Town Hall Lanes embraces bar food
It's a little-known fact that in the universe of bars, the natural evolutionary process moves from brewery to neighborhood tap to bowling alley. Don't believe it? Have your counter-argument all good and ready? It might not yet be a proven theory, but there's at least one outfit in town that's presenting convincing evidence for this hypothesis, and based on how well its model is working, others may soon follow suit. I'm talking about Town Hall, of course. First there was the brewery and restaurant that has successfully anchored Seven Corners for the last 16 years, then the über-popular Town Hall Tap in the Field neighborhood, and now with the most recent addition, Town Hall Lanes in the burgeoning Nokomis East area, it seems that owner Pete Rifakes has the formula for success all figured out. Set up shop somewhere busy but not overly hip, serve great beer (and lots of it — the Lanes has 26 tap lines), and give the people what they really want: bar food.
And that is exactly what they're doing, though more so than the Brewery or Tap, Town Hall Lanes seems to be taking its cue from Italian-American cuisine. Thin-crust pizzas and meatballs are the highlights of the menu, though to be fair the latter does naturally spring to mind when coming up with bowling-related food puns. Take the "gutter balls," for instance, which are actually twice-cooked, dough-wrapped Italian meatballs. Simple as it seems, so many things can go wrong in a dish like this that I half-expected dried-out mealy meat and soggy, undercooked dough, but I was happy to be proven wrong. Instead, these mini calzones were presented with a shiny and knockable (a good thing in bread-baking) crust wrapped around a moist, well-seasoned meatball. The "mother earth balls" — a vegetarian version made with the same mix used in the black bean burger — didn't fare as well. One diner really hit the nail on the head when she identified the off taste as "TGI Friday's Southwestern egg roll." Some of the non-Italian starters were nice surprises, like the fried green tomatoes (a little bland on their own but perfectly golden and improved by a dip in the accompanying creamy sauce) and the sticky-sweet masala curry chicken wings.
The Lanes' cracker-crisp flatbreads are finished with mostly traditional toppings but are executed well and — be forewarned — truly deliver on their spicy promises. The El Diablo in particular, with a smoky chipotle cream sauce, raw and seedy jalapeños, julienned potatoes, and Italian sausage, packs in waves of heat thanks to the slow-burning cracked black pepper crust. Much more mild but certainly more meaty was the Italian Deli, topped with all the cured meats that normally go in the hoagie of your dreams: Capicola, prosciutto, salami, and sautéed peppers and onions all play well together with a slightly sweet marinara sauce. The French onion version, with goat cheese, scallions, and caramelized onion, made for a fine vegetarian option, though we agreed that the end result was something like chive cream cheese on a bagel.
Though we found that the flatbreads (and some of the tried-and-true Town Hall appetizers like the irresistible cheese-stuffed soft pretzels) were standouts, the Lanes seems to want to establish itself as a burger bar. The majority of the five signature burgers on the menu, however, sounded great and then mostly underwhelmed. The Boss Hog, a shallot- and butter-stuffed, bacon-encrusted belly buster, did taste like a good beef burger but should have wowed with richness and smoky flavor. If I hadn't read that there was bacon somewhere in the mix, I wouldn't have known it was there at all. People, must we encrust? Is there a legitimate reason not to just slap a few strips on the patty and call it good? If the answer is no, then it's just a gimmick. I was intrigued by the Bleu Ox brat burger — a collaborative effort between the Lanes and next-door neighbor Oxendale's Market — but texturally the chunkiness of the sausage mixture and wild rice was a bit of a turnoff, and the sharpness of the blue cheese barely came through. Interestingly, the best burger of the bunch happened to be a non-beef one. The lamb shank burger's deep gamey qualities were tempered by the tangy goat cheese and enhanced by a heavy dose of cumin. Classic flavors, properly cooked, bang on. The classic, near-perfect walleye Po' Boy may be the way to go if you're feeling like something on a bun, and there's an array of fried, grilled, and cold chicken sandwiches to round out the menu. Side note: Not having a turkey sandwich of some sort at a bowling alley is a real missed opportunity.
Though the place seems to be still finding its feet food-wise, beer is really the backbone of the whole operation. In addition to familiar favorites such as the Masala Mama IPA, my new favorite seasonal beer (the Thunderstorm, a perfumey honey ale), and the Parkway Java Porter available on nitro, the Lanes has an exclusive brew called Super Strike, a light-tasting, light-bodied lager that's intended to be more "sessionable" than Town Hall's other higher-alcohol brews. Rifakes spent lots of time sourcing some uncommon ciders for the Lanes, including ones from Aspall, Somersby, and Blackthorn. Like the Brewery (but not the Tap), this is a full-service bar, meaning you can pay tribute to the Dude and get a White Russian to go with your roll.
The space, formerly Skylane Bowling, has been smartly overhauled and is now divided into restaurant, bar, and lanes, so if you're just dropping by for dinner or drinks, you don't have to worry about the constant crashing sounds of strikes and spares — it's pretty well contained. Roomy booths and a gorgeous wooden bar populate the dining area, but it's the massive glittering chandelier that steals the focus and makes good use of the plentiful vertical space and exposed beams. On the lanes side the feel is polished retro, updated with bench seating (instead of the always problematic individual swivel seats), touchscreen scoreboards, and beautifully restored synthetic lanes. Lesson learned on the practically brand-new slippery floor with brand-new slippery ball: Pizza grease is the enemy of your high score.
Overall the experience here is fun and the food is more thoughtful than your average bowling alley fare, even if it over-promises. Town Hall establishments are so well-loved, and this particular corner is turning into such a hot spot, that I'm confident in their staying power, and perhaps the menu will evolve much like the empire has. So drop in, get one of the summer seasonal beers, and bowl while the shoes are still new. The balls, both meat and resin plastic, will be waiting for you.
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