Typically, if you walk into a bowling alley hungry, you’re probably not expecting to eat something too amazing. But what if the bowling alley has a magnificent chandelier hanging in the middle of its bustling dining room, along with handsome high-back booths, an absolutely stunning refurbished 19th-century bar, exposed timbers, a pressed tin ceiling, and warm wood everywhere you look? And what if the bowling alley already has a reputation for being one of the finest brewpubs in the entire state? What then? These lofty credentials and stylish signifiers tend to give a hungry bowler the idea they’re in for something a little more refined than greasy burger baskets and freezer fries.
Unfortunately, the glittery, eyeball-grabbing light fixture at Town Hall Lanes does not portend a dining experience that goes too far beyond the bar food status quo. There is, however, some good stuff here: comforting bar food, unfussy, deep-fried, and grilled, meant to pair with a cold beer and a game of bowling. It’s not without flaws, though, as multiple visits revealed a kitchen that can be inconsistent and a few ideas that look better on paper than on the plate. But for the most part, this place is lovable, especially if you don’t expect too much or read too deeply into that glitzy chandelier.
Like the menus at the original Town Hall Brewery and its sister tap house, Town Hall Tap, populist bar food prevails here, too: burgers, brats, sandwiches, wings, and flatbreads. A handful of popular items from the other two restaurants make cameos on the Lanes’ menu, too, which is a good thing. We’ve become big fans over the years of the stuffed soft pretzels, the smoky buffalo chicken sandwich, the walleye po’ boy, and especially their nicely seasoned, super crispy fries that pack a very satisfying, pin-crushing crunch. In addition to these familiar items, there are some new things here that are worth a try, too, and a few that could still use some refining.
The fried green tomatoes ($7) work just fine. Deep-fried to an almost Panko-esque crunch on the outside with a firm, just slightly tart tomato on the inside, they go with beer about as perfectly as beer goes with bowling. The Sriracha-laced sauce that’s served alongside takes them to another spicy dimension. Great start. Like knocking ’em all down with your first ball of the night.
The Gutter Balls ($6 / 2) are perhaps the most deceptively named item on the menu. These well-seasoned meatballs wrapped in golden twice-cooked dough that’s both crispy and chewy (in a good way) inspire far more enthusiasm than an actual gutter ball. They come with a sweet / spicy marinara sauce that, while good, does have a bit of a canned tomato paste flavor. But overall: very tasty.
We’re still scratching our heads about the flatbread. On one visit we ordered the caprese ($9), but what came out of the kitchen instead was a bona fide thin-crust pizza burdened with the task of supporting too much cheese and living up to something it was not, or not what we had expected, anyway. Instead of a crisp and cracker-like crust (which is what we were expecting), it was thick and flaccid. The slices drooped sadly like wet noodles when we picked them up off the serving board. Beneath the surplus of cheese, the sauce went virtually unnoticed, as did the familiar flavors of fresh caprese. The Lanes totally redeemed themselves on our follow-up visit. This time we ordered the Italian Deli flatbread ($10) and it was everything the caprese was not – a complete and delicious 180. The crust was crisp, lightly charred, and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s topped with a triple threat of savory cured meats, salami, capicola, and prosciutto, which are complemented by sweet caramelized onions and peppers. This time around, there was more sauce and less cheese, everything in good proportion. High five, Town Hall Lanes.
It saddens us to say that the burgers we tried were a letdown. We really wanted to like the Bleu Ox ($11), made with wild rice and bleu cheese-stuffed beer brats from neighboring Oxendale’s Market. But it suffered a crisis of identity by being neither brat-y nor burger-y enough. Moreover: It lacked seasoning. The mushrooms and bleu cheese toppings stood out, but the brat patty itself, freed from the confines of its casing, was crumbly and texturally kinda weird.
By comparison, the Cranker burger ($11) was quite tasty. It was loaded with fresh chopped jalapeno, crispy fried onions, horse jack cheese, and a smear of Sriracha cream. Good kick, nice soft bun, not too shabby. Our only complaint – and it’s a major one — was that we ordered it medium rare and it came out well done, gray and dry. When burgers are one of your things, something as basic as failing to cook it to the requested temperature — at least getting close, anyway — should never happen.
As their name suggests, the real strength of this joint is beer and bowling, and they do both superbly well. Along with their signature, award-winning Town Hall Brewery beers, like the wickedly hoppy Masala Mama IPA, they feature a nicely curated 24-tap lineup, which even includes a four-tap cider rotation. And there are always a couple things on nitro, too.
Tip: If you’ve come to eat and bowl, get your name on the list at the bowling desk as soon as possible. This place gets packed on the weekends, and the waits can be long. But turnover on the lanes is quick and before you know it, you’ll be chucking 12 pounds of polyurethane down the brand new synthetic lanes, high-fiving your buds and tipping back some crafty cold ones.
As it is now, Town Hall Lanes is a wonderful neighborhood establishment with great beer, good-enough food, and a fun, relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. But man, if they put as much love and attention into their food as they do their beer and the space itself, this could become the one bowling alley you visit with no thoughts of bowling whatsoever.
Town Hall Lanes
Brewpub and bowling alley in South Minneapolis
5019 S 34th Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55417
Sun-Wed: 11am-1am (kitchen closes at 11pm)
Th-Sat: 11am-2am (kitchen closes at midnight)
BAR: Full bar, beer and wine
ENTREE RANGE: $8-$12