The shoes may still be unglamorous, but don’t expect old-school standards like greasy onion rings and fries on the menu at modern bowling alleys. High-backed booths and leather sofas fill these hot spots, offering colorful martinis, plasma-screen televisions, dimmed lights — and a food and wine menu to rival any white-tablecloth joint.
“People think bowling, they think hot dogs and cold beer,” says Guy Revelle, owner of the upscale Splitsville in Tampa. “We take that idea and blow it out of the water.”
Revelle turned to Tim Cushman, who was named a 2008 best new chef by Food and Wine magazine, to create Splitsville’s grilled mahi mahi, lightly blackened and topped with shrimp sautéed in a spicy butter sauce, and the Tampa roll, a tempura shrimp roll topped with sesame seared ahi tuna, asparagus and wasabi mayo drizzle. Another staple is the steak Oscar, an 8-ounce sirloin topped with fresh crab meat and asparagus and coated with hollandaise sauce.
Bowling is back as an American pastime, the National Sporting Goods Association says: the group reports that the sale of bowling balls jumped from 138.5 million in 2000 to 156.9 million in 2007. That’s a big gain, considering today’s competition for entertainment dollars, says Dan Kasen, director of information services for the association.
But that stiff competition may be exactly what’s motivating bowling alley proprietors to step up their games, offering centers that feel more like fine supper clubs than places to knock pins.
“Americans want nice things,” says Bill Starbuck, executive corporate chef for Lucky Strike Lanes, a posh bowling franchise with 18 locations nationwide (with three more opening this year). “A dirty bowling alley with oily appetizers won’t do.”
Starbuck’s customers love his unique tapas-style offerings, such as tomato and cheese s’mores made of mini toasted French bread rounds, roasted tomatoes and mozzarella cheese and dabbed with herb olive oil. The grilled flat-iron steak is sliced for easy sharing, topped with a balsamic syrup and a side of lightly roasted Yukon gold potatoes.
Despite the upscale vibe at Atlanta’s Ten Pin Alley, executive chef Don Diem dubs his menu “gourmet junk food.” A crowd favorite is the surf-n-turf corn dogs, sticks of lobster and Kobe beef deep-fried and served with honey mustard dipping sauce. Equally decadent are Diem’s truffle mac and cheese balls, made of elbow macaroni, English cheddar cheese and shaved white truffles.
Like any fine-dining restaurant, Ten Pin enforces a strict dress code: no hats, no sleeveless shirts, no baggy clothes. And don’t let the rows of bowling lanes fool you — absolutely no athletic wear is allowed.
“There are plenty of nice restaurants around Atlanta, but this has its own unique blend. You can’t go wrong,” says T.J. Holmes, an Atlanta area news anchor who considers himself a regular. Holmes even takes first dates to Ten Pin, “and I usually get a second date out of it, too.”
At Garage Billiards & Bowl in Seattle, about a quarter of the patrons never even touch a bowling ball — they come for the food.
“The most popular comment I get is, ‘Wow, we had no idea bowling alley food could be this good,’ ” says Mike Bitondo, who runs Garage with partners Alex Rosenast and Jill Young-Rosenast.
Beef medallions — grilled 8-ounce tenderloin slices served with bacon apple-glazed collard greens — are a top seller. Or they were until this summer, when they were outsold by the vegetarian enchilada topped with a smoked tomato cream sauce.
Perhaps nowhere offers more VIP options than Las Vegas’ Red Rock Casino Resort Spa, which houses the most expensive bowling alley built in the country, says Lori Nelson, director of corporate communications. Costing $31 million to construct, Red Rock Lanes opened in April 2007 with 72 lanes, a lounge, video games embedded into bar tops and private VIP suites.
André Agassi, Nelly, Tony Hawk and Eva Longoria and husband Tony Parker have all paid the $3,000 to $5,000 fee to rent VIP lanes. And that doesn’t include food service, which starts at $280 for a party of 12. Executive chef David Kellaway suggests his All Things Lobster package of lobster shooters, lobster salad spring rolls, lobster medallions with caviar, lobster mashed potatoes and lobster kabobs.
RedPin in Oklahoma City also goes for the luxe. Aside from its Belgian imported beers and the Champagne and fruit Flirtini, don’t miss the Parmesan and truffle fontina macaroni and cheese, served with a side of French béchamel.
In between bites, RedPin servers deliver bowling shoes to customers atop large silver platters.
“Don’t worry,” says co-owner Erin Gillogly Brewer. “They aren’t the same trays we serve the food on.”