There comes a time when the over-fed, over-pampered restaurant critic waddles to his bathroom mirror, examines the wreckage of his jowly, cross-hatched physiognomy, feels that dyspeptic groaning that comes from too many suprêmes de volaille or tournedos Rossini, and says to himself: "Enough fine dining. I want some crazy fun involving burgers and milkshakes. I want to stand around doing something vaguely sporty. I want to go where the kids go." That's when someone will tell you about the All Star Lanes franchise.
It was started up in 2006 by two chaps, Mark von Westenholz and Adam Breeden, as a tribute to the golden age of American bowling – a golden age that's about as grounded in reality as the soda fountain in Happy Days, but what it lacks in authenticity it makes up for in charm. Descend the stairs under the neon sign in Bloomsbury Square, push the door and you're in a 1950s world, full of chrome, bright colours and waitresses in Pink Ladies jackets.
Cocktails, bowling, dinner – that's the drill and you're expected to stick to it, as if to the Protocols of Zion. The bar is cavernous, brightly lit and full of young things sprawling picturesquely on the banquettes, as if they're too cool to do anything but bowl. My slug of Old Fashioned was Maker's Mark bourbon whisky and nothing else, but it hit the spot. My friends complained that their bison juleps and elderflower mojitos were under-alcoholicised, but they are all on the verge of Seeking Professional Help.
The bowling lasts an hour and costs £8.75 per person. It's the usual giddying switchback ride of acute embarrassment (when the heaviest ball flies from your fingers on the backstroke and lands on the toes of Jamie Cullum in Lane Two) and triumphant idiocy, when you hit a strike and feel you must perform one of those why-am-I-doing-this little dances to your cheering buddies. By the time you head for dinner, you're flushed, mildly sloshed (one cocktail, two beers) and very hilarious.
You sit at booths for four or six, under little Tiffany lamps. Beside you, the period murals feature saucy lady bowlers showing off their stocking-tops. The music switches from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Led Zeppelin. You hope nobody will think of leaving for several hours.
The menu is an attractive throwback to a Manhattan diner in the 1960s. It has Char-grills and Appetisers, it calls coriander "cilantro" and chicory "endive" and throws in some home-grown dishes you've never heard of (Bacon succotash? Me neither). A quesadilla of chicken, cilantro and jalapeno was like toasted pitta bread containing a deliciously spicy salsa. "Salt and pepper popcorn squid" was battered squid with an aioli dip, a little on the soggy/greasy side. (If you're going to call it "popcorn", it should be crispy, surely?) The girls cooed over the avocado, baby gem and pecorino salad with parmesan dressing.
Main courses were just as hit-and-miss. Andreas thought his Slow Cooked Boston Butt Pork with Old Style Baked Beans "a hefty butt, certainly, but it hasn't benefited from the sauce or gravy – which tastes rather Marmite-y, like barbecue sauce out of a bottle". I'm unfamiliar with Boston Butt, but it tasted a bit woolly to me. Gina's Corn Dipped Catfish Po' Boy Sandwich was not a success – a small battered fish in a toasted baguette. "It resembles a Filet-O-Fish from McDonald's," she says, "only less tasty. Perhaps catfish doesn't travel."
My chilli con carne was one of the best I've ever eaten, hot and well-spiced, studded with peppers and mushrooms. Angie's All Star Lanes Prime Beef Burger is clearly a signature dish, and needs to be perfect. Her burger arrived barely tepid, and served rare rather than medium, as requested. It was high-quality fast food, but cooked without much attention to individual requirements. That's the trouble with chains.
Encouraged by our charming waitress, Jade, we ordered puddings. Baked New York Vanilla Cheesecake was a massive slab of rather dry polystyrene, impervious to the fruit compote that accompanied it. (Is this what they sell in Mindy's? Surely not.) The Banana Praline Split, by comparison, was fantastic, densely satisfying with crunchy nuts and clouds of squirty cream.
We left the All Star Lanes determined to return. Perhaps next time, we'll head for the one in Brick Lane – the latest addition. It's a very invigorating experience – what with the juleps, the rumble and crash of the bowling alley, the milkshakes (did I mention the Oh Sweet Jeez!, with peanut butter, banana, chocolate and caramel? It's like a liquefied Dime Bar) and the excellent chips, you can ignore the patchiness of the food. But a bit more quality control in the kitchen would lift this four-star night out into something even better.
All Star Lanes, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Place, London WC1 (020-7025 2676)
About £90 for two, including drinks and bowling
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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