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Sometimes, you want to go where no one knows your name. When I feel this way, I head to the Bowl America Cafe in Alexandria. Situated near the multiplex-free Landmark Mall, in an undistinguished strip of the city that real estate agentsand only real estate agentscall the “Heart of the New West End,” Bowl America houses 34 glistening waxed-wood lanes and a cafe that’s half kiddie concession stand, half bar and grill. The bar area, which has been nearly empty every time I’ve been there, is a dimly lit, Formica-surfaced affair, with cool vintage bar stools that jut out from the counter like keys on an old typewriter. There’s also a
television that’s never turned on and, outside, a beautiful neon sign that reads, “BOWLING.” That sign renames the place each time I visit: When I first went, it was called “OWLING”; more recently, it’s just been “WLING.” Whatever it’s called, the Bowl America Cafe is the anti-Cheers.
Admittedly, every time I’ve been to the place, there’s been at least one Coke-fueled birthday party under way. Children with pointy party hats buzz around cake- and pizza-laden folding tables in a chaotic orbit. Young and even-tempered staffers do what they can to keep sugar-induced spazz-outs to a minimum, but their efforts are not always successful. So if you’re not feeling particularly kid-friendly, you’ll want to keep to the bar.
You’ll also need to be especially careful navigating the cafe’s menu, which is divided into nine sections: Good Morning, Hot From the Kettle, Super Snacks, Salads, Tasty Tagalongs, Sandwiches, Triple Deckers, Pizza, and Platters. The menu includes most bar-food staples, but these vary widely in quality. Chicken comes in three shapes at the cafe: natural wing, traditional nugget, and crowd-pleasing tender, my personal favorite. In true bar-fare tradition, each is chewy and nearly flavorless, though the spicy chicken wings come with more kick than I expected. A generic, grease-spattered poster near one of the concession-side deep-fryers labels them “Inferno Wings,” proclaiming “The Heat Is in the Meat.” Although the wings are plenty hot, the heat is mostly in the sauce. Bizarrely, the tenders come with a side of cocktail saucea combination I won’t try again. (The menu calls it “Cajun” sauce. Do not be misled.)
I’d also stay away from the nachos, which arrive movie-theater-style, in a plastic tray with a sidecar of coagulated processed cheese food dripping messily over the side. The vastly superior cheeseburger combo (No. 1 on the “combo menu”), which comes on a paper plate, is a substantial patty sheathed by a soft sesame-seed bun. The combo meal includes your standard fries, of course, but I recommend paying a little extra for the more upscale spicy-curly variety. On their own, these satisfying salt- and pepper-encrusted potatoes cost $2.69 and are served, once again, with that inexplicable side of cocktail sauce. Stick to the ketchup, though, and you’ll be fine.
In a halfhearted nod to D.C., the main attraction of the menu’s Pizza section is a large, five-topping pie called the Metro. Unfortunately, the Metro was unavailable on a recent visit, because the cafe’s five toppings had been pared down to just pepperoni. But a small one-topping pizza made up for my considerable disappointment. The pie’s soft and flaky crust came abundant with crispy pepperoni, a thin layer of shredded mozzarella, and a light streaking of tomato sauce. Golden-brown mozzarella sticks were warm and gooeywhich, I suppose, goes without saying. I should also mention that the cafe’s home-office-issued menu comes with a disclaimer that not all items are available at all centers. Apparently, the 22304 zip code isn’t zucchini-with-ranch-dip country. Who knew?
Drinking is mercifully uncomplicated at the cafe, because beer and bowling go together like, well, beer and bowling. But you don’t have to be knocking down pins to work up a thirst at Bowl America. Domestic swill (a term of endearment, I swear) is the order of the day, with Coors Light and Budweiser poured via bowling-pin tap handles. The most exotic beer at Bowl America is Killian’s, which, like the cafe’s other prestige offering, Michelob, goes for $2.47 for a small glass, $3.50 for a mug, and $9.12 for a pitcher. All the other beers (the cafe also has Miller and O’Doul’s) are slightly less expensive, but if the priciest thing available is $9.12, you can afford to live large. Go aheadhave a Michelob.
Wine, white and red, is available by the glass or the carafe, but don’t be surprised if one of the cafe’s no-nonsense waitresses has a hard time suppressing a laugh when you order it. On a recent visit, my waitress (Peggy, according to the name stitched onto her apron) extended the joke by giving me a puzzled expression and asking sarcastically for my ID. For the record, the white wine arrives well-chilled but a little watery; the red, which tastes like a merlot-cabernet blend, is much better. It might even add a few pins to your game. It did mine.
I’ve been to Bowl America on evenings billed as “Cosmic Bowling Nights,” when fog machines, strobe lights, and rock music turn the lanes into a three-dimensional black-light poster. It’s good, goofy fun, but I prefer the cafe during late afternoons, with just a few bowlers providing a soothing soundtrack of gutter balls and strikes, while birthday-party revelers oscillate between sugar highs and lows somewhere in the distance. It’s positively blissful, I swear.
No matter what you do, be sure to follow your bliss around the facility, lingering, if you’re inclined, in the vicinity of the Lustre King Custom Ball Conditioner. A device that resembles a cross between an apartment-sized, front-loading washer and R2-D2, the Lustre King is a certifiable work of art. I wanted to put money in the thing just to watch it light up and whir, but, having no ball, I figured I might raise suspicions. (Actually, I did it anyway.) As I wandered around the place snapping Polaroids of various Bowl America accouterments (the ball conditioner, the high-score-leaders’ board, the impossibly cool, retro-futurist lockers), a well-creased gentlemanobviously a Bowl America vetapproached me to ask what I was doing. When I explained I was working on an article, he said, only half-jokingly, “Oh, you can do that. Just don’t mention any names, OK?”
I wouldn’t even think of it.
Bowl America Cafe, 100 S. Pickett St., Alexandria, (703) 751-1900. Shannon Zimmerman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.