The Alley is either the best thing that ever happened to the downtown entertainment scene or a clear sign that civilization is coming to an end. I'm not sure which.
Somehow last week, I found myself in a bowling alley a little before noon on a Sunday, sipping a cold Westbrook IPA, eating eggs benedict, and throwing gutterballs. Widespread Panic boomed down from big speakers overhead. Around the corner a bunch of kids were playing Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. I wasn't quite sure what century I was in, but I was having a really good time.
Welcome to the new style bowling alley. Forget the chains with their heel-worn carpet and two dozen lanes. The latest version is short on lanes (just eight, in the Alley's case) but long on retro style.
The Alley's logo employs a curvy font straight off a disco album cover, and the one for Home Team Kitchen, the embedded food concession, would be right at home at the Sands during the Rat Pack's heyday. The 40-foot long bar is fashioned from repurposed bowling alley planks, and the word "distribution" is emblazoned in all caps above the entire thing in black Art Deco letters.
A couple of pinball machines and a dozen "vintage" arcade games line the walls, including rare ones like Joust and After Burner. (Side note: for someone to whom "vintage" connotes Packard automobiles and zoot suits, seeing the videogames I played as a teen being labeled "vintage" carries a bitter sting.)
And then there's the food. At the Alley, you'll find no nachos with day-glo orange cheese food product pumped onto them from a plunger spout. No hots dogs spin all day on heated steel rollers, waiting to be dished out by a surly, lackluster teen in a polyester uniform shirt. Those sorts of retro touches have no place in the new style bowling alley.
Such ventures are not unique to Charleston. At the Corner Alley in Cleveland, you can sip colorful martinis and eat short ribs or chicken Provençal. The Florida-based Splitsville chain offers pitchers of rum runners and crab rangoon rolls from its sushi bar. When I was in Baltimore a few months ago, I rolled a couple of games of duckpins at Mustang Alley, a joint on the second floor of an old warehouse, where we sipped Natty Bo on draft and munched fried pickles and shrimp tacos.
The guys dishing up the grub at the Alley are Aaron Siegel and Taylor Garrigan, veterans of local kitchens like Blossom and FIG and the guys behind Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ. Their nachos ($10) get a generous layer of thin, rich green chili with braised pork and chimichurri. The cheese fries ($9) are actually potato chips (housemade, of course) topped with parmesan reggiano and bacon (house-cured, obviously).
At five bucks a bowl, the boiled peanuts are pricey, but they're simmered to just the right slightly firm but not too mushy texture. The meatballs ($8) come three to a bowl, racketball-sized and draped in marinara with melted mozzarella, parmesan, and a sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs on top. Their blend of pork and beef is savory and shot through with red pepper flakes. It's quite spicy, too.
Originally, the menu had a small selection of what might be termed upscale diner-style entrées — beef stew, roasted chicken, a NY strip topped with a sunny-side up farm egg — but the offerings have been scaled back now to just sandwiches, salads, and pizzas.
The pizzas are of the French bread variety. The one with baby spinach and roasted garlic cream ($10) seemed risky, so I went with the more prosaic three cheese ($9). There's something comforting and wholesome about a pizza assembled atop a slice of toasted French bread, and the herb-forward notes of the marinara and the gooey blend of mozzarella, fontina, and parmesan go quite nicely together.
The sandwich slate includes fried shrimp and fried oyster po boys (both $11), roasted chicken and gravy ($9), and braised pork belly ($10). The Italian sub ($10) layers prosciutto, pepperoni, and capicola with cool slices of fresh mozzarella. A smear of sharp pesto lines the top, and the layer of tangy, finely minced pepperoncini along the bottom adds just the right amount of zip to elevate it above a standard deli sub.
However, the fancy-food flourishes that once graced the discontinued entrée selection live on in the side dishes — roasted beets, butter beans, sauteed greens. They're worth keeping.
"Oh my God, the cheese grits," one of my tablemates declared after her first bite ($2.50). "They're almost like frosting." The shells and cheese ($3) are even better — creamy and salty and, if that's not sinful enough, doctored up with plentiful chunks of fatty pork belly. The tater tots ($2.50), a decidedly lowbrow treat, are made superior by their extra-crispy exterior with a blast of salt and a touch of spice.
The upscale-comfort-food vibe is even more pronounced on the new Sunday brunch menu. Pancakes are paired with a fried chicken leg and thigh ($12), and a bowl of shrimp and grits ($13) is laced with okra, sweet corn, and sausage. You can start things off with a "Rockefeller Style" deviled egg (75 cents a piece). The creamy richness of a deviled egg is combined with soft green spinach and a hot, crisp fried oyster — a beautiful combination of texture and flavor.
On the pork cake benedict ($12) two halves of a sliced biscuit take the place of the English muffin, and what a biscuit it is: deep yellow in color, buttery and chewy. Each half is topped with a substantial puck of crisply fried pork plus a poached egg draped in pale yellow hollandaise.
As good as this combination is — pork cake chewy and flavorful, egg sending a golden gusher of yolk down the side when pierced with a fork — it's upstaged by the pile of salad that comes alongside. It's just mesclun tossed with tangy pickled onions, chickpeas, and whole parsley leaves. But, deliciously cool and bright, its flavors are the perfect counterbalance to the hedonistic richness of the egg, pork cake, and biscuit. Fortunately, we were finishing up the 10th frame of our first game when our brunch orders arrived, for the plates aren't the kind of stuff that lends itself to quick bites between throws. You can eat standing up at little counters behind each of the lane's benches or sitting in one of those seats themselves, your plate either perched on your lap or positioned awkwardly on the triangle of flat surface behind the seatbacks.
And that raises his question: does this kind of upscale comfort food really belong in a bowling alley? The answer, I'm afraid, is a waffling yes and no. Some of the dishes work just fine as grazing fare while you hurl heavy balls down slick, polished alleys. Others are better left at the funky tables in the main dining area, which seats a generous 150.
The large meatballs require a knife and fork, and their liberal pre-saucing of marinara creates a high probability of red stains on your best bowling shirt. The French bread pizzas, on the other hand, come cut into two-inch sections, perfect for pulling apart and munching down one piece at a time between bowls.
Tater tots? Great finger food, though introducing the risk of greasy fingers dropping 14 pounds of ball on toes. The eggs benedict with their geysers of yolk? Even riskier. Those little brunch deviled eggs are ideal, though. Order a dozen and race your alleymates to finish them.
The logistical challenges of eating while bowling are just part of the cognitive dissonance of the Alley. Stylistically, it mashes '70s era wood paneling and Charlie's Angels silhouettes with 1980s video games and food and drink straight out of whatever the hell we are calling the 2010s.
There's no cheap watery draft in clear plastic pitchers and plastic cups here. The beer list offers over a dozen choices on draft, all served in actual pint glasses, and twice as many in bottles. Cans of Schlitz and Coors Original appear alongside Dale's Pale Ale.
We live in a restless age. We long for the style of the past but don't want to give up the comforts of today. We love the late 20th century's flair, but we sure don't want to eat its crummy food.
But does that matter? In the end, I decided to let the bowling balls themselves decide.
My initial pre-brunch game had been dismal — four straight gutterballs out of the gate, followed by a parade of 5- and 6-pin frames. It was a relief when the food arrived, and we all took a break.
After motoring through the hearty pork cake benedicts and sampling my companions' food, I was stuffed silly and all but waddling as I stepped up onto the polished hardwood to throw the first roll of the second game. "Here goes nothing," I thought.
And then the miraculous happened. Powered by pork, I rolled a turkey. Three frames, three strikes, followed by a nine and then a spare.
So, bring on the pork belly and the craft beer and the live streaming Phish shows on the big screen on the mezzanine. Civilization, I suppose, is safe. At least for a little while.