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Photo: Rey Lopez

From Mosh Pit to Peak Foodie: Outdoor Music Venues Step Up The Gourmet Goodness

Here’s a game: free associate “summer music festival.” Sunscreen, superstars, mud, Insta, #squadgoals…

Have you gotten to “gourmet mosh pit” yet? Didn’t think so. But that’s changing fast, and summer 2019 is set to be peak foodie season. The days of cardboard pizza are fading. Concertgoers are walking in with elevatexpectations, and music venues are responding with thoughtful menus that range from creatively healthy to Instagrammable decadence.

“The words extraordinary and unexpected should describe everything, including the food,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director of I.M.P., the legendary DC-based group that owns 9:30 Club and took over operations for the Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2004, waving goodbye to airline service-style food options. “We would rather err on the side of ambition.”

And ambition is absolutely the defining word for festival menus this year. Sean Kenyon, a globally acclaimed bartender and cocktail master, has been refining his processes for large-scale cocktail batching and is ready to debut his libations at Jiffy Lube Live.

“Well-executed cocktails are the result of well-executed systems,” Kenyon observes.

To make it happen, he constructed a system where the event bartenders are simply executing the final step: blending a spirit and a fresh mix.

“I look at it like we are opening a new cocktail bar every night in terms of experience expectations for bartenders, prep and visible instructions,” he says.

With a few spirits – tequila, gin, vodka – and a few mixer options that are all interchangeable, the guest gets to personalize the glass.

“We can change the ingredients within the system to maximize the guest experience without disrupting the overall operation,” Kenyon adds. “We are not just creating a cocktail menu. We are creating a system that lets us be nimble.”

Systems are also front-of-mind at Merriweather. I.M.P. ditched the previous corporate foodservice distributor – which according to Schaefer tasted like airline food because it was made by the same folks – and hired local caterers.

“We wanted the tastes of a neighborhood restaurant with an ambitious menu,” she says. “We want people to arrive hungry.”

In 2017, Wolf Trap overhauled its own menus and also broke away from corporate foodservice distributors; the venue now independently runs its own concessions.

“We took a major leap and selected a small, family-owned business that focuses on local sourcing,” says T.J. Pluck, director of food and beverage at Wolf Trap.

But well-executed systems still require a fresh feed of great ideas to execute.

“I’m a guy who likes change,” Pluck says. “We spruce up the menu every year.”

This season’s inspiration comes from a range of sources including social media, according to Pluck.

“Concertgoers love Instagrammable edibles that make people say, ‘Wow.’”

And people have a lot more exposure to strong flavors now, Schaefer adds, which means that spicier and funkier flavors are in play. Dietary restrictions can complicate menu planning but Pluck notes that “we always work hard to be sensitive and incorporate those into a concession stand environment.” Nearly all concert venues in the DC area now offer gluten-free and vegan options – something almost unheard of a decade ago at all but the most granola of festivals.

“I never thought that people would eat salad at a concert,” Pluck says.

So what can fans expect on their plates this summer?

“This year, we’re focusing on funky, fun, fair food that’s spiced up with flavors like raspberry and chipotle and funnel cake sandwiches,” is how Pluck describes the new menu at Wolf Trap.

Pluck is tapping into happy memories of growing up in the Midwest and enjoying Ohio State Fair food like elephant ears: funnel cakes, rolled, pulled, and topped with cinnamon and sugar.

“We’re always asking, ‘How can we do this better?’ and ‘What sets us apart?’ We’re always looking to raise the bar [at Wolf Trap]. For example, we’ll always serve hamburgers – but ours are made with prime beef and served on a top-of-the-line French brioche bun with arugula, aged cheddar and chipotle aioli.”

Over at Merriweather, Cathal Armstrong (of the legendary Restaurant Eve, and now The Wharf’s Kaliwa) has come on board as Merriweather’s food advisor.

“Cathal lives and breathes food creativity,” Schaefer says admiringly. “People will be coming as much for the food as for the performance.”

Guests will get to explore a menu that includes everything from freshly roasted, husk-on corn topped with Cotija cheese to a house-made jumbo lump crab cake on fresh brioche.

“They’re honestly better than in some fine dining places,” Schaefer says of Merriweather’s crab cake (her personal favorite).

Over at Jiffy Lube Live, in addition to fresh craft cocktails, fans can enjoy the buzzy Impossible Burger: a plant-based patty that bleeds and sizzles when it cooks.

“We have partnered with some great brands including Art Smith’s Art Bird, Questlove’s Impossible Cheesesteak, Guy Fieri’s burgers and new hot dog concept Dog Haus,” says Matt Rogers, Jiffy Lube’s GM and SVP for music.

“My personal favorite is the Art Bird Fried Chicken,” he says. “It is off-the-charts good.”

The folks who are overhauling menus and updating concert dining experiences are riffing off their own memories and tastes to create the perfect concert experience. Pluck is a musician and self-described band geek who says his dream job is working at Wolf Trap; he channels epic memories of concerts with Genesis (the 1992 reunion tour at Cleveland Stadium), The Police and Muse. 

Rogers finds the most fulfilling part of the job to be a providing people with an escape for two hours. Kenyon is also a musician; he pursued band life before committing himself to becoming one of the greatest bartenders in America, and his ideal festival night inspires his Jiffy Lube menu.

“It’s right at dusk, your favorite band is just coming on, the day is fading, your drink is complex and you’re surrounded by friends. Perfection.”

Learn more about the elevated fare and summer lineups at these three venues below.

Jiffy Lube Live: 7800 Cellar Door Dr. Bristow, VA; www.livenation.com/venues/14407/jiffy-lube-live

Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD; www.merriweathermusic.com

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: Julia Lofstrand

Pie Shop Returns to Rock ‘N’ Roll Roots

You may recognize Dangerously Delicious Pies from their aptly named operation spanning pie sales in food trucks, coffee shops, and their brick-and-mortar H Street outpost. While the pies themselves are now fully part of the fabric of the DC fast-casual scene, the shop expanded into something else last summer: a full-fledged music venue, affectionately named the Pie Shop. On the surface, this might seem like an odd pairing, but co-owner Sandra Basanti says the dual-purpose digs were always part of the master plan.

“The pie and rock ‘n’ roll thing isn’t a schtick,” Basanti says. “A lot of musicians do work here, and it is ingrained in the business. Last year, we opened the bar and music venue on the second floor, which used to be my apartment. It’s kind of come full circle.”

Although Dangerously Delicious Pies as the DC area knows it has been in its current form for a decade, the pies and the music have been important parts of the owners’ lives for much longer.

“The whole concept came about from the Glenmont Popes, the band my husband [co-owner Stephen McKeever] and [founder] Rodney Henry are in,” Basanti continues. “They’ve been touring for many years, and Rodney grew up baking pies in Indiana. He would spend summers with his grandmother there, and so a lot of our recipes are her recipes. He had it in him – he was just raised on pie.”

The trio opened the shop in 2009 – Basanti manned front of house, her husband ran the kitchen and Henry lent his passion for pies to the shop. She fondly refers to McKeever and Henry as the “brains and the brawn” behind the operation; they’d often sell pie at merch tables or trade the treats for a couch to crash on while on tour with their band.

“One day, [Henry] thought if rock ‘n’ roll isn’t paying the bills, which we know it doesn’t for a lot of musicians, then maybe pie will pay for rock ‘n’ roll,” she explains. “And it has – the Glenmont Popes are still going strong.”

In fact, Basanti and the band had just returned from playing shows in Ireland the day before we chatted about the group’s new ventures. And it was pies that brought them back to the apartment-turned-bar and venue that now boasts live music alongside top-notch food and a refreshingly unpretentious beer and drink menu.

While opening the venue was always part of the pie and rock ‘n’ roll business plan, Basanti and company took their time to open it. As musicians who’ve been part of the local scene for many years, the trio wanted to get things right and fill a void in the realm of DC live music.

“There’s a lot of these big, beautiful clubs opening up, which is amazing, but they mostly cater to touring bands and acts that have kind of already made it,” Basanti says as she describes the ethos that drives Pie Shop. “To offer a room that is also beautiful and has excellent acoustics – and to treat the smaller bands who are on the up and up with the same respect as a super famous band – is our goal. I didn’t want to be a basement, taped-together place where bands could just play. I wanted it to be a room that gives these artists justice. We put a lot of time, effort and thought into how it’s laid out.”

Dennis Manuel is Pie Shop’s sound engineer, with help from Melina Afzal. Manuel even helped design the venue, and hand-selected the space’s equipment. The stage boasts a full backline of equipment, and prides itself on the high-quality sound it can provide smaller local bands and touring acts.

The spot also accommodates comedy shows, literary workshops and burlesque shows, among other eclectic events supporting the local creative community. Basanti started out booking Pie Shop shows on her own but is now assisted by Jon Weiss of Union Stage and Babe City Records; the two consistently collaborate on what bands are the best fit for the team’s vision for the venue.

“We want to offer that smaller room for bands who are on their way up – to have that space to build a following, especially with local bands, which has been a lot of our focus,” she says. “It took us a while because we didn’t have the money, and we wanted to do it right. We try to treat all the artists with lots of respect and offer them top-notch hospitality.”

All of that and a dazzling array of delectable pies is sure to satisfy the appetite of local music lovers and foodies alike for years to come. Follow Pie Shop on social media @dangerouspiesdc to learn about upcoming shows.

Pie Shop Bar: 1339 H St. NE, DC; 202-398-7437; www.dangerouspiesdc.com