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4:25 PM / Saturday June 25, 2022

15 Jan 2011

Boutique bowling centers thrive in Philadelphia

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January 15, 2011 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

By Melissa Dribben

associated press

 

Nancy Agati and Benjamin White were virgin hip bowlers.

 

After yoga class Wednesday, Agati, an artist, and White, who builds movie sets, went out for the evening. They had dinner at the Standard Tap on North Second Street, then walked next door to North Bowl.

 

The bowling alley, or “bowling lounge,” as these boutique versions are called, has been open since 2006, but the pair had only recently learned about it from a friend who is a regular.

 

In the parking lot, the married couple passed a shiny BMW and, on the steps, a not-so-shiny guy hunched against the wind, trying to light a cigarette in his cupped hands. Then they pushed open the glass doors into the warm, noisy entrance and stopped short. They’d hit a wall of couples wrapped in wool, denim, and silver.

 

Bowling in Philadelphia has evolved.

 

The crowd was inching toward a monumental bouncer, who was scrupulously checking IDs.

 

When Agati, 49, and White, 48, finally reached him, he didn’t bother asking for their driver’s licenses.

 

They looked around.

 

To the left, people were gathered three deep around the bar, knocking back martinis, flutes of Coppola sparkling wine, and pints of draft beer. To the right, the cashier was in hyperdrive ringing up sales.

 

Upstairs, a party had reserved the loft, with its foosball, air hockey, and pool tables, and four bowling lanes. And straight ahead, groups gathered in pods, eating Tater Tots, buffalo wings, and steamed edamame between turns aiming at the pins , and knocking them down with an exceedingly wide range of skill.

 

“Listen!” White told his wife. “The Specials!”

 

The DJ was playing a track from the 1970s English ska-revival group. If the quality of the music was any indication, the night was going to be great.

 

But when White asked the woman at the reception counter for a lane, she told him that there was a two-hour wait.

 

“Two hours!” he said, then laughed. “Oh, come on! Do you have an elderly lane?”

 

For more than five years, the city had sustained three sophisticated bowling establishments. Although one of them, Strikes, near the University of Pennsylvania campus, closed in the spring, North Bowl, in Northern Liberties, and Lucky Strike, in Center City, are thriving.

 

“I’m happy,” said Oron Daskal, North Bowl’s 34-year-old owner, declining to cite exactly how much happiness his business has generated since he transformed a dilapidated mechanics’ garage into a 25,000-square-foot playground that would make “The Dude” Lebowski weep for joy.

 

Daskal, who grew up in Cheltenham, was studying international politics at Pennsylvania State University when he came up with the idea for something that was sophisticated but relaxed, retro but modern, family-friendly enough for a 10-year-old’s birthday party, but urbane enough for a hot date or a wedding.

 

“We’ve had three so far,” Daskal said. Weddings, that is.

 

They do not include three marriages that resulted from love kindled among members of North Bowl’s Jewish League. (There are also a Minds in the Gutter League, an Urban League, a Hipsters and Doofuses League, and a Very Competitive League.)

 

The popularity of cool bowling centers such as Daskal’s has been growing since about 2003, said Steve Johnson, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.

 

That was the year Lucky Strike Lanes & Lounge opened in Hollywood. Today, the company has 18 locations across the country, including Philadelphia’s glitzy, two-level, 35,000-square-foot, 24-lane center at 1336 Chestnut St.

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And even though the number of bowling centers has declined from 5,559 in 2006 to about 5,000, Johnson said the sport was as popular as ever. An estimated 71 million people went bowling at least once last year, he said, and the number of lanes has remained constant because , except for the boutique centers , the places that are opening tend to be whoppingly large.

 

“Bowling really is Americana,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to do, there are no barriers to entry, and you can be great or terrible, big or small, young or old, and still have a good time.” One of the most dramatic changes, he said, is the number of women who have taken to the lanes.

 

The rise of boutique centers has influenced all bowling alleys, prompting them to serve better food in nicer restaurants and offer ancillary diversions such as pool tables, Johnson said. The result, he said, is a 13 percent increase since 2007 in women who bowl, up to 25 million.

 

On Wednesday night, Colleen Pickett put down her glass of Magic Hat ale, slipped out of her pink suede Via Spiga spiked heels, and put on a pair of bowling shoes at Lucky Strike.

 

“Bowling is not really my thing, but this is cool,” said Pickett, 39, who does marketing for the pharmaceutical company Glaxo SmithKline. She was there to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of her friends with a half-dozen former classmates from Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster.

 

“I love bowling,” said another member of the party, Kathleen Kovac, 31, who sells office equipment in Los Angeles. “But sometimes I’m embarrassed to go. There’s a stigma that bowling is for old, unfashionable people. Here, it’s a hip environment.”

 

The women toasted the birthday woman as a waitress arrived with trays of hors d’oeuvres , spinach dip and pita, grilled chicken, thin-crust pizza , and placed them on a coffee table illuminated with votive candles. The TV screen mounted at the bottom of each lane alternated between works by various modern artists and ESPN’s coverage of the men’s basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

 

Chaz Mize, who moved to Philadelphia from Cleveland in the summer to take the job as Lucky Strike’s interim general manager, said that on weekends after 9 p.m. during the winter, which is peak season, there can be a three-hour wait for lanes. Reservations can be made; the going rate at night is $75 an hour per lane.

When celebrities bowl, the facility offers privacy on the second floor, with lanes curtained off by burgundy velvet drapes.

 

“Michael Vick was here recently with his family,” said Mize, who was interrupted every few minutes by calls on his walkie-talkie.

 

Lucky Strike and North Bowl frequently host charity events.

 

“Jimmy Rollins has an annual fund-raiser,” Mize said. “And next month we’re hosting Reach for the Stars,” a foundation that supports people with cystic fibrosis.

 

Back at North Bowl, in the expanded offices he shares with his sister, who recently joined the business, Daskal confers with his general manager about offering comps to a group of bowlers who had to wait while the machinery in a lane was repaired.

 

“They were very patient,” the manager says.

 

“Well, let them know we appreciate that they understood,” Daskal says.

 

On the shelves lining the walls are rows of bowling pins. One, with a protruding cyclops eye, was part of a design-a-pin competition for local artists. Another one bears the signature of Harry Kalas.

 

“We get a lot of athletes,” Daskal says. “Michael Vick was here with his family the other day.” The quarterback apparently shares the love.

 

North Bowl’s calendar is full of fund-raisers, Daskal says, including the annual “Dude Hates Cancer,” which raised $54,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in August.

 

There are stacks of paper on the desk next to his computer, along with a spray bottle of Formula 409 cleanser, a Williams & Sonoma cookbook for soups and stews, and an unopened bottle of Jim Beam.

 

Daskal walks back out to the loft, where the party is winding down. He checks the vending machine he has stocked with “stuff to make people laugh” , candy cigarettes, a manual on “How to Get Along With Boys,” and a Band-Aid tin filled with emergency underpants. Then he descends the metal stairs, entering the crowds of friends and patrons.

 

In one corner, a young couple are having their third date, with no intention of bowling.

 

At a nearby table, five regulars are laughing over a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Standing near the bar, Jeffrey Hopkins, 41, a Marine wearing his dress blue jacket for warmth (without the medals), is joking around with his friend Bobby Spears Jr., an actor.

 

In one of the center lanes, Kristen Hermes, a law student in Michigan who had come home to visit her family for the holidays, is bowling with her sister-in-law. “We put up fake names to be silly,” Hermes says. Hers is BDAY Girl because she will turn 28 at midnight.

 

Her sister-in-law has chosen an acronym that flatters her cougar-esque desirability. (Her children would have died of embarrassment.)

 

And over by the reception desk, Nancy Agati and Ben White still abide, waiting for a lane.

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