Gutter ball

No matter where or when, the meal--a "dining experience," as we in the business call it--is judged according to a combination of three basic standards: the quality of the food, the quality of the service, and the quality of the atmosphere or ambiance. Other things do figure into it, but they're more idiosyncratically important. For most people, value is a consideration. To a few, the quality of the wine list is important. The possibility of celebrity sightings is a raison de diner for some people, and of course, the congeniality of the company you're with can ruin or make a meal. But these are really peripheral to the Big Three that are considerations whether you're eating at McDonald's or The Riviera.

Or even the Bronco Bowl.
I was raised in Dallas. The appeal of one-stop shopping is not lost on me. So when I found myself inclined to attend a concert at the newly refurbished Bronco Bowl, I naturally tended to think of the closest place to eat before the show. Since there was a restaurant in the same building, I naturally thought that was the place to go, because that way I would only have to find one parking place for the entire evening.

That's the way we think in Dallas, and I only lay this out in A-B-C order in order to make it clear that my way of arriving at the answer to the question, "Where should we eat?" is the same as everyone else's. And though it may sound crazy to expect good food from a bowling alley, you'd think that a place that appealed to the audiences of Lou Reed, Wynonna, Oasis, and The Boss would have some kind of eclectic approach to food.

I wasn't off in my decision-making. Sure enough, as we sat there naively waiting for our dinner in the Sports Grill inside the Bronco Bowl, lots of people we recognized later at the concert seemed to come in with the same thought we had: It could be a fun evening to check out the refurbished Bowl, have a bite, and see a show all from the same parking spot. I really was on target--it's just that the correct answer to the question, in this case, wasn't the right one.

We watched almost everyone give up and leave the place without eating. We stuck it out from a sense of duty, but from the beginning, this was one of the most miserable dining experiences I've ever had.

Expectations should be in proportion with promises: I didn't go to the Bronco Bowl expecting Star Canyon-quality food. Food here doesn't need to be incredible--I'm not asking for baby lettuce and Coleman's beef--but there's no reason it can't be as good as its genre gets. If the bowling and the sound system are state-of-the-art, the food should at least be in the same ball park, so to speak.

But, with all that square footage at the Bronco Bowl, the only places to eat are the snack window for bowlers or the Sports Grill, both of which serve the same food. You have to wonder why, after putting plenty of money into a great concert venue and booking good acts, didn't management provide a place for customers to relax, eat, and talk about the music they just listened to or are about to hear?

Anyway, even allowing for low expectations, the Sports Grill disappointed. KLIF-AM was broadcasting live and loud from a stage below the big screens showing the NCAA championship, creating an incredible cacophony even for a sports bar. The ceiling was hung with inflated bowling pins and balls and ringed with rally flags. The only other decorations were the sports words stencilled on the walls: "bowling," "hockey," "football," "basketball," and..."snooker?" Anyway, the effect is a little like a school lunchroom decorated for field day. So much for the ambiance.

Our waitress was the most well-meaning server in the world, but this could have been her first experience, judging by her performance, and it was a lousy time to learn on the job. The concessions manager, who was bussing tables and delivering food, and an overworked busboy named Luis, tried very hard to make up for the short staff and general disorganization. They deserve a job elsewhere.

The ads say this is the best burger in Dallas, so we ordered one with no mustard and with lettuce and tomato on the side to avoid the sogginess factor, and a side of fries. The inept but friendly waitress recommended the chicken-fried steak because, "It's so filling I can't even eat half of it," but she wrinkled her nose at the mere mention of the mysteriously named "Irish burritos" listed on the menu. (What could a name like that indicate? Salsa verde and green beans? Green meat? The imagination stalls out at a certain point.)

So, sipping on a margarita that tasted like Lemon Pledge--only obtained after a lengthy discussion about the complications of becoming a member of the Bronco's private club--we decided against the waitress' fave and ordered a grilled-chicken sandwich and the soft-taco plate, with "TNTs" to start. TNTs, a touted appetizer, are actually frozen hash-brown potatoes mixed with Tabasco sauce, then cut into pepper shapes and fried. They're the kind of thing Martha Stewart might dream up if she lived in a trailer park, and they come off tasting like undercooked Tater Tots. Even ketchup doesn't help.

Twenty minutes later the burger arrived with mustard, no lettuce or tomato in sight, the beef patty overcooked to gray rubberiness, and sans fries. Luckily, the soft tacos came three to a plate, so we could share. White meat of chicken was folded into a flour tortilla glued together with melted yellow cheese; a scoop of cream cheese and some salsa moistened things somewhat.

That made three strikes in one night, and we were outta there. The concert was great. The new arena is comfortable with good sight lines and sound. The lanes look shiny and new, and the whole Bowl echoes with the noise of TV screens, arcade guns, and the background rumble of falling pins. The sensory overload makes the place feel like a Chuck E. Cheese for grownups. If you stick to music and bowling, like Lou Reed did himself after his show, you'll have a good time. But I'll be stopping off at La Calle Doce first for dinner next time.

The On-Air Sports Bar & Grill at the Bronco Bowl, 2600 Fort Worth Avenue, 943-1777. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

On-Air Sports Bar & Grill at the Bronco Bowl:
TNTs $2.79
Bronco Burger $4.25
Soft Tacos $4.95
Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich $4.55
French-Fried Potatoes $1.49

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