Boutique Bowling: A Night in Washington's Fast Lanes
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
In the corporate neon daylight of Seventh Street NW at night -- amid the welter of pubbers, clubbers, field-tripping suburbers and howling sports fans -- there is this strange new (and retro) evidence of renaissance in Washington: You can go bowling again.
Cue scraps of tactile memory -- stirrings from high school, or Wednesday nights after work, back home in a colder state, before you migrated to the capital to be somebody, maybe.
The shoes -- too tight, thin-soled, three-toned (trendoids brought them back a few years ago, minus the bowling). The balls -- three-holed, finger-stretching, too-heavy. The beer -- cheap and watery, by the pitcher. The smells: varnish and cigarette smoke.
Best of all, the sounds: The all-fall-down clatter of exploding formations of pins. The tumble of tenpins always seemed like an aural exaggeration -- a cartoon disaster or radio sound effect.
That sonic flashback hits you before you're even inside Lucky Strike Lanes, the city's first commercial bowling alley in forever, which just opened downtown at Gallery Place.
You hear it when you step off the escalator Friday night onto the mezzanine of the entertainment complex's vast Greek-columned atrium -- that slapstick soundtrack of things falling apart emanating from Lucky Strike, while all around are signs that things are coming together. Below you see long lines for "Syriana" and "Chronicles of Narnia." Clyde's is packed with holiday office partiers. You've just escaped the outside sidewalk river of Capitals fans heading next door to MCI Center, shoppers going to be seen in the blazing two-story fishbowl of Urban Outfitters, diners angling across the street toward chain-restaurant row.
There was a tone of amazement in the conversations floating around the complex -- a sense of Where are we, Toto? What little China was left in Chinatown has all but vanished, along with the last of the empty lots and abandoned buildings. The once gaudy-by-comparison Chinatown arch looks unexpectedly plain. Someone in the passing rush blurted out a depressing verdict, meant to be chipper: "It's almost like you're in Arlington!"
Ah yes, surprising D.C. -- finally catching up to its burbs.
But they don't have bowling like this in Arlington.
In fact, Lucky Strike is nothing like what you remember. It's what some in the industry call "boutique bowling" -- bowling gone uptown, bowling that moved away from home, got an expensive education, shed its accent, learned how to dress and order fancy food, and now is just a little bit ashamed of its roots.
The dress code posted outside the door has 13 noes, including "no sports jerseys" (sorry, Caps fans) and "no exposed intimate apparel" (drat). If you show up with your baseball cap turned backward, the fashion-forward hosts and hostesses posted up front will ask you to turn it around.
Step inside and the rattle of pins is like a low-fi rhythm section overwhelmed by the high-volume soundscape of the music -- indie, alty, dancey offerings meant to appeal to a slightly older crowd than the fare in college kid clubs. You spot the DJ in her command central before you spy the lanes themselves, and on Friday and Saturday nights she is Crystal "Deejay Mishalay" Gibson. She says it's an odd gig because in her club jobs she is the main attraction, whereas at Lucky Strike she's just one of the offerings.
"I've been waiting for a bowling alley the entire time I've lived here," says Carolyn Conner, 24, who works for an education nonprofit. Most of the people in her office have come here to bowl Friday night, the first time they could all agree on a place to socialize. She went home to the Chicago area over Thanksgiving and lamented to her family how there was no bowling in Washington. Then Lucky Strike opened Nov. 30.
"I like the movie theaters, too," Conner says. "Everything in Chinatown is making me very, very happy. And there's a Haagen-Dazs downstairs."
Oh, but why leave the lanes? There's a full restaurant with food devised by a Los Angeles catering company that specializes in movie premieres. Old bowling fare: greasy burgers, fries. Boutique bowling: tuna burger au poivre, ancho citrus chicken.
There's a long sleek bar with specialty cocktails ($9 and $10) and beer ($4.50 and $5.50) never served in pitchers, a strategic decision that sends a message: "It says we're upscale," according to assistant general manager Tim Woody. So does this: No one under 21 after 9 p.m.
There are plump couches and living room lamps, and everywhere are huge video screens designed to show images of contemporary art -- though on Friday the art satellite connection is out, so for the night we're back to ESPN.
Oh yeah, and there's bowling.
Walk up a short ramp, past the DJ, and there, regally elevated, are the 14 lanes. They are a shimmering blue, with tubes of colored lights separating them. You feel like you're bowling on the lanes of a swimming pool.
The urethane bowling balls are the bright fruity colors of gumballs. The shoes are new and glistening from the squirt of Lysol each pair gets after use. The overhead scoreboard is automatic -- no pesky arithmetic required -- and tells you the speed of your balls in miles per hour. Between frames, you sit on a couch facing a low wooden coffee table with a candle on it. Black-clad servers take food and drink orders.
Boutique bowling is an accessory to a bar, while a bar was an accessory to old-school bowling.
Friday and Saturday nights after 9 are the most popular and expensive times to bowl: You can call ahead and reserve a lane for $75 an hour for your group, or you can show up, put your name on the list, and pay $7.95 per person, per game, plus $3.95 for shoes. The wait can be three or four hours.
The trend was hot and new a few years ago, but new as it is in Washington, the capital is behind the curve. The first Lucky Strike opened in Hollywood in 2003. Now there are 12. Pittsburgh got one before Washington did. (Ouch.) Strike Bethesda, created in 2001 by another company, is another riff on the genre.
Decades ago, Washington had several commercial bowling centers, including, coincidentally, one called Lucky Strike. They closed one by one as neighborhoods went downhill and bowling lost its luster. Now there are lanes at Bolling Air Force Base, (insert Bolling alley pun here), restricted to military personnel, and in the Marvin Center at George Washington University, open to the public, but no drinking. The famed White House lanes in the Old Executive Office Building closed after 9/11.
The new bowling in the new Washington is an affirmation: You are so hip. This follows you right into the restroom, where the walls are lined with clips from celebrity magazines picturing Geena Davis, Paula Abdul, Matthew McConaughey, Kelly Osbourne and Jessica Simpson bowling at the Lucky Strike on Hollywood Boulevard.
But who in the crowd of hundreds Friday night looks like that? It's mostly wonky Washington -- neckties still in evidence! -- traveling in packs defined by workplace. A law firm occupies four lanes for a private party. A trade organization stops in for drinks. Three Hill spokespeople and one non-Hill friend stop by after watching "Syriana" and bowl for an hour. Two of them live a couple blocks away, a neighborhood where four years ago squatters occupied desolate buildings and today one-bedrooms rent for $2,100.
"It's the perfect place between downtown and the Hill to come on lunch hour," says Kerrie Bentfield, who handles government relations for a law firm, and who recently bowled two lunch-hour games with a colleague. "It's so not D.C., because it's cool," Bentfield says, then quickly adds, "I hope it is D.C.!"
Deborah Robinson sits on a stool and takes it all in. She is 53, a communications manager who lives in Northeast, here tonight to celebrate the birthday of her daughter Andrea Simmons, 22, an assistant day-care teacher, organized by another daughter, Raneka Young, 31, a recruiter for the Justice Department.
"I think it's fabulous," says Robinson. "I grew up in D.C. We used to do things like go bowling, roller-skating," often with a church group; and even with the alcohol and music, "it's nice to know we're going back to that. . . . Even with your teenage children, you feel secure when you know there's a dress code here."
Here is a cluster of Smithsonian art conservators: Nicole Grabow is wearing a vintage bowling shirt and a mock wedding veil made of what conservators call "an inert non-woven polyester." Boutique bowling is her bachelorette bash.
"Here everyone knows bowling can be silly," says her friend Nora Lockshin, who procured the vintage shirts and knows her way around what she calls a "real" or "old-school" alley. The automatic scoreboards are an improvement: "Because you're drinking a lot, it's really good they do the math for you."
The air is not thick with camp and parody. The boutique bowlers' attitude toward the sport is affectionate, not ironic. They just don't intend to form a league or anything. To bowl for $75 an hour is to pay homage to a former self, not to signal a new hobby. And anyway, in addition to beer pitchers, bowling leagues are banned from Lucky Strike as well.
After opening a few presents of exotic undergarments, the bride-to-be bowls her first frame. The scoreboard credits "Naughty Nicole" with a speed of 11.8 mph, for a spare! She raises both arms over her head and whoops in victory. Even with Death Cab for Cutie in the air and $10 martinis floating by on trays, some protocols of bowling culture are eternal and immutable.