Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Town Hall Lanes Review

With my classic haunt of Town Hall Brewery shut down this winter for much needed renovations and increased fermenter space, I have been pining away for some of my favorite beer in the state.  I got a taste of several wonderful TH beers at Winterfest, but that only whetted my appetite and made me want a whole glass of something!    Fortunately, my old friend Marty just hit the big 40 that week and his girlfriend prodded his posse of high-school friends to meet up for some bowling.  Perfect!  Good drink, good friends, bowling: time to try the new Town Hall Lanes. 

Following the model pioneered by Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth, Town Hall opened The Town Hall Tap a few years ago in prime hipster territory in Minneapolis.  They serve beers brewed at the main TH location as well as several rotating guest taps and have a different food menu.  This past summer they expanded again with a combination pub and bowling alley called the Town Hall Lanes.  I'm sad to say that it took me this long to get out there! 

My initial impressions of the place were a bit mixed, and most of that stemmed from unfamiliarity.  I'm hoping that this little treatise will help others to have a better and more educated experience on their first visit.  The building itself has two entrances.  We poked our heads into the first and were quickly told to go to the other entrance if we wanted to bowl.  We put back on our gloves and trudged back out into the 5 degree winter chill, entering through the other door as directed.  At that entrance the first thing you see is the men and women's bathrooms with a shared sink area, followed by a set of swinging double doors into the lanes proper.  Not the most glamorous entrance I've seen, but hey, this is a bowling alley.  After rolling through the doors like a gunfighter in the 1860's you can see the lanes straight ahead with a small separate bar and shoe rental area.  To the left is the main restaurant and bar, all connected inside and not requiring (in my opinion) a separate entrance.  We were pleasantly surprised to run into Dan and Hilary from the Primary Fermenters, celebrating a birthday as well. 

We waited in a line (that was amorphous and not well labeled) to put our name in for a lane, with at least one group magically getting in line ahead of us.  Matt, the previous manager from the original Town Hall was running that area, looking harried and very busy.  It was nice to see him again, but he was running the whole time we were there and I didn't really get to talk to him.  Once our name was in we were directed back to other side of the restaurant to wait for seats, but info on how long the wait might be and how we would be contacted was not well disseminated.  Despite being very busy, they were able to find us a large booth fairly quickly without a need to wait outside in the cold.  Our party of 6 quickly turned into 8 as two spouses were able to make it without their husbands warning us.  But the servers were able to move us to a different booth and adjacent 4 top table without much fuss.  Sorry for that THL! 

The main restaurant is a large, very high ceilinged room with many booths and tables spread out over two slightly different elevations.  The bar itself is an old (I think) 1950's era ornate aged oak masterpiece that really brings some character to the space.  Old metal and neon brewery signs for 1950's brews like Blatz and Fitgers line the walls.  A huge chandelier dangles precariously from the tin ceiling in the center of the room.  Overall, a nice feel, but pretty loud and crowded (this was the Saturday evening of Superbowl weekend!) 

Once settled we ordered beers and some food for the bunch, not really having any idea how long our wait might be, but taking the risk.  I first tried the Java Porter on nitro which was very mellow and dark, easy to drink and better than Guinness by far.  I was overjoyed to see one of my favorite Town Hall beers on tap: the Twisted Trace!  This is their Twisted Reality barleywine aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels and is a wonder to ingest.  When I asked my server for one, he gazed at me in confusion and dismay, not even realizing that it was a beer much less one of theirs.  I had to explain to him that I was trying to order one of the Town Hall beers and what it was.  He was also a bit scattered on bringing us waters and condiments, needing much reminding.  I also had to ask for my beer again after about 15 minutes.  I try to take into account general crowd and business when I judge service, but this was certainly not the best service I've ever had.  Once we had split into 2 tables, our other group apparently had excellent service by another server.  For food I had some pretty good chicken strips and Sj had some Brunswick stew that was not up to her Southern sensibilities, but still decent.  We shared some fried green tomatoes with our vegetarians and they were tasty but a bit greasy.  Our server did finally clarify for us that our name was really in for lanes, and eventually we were escorted over to the lanes for our bowling.  I didn't so much mind the time, but would have liked a ball-park estimate of how many hours we might wait...

The lanes themselves are in very good condition (from someone who goes to Bryant Lake Bowl a fair amount) with a fun retro vibe to the designs and murals on the walls.  The console for keeping score was pretty swanky with the ability to input up to 12 bowlers and even take silly pictures of everyone to be shown on the overhead screens.  The space we were crowded into was a bit small, but we did have an extra two bowlers that we hadn't been prepared for, so that was partially our fault.  The bench we had was big enough for 3 people, so we were all crowded a bit, but we were able to talk in small groups and tried to stay out of the way of other bowlers.  A server did stop by a few times to take drink orders, but perhaps could have come by slightly more often.  He at least knew what the beers were and seemed to know what he was doing. 

We had a fun time bowling as a group.  I mean, how can you not have a great time bowling while sipping Twisted Trace and hanging out with friends you've had for over 25 years?  Oh and I rocked the house with my bowling skills!  I'm sorry to say that my initial experience at Town Hall Lanes was a bit mixed, between confusing sign-up, clueless server, and crowded loudness, my enjoyment was a bit tempered.  I'm still glad we did this and my overall experience was still good.  Town Hall is my favorite brewpub and I really respect and like the owners and brewers there, so I almost hesitated to do this review at all.  However, I feel that I need to be honest as a reviewer and there are things that could be done to streamline the Lanes and make it more enjoyable.  If I wasn't such a fan of the original TH and their beers and had this experience I probably wouldn't go back based on this visit alone.  My wife was frustrated as well, and a bit more vocal on the subject than I.  I'd like to give this place another shot, perhaps on a Tuesday night when the chaos might be a bit less rampant, and see how things go.  If I have a wonderful time, I may add an addendum to this post or change it completely.

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