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How to Read a Room Service Menu Like an NBA Veteran – The Ringer

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Carmelo Anthony misses the buzz of the team group chat around dinnertime. It’s a small thing, but the rituals of NBA life are often small—wisps of behavior that become habit for players who spend half their season away from home. After 17 years in the league, Anthony had made a routine of seeking out chefs who might have an interesting take on a classic dish, and for taking teammates in search of the best Italian food the NBA’s 28 markets could offer.

“Getting ready to go to dinner and hanging with my teammates, just laughing and joking, having some wine and good times, that was our moment of bonding,” Anthony says.

As the NBA has escalated its safety guidelines to meet the dangers of the pandemic, road dining has become an increasingly siloed experience. When the 2020-21 season began, teams were allowed to reserve spaces for a group dinner at an exclusive list of restaurants—mostly player-friendly steakhouses that could meet the prescribed safety requirements. Many teams never got the chance; by mid-January, the league office had walked back that allowance as COVID-19 cases surged, tightening protocols as to bar players and staff from leaving their team hotel altogether. Room service became a default centerpiece of the NBA diet.

Players still turn to food delivery apps for familiar standbys (Ruth’s Chris, Chipotle, regional favorites like Chick-fil-A), but in-room dining is often the simplest (and sometimes the safest) option available for players who know the ins and outs of the scene. Even players who prefer to dine out tend to be versed in room service fare after staying at the same luxury hotels season after season. “It’s well known throughout the league that the Memphis room service has always been a step below some of the other hotels,” says Washington’s Robin Lopez. “But that’s OK, because at least pre-COVID, you made up for it by having great barbecue options all over.”

Proactive organizations are attempting to soften that change by customizing the room service experience. When Lopez goes on a road trip, for example, he receives a link in the Wizards’ team WhatsApp that allows him to order from an expanded version of the hotel menu in advance. Streamlining the process reduces strain on the kitchen, but also opens up room for modifications at a time when many hotels are trying to cut costs. “Most hotels have pared down their offerings,” says Sue Saunders-Bouvier, the Wizards’ team nutritionist. “In the past the hotel might have a room service menu that looks like a Greek diner menu. Now it all fits on one 8×10—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and beverages all fit on one page of paper.”

Advance scouting of the in-room dining options has allowed the Wizards to request ingredient changes, use of some of their own in-house recipes, and even local specialties. A trip to Charlotte had biscuits and gravy on the breakfast menu. A stop in Miami featured jerk chicken and snapper Veracruz. The sit-down team dinner may be a relic of an NBA before the pandemic, but teams can use the hotel menu as a base to offer players grab-and-go options that fit the wants and needs of a pro athlete.

Whether a player is choosing from that (often prepackaged) spread or thumbing through the menu in their room after a late flight in, they find themselves parsing the hotel kitchen for the best choices available. Some prioritize lean, healthy foods; others, taste. Some stick to a regimented diet; others prefer to wander. In the tradition of Washingtonian’s dormant “How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic” series, this is a guide of how to read a room service menu like an NBA veteran.

Below is a menu from a hotel in the NBA rotation. Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Click the highlighted items to read expert advice from our panel of NBA players and personnel.

CORN CHOWDER 10
Corn and Potato Chowder Crock served with sliced Baguette

SOUP OF THE DAY 10
Served with sliced Baguette

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: As I scan through the all-day dining portion, I see spinach-artichoke dip. I love that. I’d probably do that just to have as a snack. I need to have that.

Served with Flour Tortilla Chips
Add Chicken (+$2)

SLOW-BRAISED BLACK ANGUS SHORT RIB SLIDERS 20
Topped with Vermont White Cheddar Cheese and Caramelized Onions (3 sliders)

JUMBO SHRIMP COCKTAIL 19
Served with a Spicy Cocktail Sauce (7 pieces)

CAPRESE BRUSCHETTA 14
Grilled Baguette, Ciliegine Mozzarella, Grape Tomatoes, Basil tossed in Balsamic Reduction and Aged Olive Oil

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Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers: I would probably start with—not probably start with, I do start with; this menu looks very familiar. It’s like the same menu at every hotel. I would usually do a Caesar salad starter. I’m not a big carb guy at all. I try to eat clean and things like that. They be on me about eating carbs, but I’m a seafood guy—a fish guy, a salmon guy. So a lot of times, my dinner is seared salmon with a Caesar salad and a side. Or sometimes I’ll do a burger. I’ll do pasta every once in a while, maybe for a lunch or something like that if you can get in early enough.

Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks: I would probably do either the salad or bruschetta, one of the two. I’m pretty diverse when it comes to what I want on my salad—it just depends what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a Caesar, sometimes I’m in the mood for something with a vinaigrette. It just depends how I’m feeling.

Romaine Wedge, Parmesan Crisp, Garlic Croutons with Traditional Caesar Dressing

Add Chicken (+$4) | Shrimp (+$8) | Salmon (+$8)

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Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: I generally will not order a salad. I guess I haven’t tried an extremely pro-salad diet, but just glancing at it from the outside, it doesn’t seem like it would do a lot for me. It almost seems like egregiously healthy, arrogantly healthy. I’m ordering a salad, look at me, look how healthy I’m being.

Seasonal Greens, Local Corn, Diced Ham, Hard Boiled Eggs, Bacon, Avocado, Tomatoes, and Blue Cheese served with Creamy Herb Dressing

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Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: I shouldn’t, but whenever they offer fresh fruit vs. french fries, I always go for the french fries.

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Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers: If you’re known for that burger, then I need the lettuce, tomato, cheese, ketchup, mustard—I need the works on it. That’s just how I like my burgers. And if it’s not good, I need that, too, because that takes away from it. That adds on to it, it adds a different taste to it. When it comes to burgers, it’s hard to mess a burger up. But you know what’s a bad burger and what’s a good burger.

Black Angus Burger on Toasted Buttery Artisan Bun, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Smoked Gouda Cheese, Caramelized Onion Jam, Lettuce, Tomato, Onion, and Pickles

SMOKED TURKEY CLUB 15
Sliced Smoked Turkey Club on Artisan Wheat Bread, Smoking Goose Applewood Smoked Bacon, Herb Aioli, Smoked Gouda Cheese, Lettuce, and Tomato

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: Out of this section, I’m maybe a falafel. Falafel isn’t my first choice, but it is something I’ll substitute. I don’t eat burgers or any red meat—unless it’s like a bean burger or something like that. If falafel was the only option, I’m probably picking that as far as the diet goes.

House-made Falafel Pita Sandwich, Baby Spinach, Hummus, Cucumbers, Tomatoes, and Red Onion served with a Feta Mint Tzatziki Sauce

PORK TENDERLOIN 18
Pork Tenderloin Sandwich on an Artisan Bun, LocalFolks Pickle Mustard, Mayonnaise, Sliced Pickles, Lettuce, and Tomato

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: I haven’t eaten red meat in probably almost two years. Some people believe in eating it, some people don’t. Cutting it out did a lot for me, just as far as my digestive system and stuff like that. I found everything was just working correctly for me. Then coupled with that, the sugar portion of it. Not all sugar’s bad, but I ate a lot of artificial stuff growing up—candies and things like that that aren’t good for you and what that does to your body. As you get older, and I’m getting up there as far as athletes are concerned, you start to get aches and pains. It’s like: Why is my knee sore today? Or why is my ankle sore? Why does my back hurt? The more I started to eat healthy and eat right, less sugar, drinking more water, staying hydrated, stuff like that—all those aches and pains started to go away. I’m gonna try to stay away as long as I can and splurge every now and then.

10oz Hand-Cut Grilled New York Strip, Garlic, Rosemary, Thyme Butter, Blistered Tomatoes, and Parmesan & Herb Coated French Fries

8 OZ. FILET MIGNON 44
8oz Hand-Cut Seared Filet, Parmesan Crème FraÎche Yukon Mashed Potatoes, Grilled Broccoli Steak, Crispy Fried Onions

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Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks: First, give me a setting. Where is this menu? Where are we? It’s kind of different to eat fish in certain places. So it just depends. Like, I’m a big sushi guy. Depending on where I am, I probably wouldn’t get sushi. I try not to have it before games or things like that, but I’m definitely a big sushi guy. Just depending on where I am—like, I probably wouldn’t have sushi in Utah or Memphis or Oklahoma City.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers: I don’t really worry about ordering seafood from room service, ’cause I stick to the script. I don’t try to do too much. I stick with my salmon and sometimes a vegetable, sometimes a white rice. I grew up in Baltimore, so we eat seafood out there. Always was a big seafood guy. If there’s no salmon, then I’ll go to a burger after that—or I’m on a delivery app at that point.

Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: A lot of my decisions, it’s not based so much on health. But if I’m in a hotel, I always feel like, OK, I’m there for a game, I’m there for business, but I feel like I’m kind of on a mini vacation, too. So if I’m gonna get seafood, I feel like I’m treating myself on my little mini vacation.

Sue Saunders-Bouvier, Washington Wizards nutritionist: We have some pescatarians on the team, and they really get tired of only eating salmon, where that’s their only option. So we’ve had room service add shrimp or add halibut or some kind of extra type of fish to the menu so a guy doesn’t have to eat salmon twice a day or however many times a day he would have to based off a normal room service menu during these times.

Maple-Glazed Salmon topped with Candied Pecans served with a Mélange of Ancient Grains and Spinach Soufflé

GLAZED CHICKEN BREAST 29
Bacon Marmalade Glazed Chicken Breast, Herb Roasted Red Skin Potatoes, Smoked Hazelnut Haricot Verts

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Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: I’m a big pasta guy. It’s simple for me. Any pasta with red sauce is easy for me. I used to love Alfredo sauce back in high school with the Marie Callender’s fettuccini Alfredo, but now I’ve just had too much of that. So I’ve always gotta go with the red sauce. Most room service pasta is pretty similar. Occasionally you’ll go down to, I don’t know, San Antonio, and you’ll get something maybe a little south-of-the-border inspired.

One thing that’s hard for me, even as an athlete, is any kind of brown rice or whole grain pasta I just can’t do. I think it’s more of a texture thing. If I have to, I’ll do it, but—it’s funny to say that I try to avoid the healthy option, but I try to avoid it. I try to judiciously avoid it.

Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: I wouldn’t be able to eat the pasta with bolognese; I’d have to substitute for the ground beef, maybe add chicken or something like that. Whenever I do order pasta, I look at the menu and I’ll just say what I’m looking for as opposed to ordering what they have, and hope that they can do that. Because orders can get mixed up and you end up with something you might not want on your meal. So I’ll just say “I want a pasta with red sauce and grilled chicken,” and hope that works. I don’t wanna mess that up.

Pappardelle Pasta tossed with House-made Bolognese Sauce served with Fresh Grated Parmesan Cheese and Garlic Herb French Bread

PENNE TRIPLE CHEESE FONDUE 29
Penne Pasta tossed with House-made Gruyere, Parmesan, and Smoked Gouda Cream Sauce served with Garlic Herb French Bread
Add Chicken (+$4) | Salmon (+$8) | Grilled Shrimp (+$8)

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: I don’t wanna eat as I’m getting into bed, which can easily happen when you’re on the road and flying around and stuff like that. Your schedule gets kinda mixed up. So trying to make sure I eat on the plane, or if I have an hour-and-a-half flight or something like that I eat there and kinda work my way into the sleep cycle to get ready for the next day.

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Sue Saunders-Bouvier, Washington Wizards nutritionist: What sometimes looks like a healthy option—certain salads, when you actually add everything that’s coming on the salad, when they’ve put the bacon, the blue cheese, and the ranch dressing, you’d have been better off getting the burger with a side salad.

Seasonal Greens, Local Corn, Diced Ham, Hard Boiled Eggs, Bacon, Avocado, Tomatoes, and Blue Cheese served with Creamy Herb Dressing

ROMAINE WEDGE 12
Romaine Wedge, Parmesan Crisp, Garlic Croutons with Traditional Caesar Dressing
Add Chicken (+$4) | Shrimp (+$8) | Salmon (+$8)

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: I think my late-night option is the smoked turkey club. That’s pretty universal.

Sue Saunders-Bouvier, Washington Wizards nutritionist: Actually, when we arrive late in the cities, sometimes you don’t get in until 1 or 2 a.m. and it might be quite a stretch of time between when they’ve had their postgame meal, flown, gone through the COVID protocols, gotten into their room, and they haven’t had anything to eat. So we’ll actually have a snack for them in the room when they arrive. And our go-to snack when they arrive is a turkey club sandwich. So that’s my go-to for a late-night snack for these guys—with a piece of fruit thrown in.

Sliced Smoked Turkey Club on Artisan Wheat Bread, Smoking Goose Applewood Smoked Bacon, Herb Aioli, Smoked Gouda Cheese, Lettuce, and Tomato

BLACK ANGUS BURGER 18
Black Angus Burger on Toasted Buttery Artisan Bun, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Smoked Gouda Cheese, Caramelized Onion Jam, Lettuce, Tomato, Onion, and Pickles

STEAK FRITES 42
10oz Hand-Cut Grilled New York Strip, Garlic, Rosemary, Thyme Butter, Blistered Tomatoes, and Parmesan & Herb Coated French Fries

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: There’s been times where I’ve had chicken wings throughout the year. Not this year. Well, maybe this year. Once or twice. Just as something to hold me over. Chicken tenders are something you can always lean on if you’re starving. That’s where I try to get a good meal in before I get to the hotel, if I can, and we’re coming in late. So that way I don’t have to pick between them.

Served with Celery Sticks
Choice: Buffalo Sauce | BBQ | Sweet Thai Chili
Choice: Ranch | Blue Cheese

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Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks: My rookie year, I fell into [the habit] where I would get chicken fingers late at night, chicken wings, stuff like that. I think with me changing my diet this past year, it kind of took me away from eating chicken. In the summertime, I went plant-based. Now I’m mostly pescatarian, which is just eating fish. I went through a phase of different diets, but now I kinda know my body. It’s easy just so when I get to places, I kinda know what I’m gonna eat. Now I’ve gotta choose healthier options. I’m probably not in the mood for fish that late at night, so it kinda helps me.

Served with French Fries
Dipping Sauce: Buffalo Sauce | BBQ | Ranch | Honey Mustard | Sriracha Honey | Warm Gravy

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Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers: After a game, you’re coming in, you might get in at 12, 1 o’clock, you’re still hungry. You’re not really getting the proper nutrition that you really need right away, so when you get to the hotel, you wanna order something. A lot of times, the late-night menu is the menu. Chicken fingers and fries and chicken wings and things like that. I try to get a meal in before I get to that. Or what I’ll try to do is try to limit. I’ll just get some fries, get a double order of fries, or a flatbread. You can’t go wrong with a flatbread. That’ll hold me over till the next day.

Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: Depending on if I’ve had it before—which is kind of a chicken-and-egg conversation—I might go with the flatbread. I like my flatbreads to definitely trend more toward pizza. There’s definitely a gradient. I like my flatbreads to resemble more typical pizza than perhaps your more gourmet options.

Choice of three: Pepperoni | Sausage | Prosciutto | Meatballs | Mushrooms | Peppers | Black Olives | Onions | Ricotta | Basil | Sliced Tomatoes

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Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: Usually, the big challenge for me is whether or not I’ll eat that Snickers bar in the minibar. That’s my challenge to see how mentally strong I am that night. Sometimes when I’m leaving the plane, I’ll grab a PB and J or two. I’ll be like, This is gonna be my meal. I’m gonna have a pasta and that’s gonna be my meal. Then it’ll be a challenge as the hours and the minutes tick away. I don’t need that bar. Do I need that bar? It’s an interesting little dilemma for me at times.

Served with Vanilla Ice Cream

SUGAR CREAM PIE 9
Served with Edible Flowers and topped with Whipped Cream

HÄAGEN-DAZS ICE CREAM 10
Served by the pint
Vanilla | Chocolate

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: During the season I try to stay away from sweets as much as I can. I’m a big sweets guy—an apple cobbler kind of guy. I like cinnamon apples, chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, SweeTARTS. You go down the line. Sugar is sugar for me. I’ll eat anything that is probably bad for you. But I’ve done a better job as I’ve gotten older of being able to basically cut it off and do a good job of holding off on it. If I can stay away from it during the season—which I do a pretty good job of—I’ll go and have a couple weeks in the summertime where I’ll kinda go all out.

Choice of Milk: Skim | Low-Fat | Whole | Chocolate | Soy

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Sue Saunders-Bouvier, Washington Wizards nutritionist: We definitely do have sweets because (a) they need the calories—we have players who have a very hard time keeping their weight up during the season; and (b) there’s something really intangible about how food affects your mood. When they’ve had something that’s considered a treat and makes them happy and feels good and makes them feel rewarded and maybe reminds them of home—what role does that play then in reducing their stress levels, sleeping better, and feeling better about playing the next day? One of the things we do with our team now, because we have a much greater leash on the menu, is I can send in a recipe to the hotel for a brownie that’s made with some shredded zucchini and dark chocolate. It’s gluten free and it’s got walnuts in it and it actually tastes really good. Guys die for those.

EVIAN NATURAL SPRING WATER (330 ml) 6

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Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: In the last year or so, I’ve been really big on sparkling water, man. I like the carbonation. I never liked it before the last two years. Now, it’s like everywhere I go for dinner, I drink it with everything. At home at my house, my wife buys some flavored sparkling water that has no sugar in it and stuff like that. So I’m kind of addicted to that. There’s some really good ones—like Zevia, they have like cream soda, they have like root beer, they have everything that tastes like your everyday soda which you love.

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Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers: I drink hot tea all day. I’ll do green tea. I’ll do mint tea. I’ll do chamomile tea. All herbal teas, I’ll do—only herbal.

English Breakfast | Earl Grey (Regular or Decaf) | Spring Jasmine Green Chamomile Citron | African Nectar Rooibos

COFFEE
Locally-roasted Hubbard & Cravens Coffee
Small $8 | Large $12

ESPRESSO 6

CAPPUCCINO 6

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Robin Lopez, Washington Wizards: Honestly, the biggest switch-out I made for me, personally, is cutting down on sodas and even Gatorades. Gatorades I just try to keep around game time. I just try to drink water as much as possible. I think that’s been the most beneficial thing for me.

Coke | Diet Coke | Sprite

JUICE
Glass $8 | Pitcher $32
Orange | Grapefruit | Tomato | V8 | Apple | Cranberry | Pineapple

RED BULL 6
Regular | Sugar Free

MILK 5
Whole | Skim | 2% | Chocolate | Soy

FRESHLY BREWED ICED TEA
Glass $5 | Pitcher $20

BEER

SUN KING LOCAL CRAFT BEER 8
Sunlight Cream Ale | Wee Mac Scottish Ale | Osiris Pale Ale

DOMESTIC 5
Budweiser | Bud Light | Miller Lite | Sam Adams

IMPORTED 6
Corona | Heineken | Amstel Light | Stella Artois

WINE

SPARKLING
Santa Margherita Prosecco (Trentino-Alto, Italy) 14 | 31

WHITE
Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (Trentino-Alto, Italy) 15 | 30
Shooting Star Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County) 12 | 24
J. Lohr Chardonnay (California) 11 | 22

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Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers: I look at the hotel menu to see what’s on there before I go. If you know the basics, then you know when in doubt, I can have a glass of this and be cool. You know what I’m saying? I know the basics of what these hotels have, so it’s easier to see what’s on the menu and know I can have a glass of this, it’s not gonna be too bad. But most likely I bring my own wine with me. I travel with my own wine. Especially now, because I can’t go to restaurants who may have a good wine menu or something. So I bring my own.

Cline Cellars Zinfandel (California) 10 | 20
Steele Pinot Noir (Carneros) 15 | 30
Steele Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Hills Lake County) 14 | 28
Carpineto Chianti Classico (Chianti, Italy) 17 | 34

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