Nothing sounds quite like a bowling alley. It’s a sonic landscape we know well: the echo from acres of lacquered hardwood flooring, the scuff and shuffle of rented saddle shoes, and the violent detonation of a urethane ball colliding full tilt with wooden pins.

It’s also probably not a soundtrack you would associate with a meal. A plastic cup of beer (mostly head) and a flimsy paper boat filled with nachos and processed cheese, perhaps. But dinner? As unlikely as it may seem, two local businesses are determined to prove that there is such a thing as bowling alley cuisine, and it’s worth your attention.

The first, Portland’s Bayside Bowl, opened in 2010. For its first five years, the venue was primarily a bowling alley and bar that also served “decent snacks, but nothing you’d ever want to plan your night around,” according to a friend and a frequent longtime visitor.

Then came a two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation that saw the installation of a private mezzanine, eight new high-tech bowling lanes, and most importantly, an outdoor rooftop bar. Upstairs, alongside a field of black solar panels gaping hungrily at the sky, you’ll now find a cabana-style bar structure and a vintage Airstream trailer that has been converted into a taco truck.

The new taco kitchen is emblematic of Bayside’s renewed commitment to food. Kitchen manager Jason Wilkinson (formerly of Blue Spoon) describes it this way, “When they built the rooftop deck, they rethought everything. We’re still not Hugo’s. We’re not doing molecular gastronomy. But the idea is to do food really, really well.”

On a recent twilight visit to the rooftop deck, I tasted three of Bayside’s tacos (all $5). The best of the bunch was the cactus version, with a drizzle of rich avocado crema and strips of simmered cactus paddle (nopales) that tasted like a feral cross between asparagus and green beans. The pulled pork taco with tangy pickled red onions and crumbly cotija cheese was also enjoyable, but absent the smoky heat promised by the chipotle crema. Sadly, the carne asada taco, made with cilantro- and garlic-marinated flap steak was also seriously underseasoned, not to mention extremely messy to eat. I needed utensils.


“Forks?” the bartender dispensing our round of weak frozen margaritas and pina coladas ($10) repeated back. “No, we don’t have any upstairs. Only downstairs. And you can’t take your food downstairs. So …”

So … we ended up with blobs of various cremas on our pant legs, thanks to the open-mesh patio tables where we and nearly all other diners sat. Visually, they’re appealing, especially set against the tall bench seating, string lights and 1960s pastel fiberglass scoop chairs – a vignette hatched in a laboratory to be as Instagrammable as a puppy. But in practice, the chairs are painfully uncomfortable and the tables impractical.

After half an hour, we felt like fidgety children, messy from our tacos and frozen drinks (“Nope, no straws up here, either!” our bartender announced). Ironic, given that the rooftop is such an adult-oriented space that everyone is carded upon arrival.

In some ways, it’s not quite adult enough. As we descended the reverberating concrete stairwell on our way back to street level, we were followed by an overserved woman who, every 10 seconds or so, shrieked wordlessly at the top of her lungs. “What’s goin’ on, Brittany, hon?” her friend yelled back up the stairs. “I’ve just gotta make some nooooooooise!” Brittany howled in reply, and then let loose with another eardrum-rupturing scream.

Seated safely downstairs, in one of the swanky new booths overlooking the lanes, I could see the contours and outlines of a restaurant gestating inside Bayside Bowl. There’s a competent Cobb salad ($10) with bacon, grilled chicken breast and a beguilingly herby buttermilk dressing, fragrant with parsley and tarragon.

Better still: a satisfying vegan re-imagining of a Reuben sandwich, the Rachael ($13), made with smoky tempeh and Morse’s sauerkraut. For dessert, a slice of Two Fat Cats mixed berry pie ($5) with plump streusel chunks and a slightly savory crust was both seasonal and comforting.


Yet many of Bayside Bowl’s dishes seem to have resigned themselves to the mediocrity (or worse) you’d expect from a bowling alley.

Take the tot poutine ($7): Pineland Farms cheese curds and tater tots bobbing in a quickly coagulating bowl of shiitake gravy. Wilkinson himself describes it as “a bit of a gut bomb.” Or the pepperoni pizza ($9). It starts out on the right foot, with housemade dough and tomato sauce. But because each flatbread-style pizza is grilled far in advance, then finished to order in a pizza oven that the kitchen never fires beyond 600 degrees F, the crust ends up tough in places and an over-charred mess in others.

When I tried to cut a slice in half, I discovered another weird silverware restriction downstairs. No knives, unless you request one, and then what you get is a dull butter knife. Do cutlery and bowling not mix?

I could have used something sharp in order to share The Drunk on Lane 9 burger ($14): Bayside’s classic beef burger with a teetering tower of extras. On the barely toasted potato roll sit cheddar cheese, bacon, a layer of greasy french fries and a fried egg with a yolk cooked firm, not runny, as intended. It was created as a tribute to Portland restaurant Nosh’s eponymous burger, but Bayside’s version is executed carelessly: a pale imitation.

Coincidentally, in Westbrook, the kitchen staff at the recently opened 33 Elmwood are also busy experimenting with culinary homages of the hamburger kind.

In an all-indoor venue that combines bocce, candlepin and 10-pin bowling, executive chef Aaron Mallory – who trained under Bryan Voltaggio and then at Central Provisions and Hugo’s – offers two dishes that mimic the addictive flavors of fast-food burgers.


The most obvious is the 33 Burger ($9), made with two 4-ounce beef patties, pickles, lettuce, onions and a sesame seed bun. Sound familiar? “Big Mac flavors are what we were shooting for, but the flame-grilled beef might make you think about Burger King,” Mallory explained. He’s right on both counts. But his burger is housemade, from the pickles to the potato-onion roll. It’s a massive taste upgrade to the drive-thru sandwich, though one that loses none of the original’s primal appeal.

He and his team, including pizza chef Brandon Tenney, have deconstructed many of those same flavors and reassembled them into The Mac pizza ($12). It’s an inexplicably delightful dish with a Thousand Island dressing sauce; slivers of tart, pink pickled onion and irregular, Superball-sized hunks of ground beef – all baked in a 700+ degree F pizza oven.

I understood why the two little girls at a neighboring table sat bouncing happily as they devoured their own Mac pizza.

There are indeed plenty of children at 33 Elmwood, but the sizable, rectangular adults-only bar that anchors the dining room balances out their presence and keeps the place from toppling over into Chuck E. Cheese territory.

The menu also helps maintain that balance. Alongside improved kids’ favorites like penne-based macaroni and cheese ($5) and grilled cheese on thick, housemade brioche ($9), there are more sophisticated dishes.

Not all work perfectly, like too-minty zucchini fritters ($7) that, on a recent visit, were gummy inside. Or a meatball sub that was dominated by a sweet marinara. A shame, considering the kitchen’s ingenious use of leftovers (housemade sourdough crumbs soaked in fresh ricotta whey) in the panade.


Fortunately, plates like broiled local hake tacos ($9) with cilantro stems chopped like chives and a pulsatingly spicy chipotle mayonnaise demonstrate Mallory’s knack for breathing new life into bar (and bowling alley) food.

It’s also there in his lightly dressed, pepita-studded Caesar ($7) with radicchio and vinegary boquerones, as well as his take on super-trendy deviled eggs ($7). Mallory breads the whites of hard-boiled eggs in panko and deep fries, then fills them with sinus-clearingly mustardy yolks before topping them with a single dot of Sriracha.

Exactly the kind of eye-opener you need before hitting one of the lanes. My guests and I took advantage of 33 Elmwood’s policy of allowing diners to bring their meals into the bowling area. As we bowled, we shared a S’mores dessert ($8) made with dense Italian meringue in place of marshmallows, milk powder toasted to taste like graham crackers, and a fudgy chocolate pudding cake.

There were five of us that night, including two children new to candlepin bowling, so our dessert was punctuated by peals of embarrassed laughter and cries of “Gutter ball!”

But as we finished off an extra order of freshly churned vanilla bean ice cream ($4), it seemed like exactly the right kind of soundtrack to underscore a dinner adventure on a drizzly Tuesday evening.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.