For some bowling centers, a lucky strike is finding the perfect balance between the games and the food being served. But as more boutique bowling alleys pop up around the country – like the ultra-hip North Bowl in Philadelphia’s trendy Northern Liberties neighborhood – or even Lucky Strike in Los Angeles, bowlers are expecting a lot more than the usual burger and fries.
At Bowlmor Lanes in New York City’s Union Square, as many people seem to show up for the food as they do to roll a game. This is thanks to David Burke, the chef who landed the job as culinary director for Bowlmor Lanes locations from New York to L.A. Not only has the once-seedy bowling alley been turned into a posh entertainment venue at its home base in Greenwich Village where the first Bowlmor welcomed guests more than 50 years ago, the food has also been striking up plenty of great reviews lately.
“Partnering with David was key to keeping Bowlmor’s brand fresh and exciting,” said Brett Parker, vice president and CFO of Strike Holdings, which owns and manages Bowlmor nationwide. “David’s creativity and passion meshes well with our vision to create a unique, upscale environment for our customers.”
A standard Bowlmor menu might have on it everything from calamari and spring rolls to BBQ pork ribs, classic New York-style pizza, burgers and a can of nachos (yes, nachos piled high in a large tin can.)
The food and the atmosphere at Bowlmor is enough to attract bowlers well under the age of 30, not to mention a fair share of celebs in big cities where it now operates.
Lucky Strike Lanes, also with locations around the country, has been rethinking old-time bowling with a fresh new scene. While the menus varying at bowling centers in Houston, Philly and beyond, since last year Bill Starbuck has served as Lucky Strike’s corporate executive chef. He’s charged with coming up with new takes on classic American cuisine, like introducing new menu items like grilled apple and brie quesadillas, grilled cheese sliders, chicken confit turnovers and Caprese stacks.
“We are thrilled to have Bill on board exclusively and know that Bill’s passion for food and creativity [shines] through in the Lucky Strike classic comfort food menu,” said Steven Foster, the owner of Lucky Strike.
Rethinking Classic Comfort Food
Capturing the balance between old-school bowling alleys and hip new destinations has definitely been a trend in larger cities through North America. In the heart of San Francisco’s Presidio National Park is Presidio Bowling Center, a popular bar and grill with pub-style food and as many as 40 different beers and almost 20 wines. The venue even serves breakfast food – hot cakes, bacon and eggs – from morning until late nights. But no matter what new items may be added to the menu, best sellers always tend to hark back to the glory days.
“Our number-one seller is and always has been a cheeseburger and fries,” said Manager Victor Meyerhoff. “We start with top-quality ingredients. We have buns delivered three times a week and our beef is never frozen – it’s fresh Angus chuck. We also buy our produce locally every couple of days. I think starting with the best ingredients helps to insure the best possible end result. We actually have customers that come to the bowling center for food and not to bowl.”
Over the years, Meyerhoff admitted that he’s tried out all sorts of trendy dishes. “None of them seem to have any staying power,” he said. “We get sporadic questions about bringing in gluten-free and organic products, but the reality is that most of the masses are not interested in picking up the added costs.”
These days, Presidio offers an all-you-can-eat pizza and bowling special for three hours every Sunday evening. And a recent change to a long-time dish also increased the center’s nacho sales by 200 percent. “We simply deep fry corn tortilla wedges for a couple of minutes, salt and serve,” he said. “Customers really enjoy the freshness” now that the nachos are made to order.
“We see customers looking for healthier options more for our birthday parties than anywhere else,” admitted Meyerhoff. “Parents are looking for veggie snacks mostly. Our regular menu includes chicken breast sandwiches, veggie burgers and turkey burgers. That seems to satisfy most of our customers.”
Still other visitors to the Bay Area institution have questions about recycling and the use of biodegradable plates and utensils. “We have changed our service ware to accommodate the requests,” he said. “I think our adult customers aren’t as concerned about healthy alternatives because they are drinking beer. They have already given into the idea that the calorie overload is already happening, so what the heck?”
A Restaurant Within a Bowling Center
Dave Kerschner, a spokesperson at Crazy Pins.com in Fort Wayne, Ind., admitted that the sit-down restaurant at the bowling and fun center is a lot like the food chain Applebee’s. The restaurant, called Coconuts, serves everything from quesadillas and popcorn shrimp to New York steaks and pulled pork sliders.
“No matter what we try,” he admitted, “we still sell pizza and burgers the most.”
Crazy Pins has several dining areas in addition to the main sit-down restaurant Coconuts. Guests can order food and drinks on the bowling lanes, from the snack bar and in an upstairs lounge where many corporate and private parties are hosted. And while the food options can be varied for catered events, the big sellers always seem to be more traditional snack choices.
“It’s a comfort and that’s just what’s associated with bowling,” said Kerschner. “People go out and eat the food they want to and splurge a little.”
Crazy Pins, like many fun centers around the country, also serves alcohol, well, everywhere except the Kid’s Tent and Glow in the Dark Mini Golf center. But like the balance between old-school style and the new, so it goes with courting both kids and adults at many of these centers. A big attraction has really become the food.
This season, Kerschner said the chef will be featuring monthly specials in addition to the standby menu. “We’ve tried things like sliders when they were popular, we did those for awhile,” he said. “We have a traditional menu that never changes and will run monthly specials.” These are specialty dishes, usually three or four each month, that might include Philadelphia cheese steaks or seasonal chili.
Fresh Food That’s Never Frozen
In the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Palmyra Bowling Center is one of the only venues of its kind in the county. Just minutes from Hershey, the town famous for its chocolate candy and amusement park, the center is a family friendly operation that’s been upgrading its food service in the last few years.
These days, the best-selling foods are wings and burgers. “They are the classics and everyone knows that we do them the way they should be done,” said the center’s Food and Beverage Manager Chris Uecker. “Never frozen and always delicious.”
Even though many traditional menu items always seem to sell very well, especially at night and on weekends, Uecker said the demand has inspired him to rethink the menu to appeal to even more bowlers. “We’ve expanded some of our popular items to add more variety and keep them fresh,” he said, including new wing sauces and different burgers. “All of which start with the same quality ingredients we expect our food to have.”
And while customers may not always stick to their diets during a night out on the lanes, a few healthy choices have visitors thinking a bit more creatively about even the most fun foods.
“We’ve received a lot of positive feedback to our fresh ingredients and have seen the trends favor grilled options over fried,” said Uecker. “And the fact that our fries are fresh cut really adds that final touch and takes away the guilt of eating fries.”
Uecker says his trick is to revamp favorite foods. “We try to offer different varieties on the traditional items that don’t take away from the burger itself, but instead enhance the experience,” he said. “We are also starting to focus on Facebook and FourSquare to make it as convenient and rewarding as possible to dine with us. We also try and keep our prices as reasonable as possible so any family can come enjoy a casual meal and we don’t have to be a special occasion destination.” –