JUST last year, cocktail-shaker-owning New Yorkers - the sort who wish they could play bridge and who still hold out hope that Cunard ocean liners might yet replace planes as the preferred mode of transatlantic travel - thought their hour had come at last. For a few months, champagne flowed liberally at "bubble" lounges, martinis enjoyed a gin-bathed renaissance, and New Yorkers played at being adults in marble-mezzanined hotel bars and "erotic living rooms" - a sultry form of nightspot where overstuffed sofas and Persian carpets inevitably soak up a good portion of the liquor, as amorous patrons stumble over ottomans in the dark.

Sadly, this August, cocktail hour slammed to a halt, and now, in September, happy hour has struck, or rather, striked. Sophistication is out: bowling is in. Bowling is not an activity that on the face of it sounds like Manhattan. Bowling smacks more of Queens - Archie Bunker's neighbourhood - or Bedrock, home of Fred Flintstone. And it is true that, although the number of metropolitan bowlers did creep up over the past two (Wall Street) boom years, the long wooden alley, ten toddler-shaped pins and sweaty, thudding ball alone could not have pulled most Manhattanites away from their dalliance with luxe and volupte.

No, for bowling to successfully lure in the thousands of lust-lounge devotees, the sport had to have an image-lift. Thus was born high-kitsch bowling, tailor-made for the tail end of the Nineties. As it happens, 20 years ago, Manhattan was chock-a-block with kitschless bowling alleys. But as real estate prices climbed and fan support waned, only two alleys survived. One was in the Hopperesque Port Authority Bus Terminal, convenient to bums and drifters, another in Greenwich Village called Bowlmor Lanes, a pleasingly dingy, linoleumed place, where waitresses carry pitchers of beer to brawny, cigarette-smoking mechanics, and to the slumming white- collar professionals who get a kick from bowling alongside them.

Last month, someone at Bowlmor picked up on the subtext and began hosting "glow in the dark bowling" nights, with luminescent pins, technofunk DJs and clever computers that kept track of points. The response was so enthusiastic that Bowlmor soon hosted a gala bowl-in-your-underwear event, which drew a crowd of 300 and ensured that someone else would come up with an even more kitschy bowlorama.

This duly happened within the same week, with the opening of the Tokyo- style, state-of-the-art AMF Chelsea Piers Bowl pleasuredome. The Chelsea alley has 40 lanes, each lined with a runway of red lights, and legions of attendants who personally select a ball that suits you, and carry it for you to your lane. You don't have to keep score, you don't even have to aim - pop-up rails can stop the ball rolling into the gutter. There is a games arcade and a kind of drive-in restaurant without cars, at which you may order every food you ever heard Richie Cunningham ask for on Happy Days.

Families are flocking to the alleys, as are dating couples, gay and straight. But the trend hit so suddenly that there aren't enough lanes in town for all those who want to join in, and companies are jousting to secure one or the other venue for corporate whingdings. Ironically, despite the DJs, novelty lights, festival menus and photogenic crowds, the main appeal of kitsch bowling lies far from the scary lust lounges. It is the chance to spend a few nostalgic hours coasting through life in the slow lane, taking in the scenery.

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