all tucked into a snug but comfortable booth at Acme, which is jumping: The bar is packed three deep, and every table seems to be full. The menu is shortish, as befits a chophouse (though Chester points out that there are no chops of any kind on it): eight or nine choices each of seafood, other appetizers, main courses, and sides.
The best dish of our starters is a plate of fried nuggets of sweetbreads, crisp outside, creamy within, with a tart, warm escarole-and-red-cabbage salad. Chester's grilled marinated squid is spicy and chewy, with its own nice little warm salad of baby greens. The Caesar salad, a pile of whole romaine leaves, is lightly dressed with a thin, barely anchovied dressing: a fine rendition, though I like my Caesars punchier. My "1/2 cracked Dungeness crab" is also a perfectly good version of the dish, but I expected more of the body of the beast on my plate; instead, it's a tangle of legs. (Another meal would find me trying the barbecue ribs -- recipe on Page 6 of the Giants Appetizers cookbook, courtesy of pitcher Jason Christiansen, even though his favorite S.F. restaurant is Scoma's. On the road? Morton's!)
It's with the main courses that Managing Chef Traci Des Jardins (of Jardinière) and her able chef de cuisine, Thom Fox, really hit them out of the park: All of our choices are succulent and delicious, and I would happily return and order them again. There's juicy rotisserie duck breast in thick slices under a cascade of roughly chopped olives in interesting variety, and chunks of rotisserie leg of lamb that actually taste like lamb. I love my long-braised short ribs, with a garnish of sweet baby carrots and onions, awash in beef jus; the dish goes very well with the side we order of buttery smooth mashed potatoes, as suggested by our waiter. Janice's massive 22-ounce bone-in grass-fed rib-eye, which covers its plate and looks as daunting as the 72-ounce steak served with a dare (finish it and its accouterments in an hour and it's free; otherwise, $50) at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, somehow manages to disappear (everybody helps). It's a gutsy, well-flavored piece of meat. I love it. Now I want to try the enticing-looking grass-fed steak tartare, which we spy on another table.
We also finish every one of the thin, crisp, skin-on shoestring fries. But my favorite side is the creamed spinach: the leaves still en branche, and swimming in a pool of pale yellow cream. I regret that there's no baked potato available, but judging from the three sides we tried, this is one steakhouse where a vegetarian would be lucky to find himself.
As would someone with a sweet tooth: Butterscotch pudding is served in a milkshake glass, topped with a couple of inches of soft, freshly whipped cream, and sided with two huge chunks of blondies stuffed with whole macadamia nuts. The pineapple-coconut cake is a classic upside-down cake improved by fresh pineapple. I was recently burned by an expensive and nasty dinner in a local steakhouse that shall be nameless (oh, OK, it was Harris'); Acme Chophouse serves us the kind of meal that ennobles the genre. (And I find out as we leave that there is a double-cut pork chop offered on the slightly different menu available after the game starts.)
As we walk into Pacific Bell Bark, I note how many people are dressed in an astounding variety of Giants-ware, looking vaguely Halloweeny. I realize, with a shock, that my father and I are both wearing Dodger blue. (My dad is not pleased when I point this out; he's chosen his Swedish army-surplus coat for warmth, not color.) We are pleasantly surprised by the location of our $25 seats -- on the bottom level, past first base. (I am only sad that we don't get the full, if possibly distracting, effect of the waterfront setting. And also a little because I feel torn between the two teams; Shawn Green is still my guy.)
The game is a pitcher's battle, and only gets really exciting in the ninth, when the until-then-scoreless Dodgers tie the Giants with two runs and the game goes into extra innings. (In the seventh inning, I force my friends and family to sample a Giant dog, lukewarm and so innocuous as to seem bready, and the highly touted but greasy and soggy Gordon Biersch garlic fries, interesting conceptually but failed in the execution. We are surprised and happy to see Chester's teacher, Soma, who moonlights as a peanut vendor, but are too full to try his wares.) I celebrate the tie by making an excursion to the Fresh Catch stand -- near the kids' playground, featuring the glamorous Andy Warhol-worthy Coca-Cola slide -- for a pricey $8 container of fried calamari cooked in aging oil and a surprisingly delicious lobster roll, the chopped meat enlivened with red onion, celery, mayo, and a touch of cayenne and paprika. Again, the roll is pricey at $11, but it's rewarding, as opposed to the $3.50 hot dog and the $5.50 fries. It's almost worth the gauntlet I brave as I run along the promenade on my way to the stand, a clot of smoking, beered-up youth inviting passing ladies to pull up their shirts and singing such favorites as "If you're wearing Dodger blue, you're a fag," to the tune of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." After the apple-pie decorum of Section 103, I feel I've entered a circle of hell.
But watching Barry Bonds steal his 500th base is heaven, all the more so because we were unaware that he'd been the possessor of 499, and because it puts him in scoring position. He does, the Giants win in the 11th inning, and we leave, sated with steak and success. The park and the restaurant make great teammates, but I could see dining at Acme Chophouse even with no game in the offing.