Watch Your Wallet At Bowl & Barrel
There's something democratizing about the sport of bowling. Even though pros travel the world, earn sponsorships and win thousands of dollars, it's still considered a common man's sport. Bowling is the stuff of beer bellies and Camels, polyester shirts and leather shoes lightly freshened with a spritz of Claire's Disinfectant Spray. Miller High Life is the "official beer of bowling," according to people with the power to determine such things.
The menus at bowling alleys have historically been a good match with the Champagne of beers. Picture wrinkly hot dogs on stale buns and corn chips fried weeks ago topped with a slow motion tsunami of bright orange cheese. The genre was ripe for an overhaul. What's surprising is how well that overhaul is working.
While Bowl and Barrel, the self-described boutique bowling alley and modern American tavern, is Kyle Noonan's first concept, he is not new to the business. After working in operations for the Pappas restaurant group in Chicago, he returned to Dallas to join fellow SMU graduate and friend Josh Sepkowitz. The two set out to find a niche that had yet to be exploited locally and saw dollar signs among the spinning resin balls and tumbling pins of an upscale bowling alley.
Their idea is hardly a novel one. Bowlmor Lanes opened in New York City in 1994 before dropping four more locations in Florida, California and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. A similar operation called Lucky Strike has more than 20 locations across the United States and Canada, while Florida-based Splittsville is spreading in the Southeast. Smaller, boutique variants of these one-stop entertainment megaplexes are popping up too, and Bowl and Barrel continues this trend by bringing an updated, upscale variant of America's favorite lowbrow pastime to the Shops at Park Lane.
Noonan and Sepkowitz enlisted the help of Sharon Hage, the famed York Street chef who has recently consulted on multiple restaurant menus around town. Hage ditched canned cheese for Texas fondue, dumped chicken wings for diminutive quail legs and dusted Spanish peanuts in sea salt and chile powder.
While Hage is responsible for the menu, she's not cooking in the kitchen, and the food often suffers in her absence. A house-made pretzel is soft, doughy and could use a little more time in the oven, though it's saved by an optional accompaniment of Texas fondue. Made with cheddar cheese and flecked with caraway seeds, the dip shows that creativity lurks in the kitchen. What often misses is the execution.
Salt is abused in other dishes, such as the pork shoulder served on braised greens with small crumbles of cornbread. A sweet, thick peanut sauce overwhelms a sambal chicken sandwich. Hand-cut french fries seem lifeless and dry and a cheese board comprises a few specimens past their prime.
Other dishes are surprisingly good. A hot ham and Swiss sandwich sporting a bright, coarsely chopped and vinegary slaw is a winner. The mustard seeds in a freshly made condiment pop in your mouth like beads of caviar, and the bread is nicely toasted and not at all greasy. Ditto for a burger that arrives cooked as ordered. Topped with crisp bacon, the rosy-red meat is flavorful and juicy.
A lineup of compelling hot dogs raises the game further. Links from Rudolph's Meat Market in Deep Ellum snap with vitality when bitten, and they come topped with creative condiments that all work well together. The sloppy dog covered with a sweet blend of savory ground beef is awakened with thin slices of jalapeño, while the barrel dog gets slathered more traditionally with onions, curried ketchup and more of that zippy house mustard.
The sprout kraut dog is even better. Picture that same juicy link topped with lightly fermented sauerkraut made from Brussels sprouts instead of cabbage. The flavor is mild, the texture is crisp, and when you bite into the beast and notice the applesauce laced with spicy horseradish, you'll realize you're holding a little masterpiece of pedestrian cooking.
You better hold on tightly though. The dogs bend like a cartoonish smile, protruding upward out either side of the bun by several inches. The presentation looks interesting, but it's not at all practical. Be sure to ask for extra napkins.
Thirsty? If you're feeling clever and want to order a white Russian like "the Dude" from The Big Lebowski, please don't. There are intelligent cocktails here, made from fresh-squeezed juices and complex house-made syrups. Good luck raising your bowling average after a couple of these.
And bowling is really why you should come here. While a few menu items stand out, Bowl and Barrel is hardly a destination restaurant. The space is more suited for the birthday parties and other social gatherings that fill the place on many evenings. Gone are the slicked-back hair and shirts embroidered with names like Al and Stan. They've been replaced with pretty ladies in skirts, bachelorette to-dos and the birthday parties that mark the new age of bowling.
The rebranding of an age-old pastime is raking in dollars, big-time. An hour at a lane here will set you back $50, and if you don't have a pair of Brunswicks in your closet to dust off, shoe rentals will cost you another five. The prices are high but not unreasonable considering other high-end alleys — slightly higher than prices at a similar operation in Fort Worth, but less than what you'd pay in New York City. Still, you'd be surprised how quickly a meal and a few frames can add up.
Clearly, people are paying. While Noonan won't divulge how much his business is making, he did say revenue is 30 percent higher than he and his partner expected when they filled out their business plans. Given the surroundings, punctuated by Neiman Marcus and Tod's handbags just across Central Expressway, Bowl and Barrel seems like a perfect fit.
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