City: Fairfax, Virginia
Foodie: Extra P, Storming the Floor
Venue: The Patriot Center
Team: George Mason Patriots (NCAA)
Address: 4500 Patriot Circle Fairfax, VA 22030
Extra P's Taste
During college basketball season, I like to take a few road trips to see what the atmosphere is like in other arenas. The atmosphere, and the food.
On an early January weekend, I decided to take my six-year-old son to his first basketball game. I’m an Old Dominion grad who lives in Charlottesville, VA, so it was actually just as easy to travel to northern Virginia to see my alma mater play at George Mason as it would have been to drive to Norfolk to catch them at home.
I know nothing about Fairfax, and didn’t come across any non-chain restaurants between the interstate and the George Mason campus, so I can only assess what was available in and around the Patriot Center.
The Johnson Center Food Court
We got to the suburban campus a little early, hoping to walk around and see what the surroundings were like. Extra P, Jr. was hungry, so as we walked, we kept our eyes open for some sort of student union building. After visiting the statue of George Mason himself, we found the Johnson Center, which seemed perfect.
Inside, the Center looked very much like a suburban mall. My son got off his first good line of the day, saying "Daddy, why did you bring me to the train station to eat?" Kids. I tell ya. But he had a point – it resembled nothing so much as Union Station in D.C., but without the trains.
We saw many people sitting at the food court tables, eating, but all of the restaurants had the screens down and locked. All that we could find open was a convenience store and the student merchandise store. Ordinarily, we would have been able to choose from the usual array of chain restaurants, as well as less-familiar names like Charleston Market and Jazzman’s
Alas, today this was not an option.
Figuring we’d be in the arena soon, we opted for bottled water and snacks. One unique item we picked up at the convenience store counter were these George Mason jelly bellies. They tasted like… well, jelly bellies. But they did have that neato specialized packaging that at least let us know where we were.
After a quick visit to the merchandise store to grab the cheapest memorabilia we could find (foam finger and pair of athletic socks with GMU logos), we were off to the game.
The Patriot Center
Now, since it was just me and EPJr, I planned to eat guy style: whatever we wanted, and however much we wanted. Which explains why my son’s meal began with soft-serve ice cream. Prices were the typical college arena level – overpriced, but not quite what you’d pay at a pro joint – but the folks behind the counter didn’t skimp on the vanilla, as you can see.
The rest of the food was a pretty standard selection, though there were noticeable quality gaps within the offerings. I was pleased to find that each window had different items, as I’ve been to other arenas that offered roughly the same stand every hundred feet or so. Nonetheless, EPJr can’t go to a game without eating a hot dog, so that’s where we started out.
You’re looking at fifteen bucks. It would have been twenty, but my son, strangely enough, does not like soda. The condiments left a lot to be desired – just mustard and ketchup to lubricate the five-dollar less-than-footlongs. I like the yellow stuff, and my son likes the red stuff, so we were relatively settled. Sadly, the buns were a bit stale, and the hotdogs were totally ordinary. I felt we could do better.
EPJr was perfectly happy to cleanse his palate with some cotton candy, and who can blame him? It’s a classic, and it’s hard to screw up. And there are few sights better than a brightly-dressed arena employee balancing the big tray of pink, fluffy goodness.
For me, however, something more substantial was required. I had it in my mind that I had passed a stand offering chicken BBQ at some point, so I went out for a quick recon. I was a little nervous about leaving the kid alone in his seat, even with the nice people sitting next to us, so I probably didn’t go far enough in my search. I stopped at the biggest and busiest window to ask about the possibly fictional Chix BBQ, and got this reply: “Wul, we’ve got chicken, and I can give you some barbeque sauce to put on it.” No… just, No.
I settled on the lovely grease bomb you see here. Now, I want you to know that I don’t use the word “grease” in a pejorative sense. Done properly, grease makes an excellent condiment. And this was done properly. This was known as a chopped steak sandwich, which I appreciated, because I’ve been to Philly, and calling something like this a cheesesteak is false advertising. But this was great for what it was – real chopped meat instead of steak-umms, the right amount of peppers and onions, and some stringy white cheese – and I enjoyed every sloppy bite. It filled the gnawing hole in my stomach and used grease in just the right way – it soaked into the bun just enough to make it moist, but not enough to make it soggy. Very nice.
Our final indulgence was popcorn. Some attendees got theirs for free, as the staff of the Patriot Center dropped paper bags from the gantries on the ceiling, suspended from little parachutes. EPJr was very disappointed when none fell to him, so I dropped the rest of our food dough on a large paper cup full. My son hates the fake squirt-butter, so I have to say that this tasted like Styrofoam to me, but he was more than satisfied.
In the final analysis, it seems to me that anyone familiar with stadium food will find plenty to enjoy here. While I can’t particularly recommend what is ordinarily a staple - hot dogs - there is a wide variety of other options that can be easily parsed out by peeking at the baskets your fellow sports fans are carrying around. It’s probably worth doing a little of that peek-and-sniff research to suss out the best options, because if you eat like me and the little nipper, you can easily spend more on comestibles than you did on your tickets.
For variety, decent portions, and floating popcorn, I give the Patriot Center a solid B. The inconsistency from booth to booth, and the lack of a signature go-to item kept them from scoring any higher, but a guy can eat there. If you’re there on a night when the nearby food courts are open, you might be in A- territory.
Oh, and they’ve got a heck of a basketball team going, too.
Rest of photos by Extra P