Down East 2013 ©
By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Greta Rybus
Poor bowling. It is the Rodney Dangerfield of competitive pursuits. Lodged somewhere in the nebulous gray area between a sport and an amusement, bowling gets no respect. The Olympics snub it. Hollywood spoofs it. Every bowling movie ever made is a comedy — there is no Pride of the Yankees of bowling. It’s hard to think of another sport where the pros and semi-pros have to share facilities with the local peewee league and the recreational novice chugging his third beer. Then again, it’s hard to think of other sports during which a competitor can actually consume three beers.
Bowling’s latest indignity comes in the form of several national chains of big-box, gastro-bowl emporiums, stylized funhouses with music and cocktails in the mold of the Dave & Buster’s arcade chain. One such franchise lays out the premise of so-called “boutique bowling” with its blunt tagline: “Bowling Optional.” Charlie Mitchell, founder and impresario of Portland’s Bayside Bowl, takes pains to emphasize that his alley is more than just a twelve-lane Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups.
“The bowling at those places is an afterthought,” says the puckish thirty-eight-year-old entrepreneur, displaying some pinhead bona fides. “They don’t oil the lanes. They use string pinsetters. We’re the bridge between the traditional bowling center and these boutique centers. We want to do world-class bowling, and then do all these other things around it.”
“All these other things” include weekend DJs spinning soul records, local and touring indie-rock bands on a surprisingly ample stage, outdoor screenings of cult-classic movies, a regulation bocce court, and a spacious chill-out lounge with a swoopy, mid-century–modern vibe. In Portland, Mitchell points out, even a bowling alley has to have good food, so the kitchen at Bayside Bowl turns out creatively executed pub chow that easily holds its own against similarly priced Congress Street hot spots. In fact, at any given moment, so many non-bowling patrons seem to be enjoying themselves around the West Bayside former warehouse, it’s easy to overlook the lanes altogether. The crowd skews young-urban-artisan, with a thick streak of inked-up twenty- and thirty-somethings that’s increasingly characteristic of both ends of the Bayside neighborhood. It’s a beer-drinking crowd, says bartender Dawn Gordon, although the room’s big island bar (with recycled lanes for countertops) complements its rotating list of tap microbrews with top-shelf cocktails.
For his part, Mitchell came into the bowling biz via the usual channels: law degree, two terms in the state legislature, high-profile stint with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. In 2008, he was working as a lobbyist in Maine and bowling at night in a casual upstart league at Yankee Lanes (now Spare Time), in the Riverton neighborhood near Westbrook. The bowlers of the Bowl Portland league were an overwhelmingly under-forty crowd who brought their own DJs and adopted tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms. Their social, high-energy vibe was a bit out of step with Yankee’s normally prosaic league nights, and when the league swelled to twenty-six teams in its second year, Mitchell decided their style of play deserved its own home.
Bayside Bowl went from idea to reality in all of a year, opening its doors in the summer of 2010. Mitchell partnered with friend, fellow bowler, and fellow politico Justin Alfond, now president of the Maine Senate, and the pair shortly stumbled onto what was then a cavernous storage space for a vending company’s pinball machines. Bayside still retains some of that room’s original elements — exposed brick walls and reclaimed wood-plank flooring — which give the room an industrial feel in line with the neighborhood’s history. These days, the lanes host a handful of leagues, but Bowl Portland — now in its sixth year and up to forty-four teams — still rolls a couple of nights each week, its members trash-talking over thumping tunes, swilling $1 Mooseheads, and sporting retro bowling shirts with their pseudonyms embroidered on. In case you’re wondering, Senator Alfond goes by “Senator ITZ” (“in the zone”), while former Representative Mitchell answers to “Karl Hungus” (a reference to the deservedly beloved, bowling-themed Coen brothers’ flick, The Big Lebowski).
But don’t let the names, DJs, or really good sandwiches fool you — Bayside Bowl has hosted invitational tournaments and five (!) perfect games in its short history. Many of the Bowl Portland rollers can drop arcane wisdom about oil patterns on the lanes, and a half-dozen of them have averages over 200.
“Sure, we have fun out here, but everybody’s into it,” explains Mitchell/Hungus. “We don’t do any of this ironically.”
Brian Kevin is a contributor to Outside, Sierra, and the Fodor’s series of travel guidebooks.