Welcome to Taking the Temperature, in which Eater checks the vital signs of various food scenes across the country to find out what's exciting and what's DOA. Today: the new wave of bowling alleys.
Bowling usually brings to mind dark, smoke-stained, wood-paneled lairs that haven't been remodeled since the 70s, or, worse, mid-90s black-lit strips in the suburbs with cartoon bowling pins dancing on the televisions. But what about the current generation of bowling alleys?
Bowling alleys today run the gamut from suburban chains aimed at young professionals with "evening casual" dress codes to hip urban bowling alley/event venue combos with extensive local beer lists to antique, reclaimed lanes accompanied by a bartender in a vest with a handlebar moustache. They're chic lounges with antique wooden alleys or state of the art equipment where you can order fancy pre-Prohibition-inspired cocktails and food from a chef whose name is on the menu. These are not bowling alleys as you currently know them.
One of the first was Bowlmor: the current incarnation of the New York City bowling alley opened in 1994 and, according to the Bowlmor website, by 1999 it was the highest grossing bowling alley in the country. In 2010, a tricked out new location opened in the old New York Times building, complete with a David Burke restaurant, two nightclubs, a ballroom and, of course, 50 lanes of bowling.
In 2003, the first locations of the chains Splittsville and Lucky Strike both opened, in Tampa, Florida and Hollywood, respectively. And the trend went indie in 2009, when Brooklyn Bowl opened its upscale bowling alley/bar/restaurant/music venue in Williamsburg and Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse fame opened the Highball in Austin, Texas — what he calls a a "fun center," with bowling, karoake, parties, a bar and a restaurant.
Since then others have opened, including The Spare Room, which opened in Los Angeles in 2011. An elegant take on a gentlemen's gaming room, this bowling alley in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel has the two antique, reclaimed bowling alleys and a $75 cocktail on the menu to prove it. And Mission Bowling Club in San Francisco, which is co-owned by Anthony Myint of Mission Street Food/Chinese fame, started serving Mission Burgers just last month.
And more are on their way: Austin's getting a second take on the trend with the Goodnight, opening sometime this summer. Dallas' Bowl & Barrel is coming in September, and Punch Bowl Social is taking on both Denver and Portland.
So why now? Why the obsession with upscale bowling alleys? Nostalgia. According to Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League, "A lot of my generation grew up with bowling because of our parents...when you couple beer with nostalgia, you end up in a pretty happy place." And yet this generation of bowling aficionados expects more than microwaved nachos: "nostalgia" in modern restaurant terms means updating the classics. The Highball's chef Trish Eichelberger "reimagine[s] diner food with a Texas twist," serving plays on Dr. Pepper ribs and other Texan standbys.
As for the beverage side of things, cocktails and local beer lists are swell, sometimes it's still about the novelty: says League, "I'm a sucker for those novelty 16oz Bud Lights in the bowling pin shape. That's the only time I drink Bud Light."
A Selection of New Generation Bowling Alleys Across the Country
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