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Never mind the TVs, you can still have a ball at the lanes

Nightlife: On the Rocks
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Ann Marie Chinn teaches daughter Halle Chinn-Raicht the ways of the lanes at Southeast Portland’s newly refurbished Grand Central Restaurant and Bowling Lounge.

'Let's go bowling!' These words, which used to run along the wall at Grand Central Bowl, are gone. So is the colorful bas-relief of a family of bowlers, bowling bags in hand, striding stiffly toward the entrance to the venerable bowling alley.

Their absence hasn't kept the bowlers away. Grand Central Bowl has been reborn as a modern pastime emporium. It's two stories with two bars, long vistas of bar stools and booths, pool tables and enough TV screens to make Big Brother feel right at home.

Still, on two recent visits to the new venue - one on Friday night, one on Sunday afternoon - the bowling lanes in the center of the building remain the main attraction.

The place, renamed Grand Central Restaurant and Bowling Lounge, now is the property of Concept Entertainment Group, a local company that runs nightlife behemoths including Barracuda, Dixie Tavern and Duke's Country Bar and Grill.

This new venture is a major one for the company. It has taken over a structure that covers an entire city block.

The company has completely refurbished the old building, which was a produce market in the 1920s. More recently, the building was a rather down-at-the-heels 24-hour bowling alley, with an arcade, pool tables, a questionable cafe and a dark, smoky little lounge called the Pump Room.

Inside, they've sandblasted away the sordid memories of drunks and pool sharks, and power-washed the kitsch out of the nooks and crannies.

When I arrive around 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the place feels a bit empty, and very new. I don't like the TVs. They are everywhere. If you look away from one, another will be staring you in the face.

Every bowling lane has its small cluster of bowlers at one end, and gigantic screens at the other, towering over the pins with music videos flashing. You can heave your heavy, colorful ball right down Madonna's smiling maw, or aim a gut shot for Gwen Stefani's spangled belly.

A staircase leads from the main bar to the mezzanine. From halfway up the stairs I look down on the lanes: groups of friends clustered around tables that hold glasses of beer and cocktails.

One group has a big batch of food from the late-night menu, which, like everything here, is ample. The list runs from calamari to hot wings to burgers and pizza to an Asian sampler platter. Someone bowls a strike; right after, someone rolls a gutter ball.

To play a game myself, I return with two friends on Sunday afternoon.

Instead of the traditional molded plastic chairs, we recline on a sofa, sharing a central coffee table with a group at the next lane. Football dominates the TV screens; thankfully, the one at the end of our lane remains blank.

It's just a glitch, an attendant explains, but if you make a pact with the other bowlers in your area, the staff can turn the things off.

We order nachos, and discover that eating finger food and bowling at the same time is problematic, and definitely not for the germophobic.

Along with the usual burgers and fries you can order a steak dinner or a mac and cheese entree that costs $10.95.

Part of the roomy upstairs is occupied with three separate conversation nooks, equipped with couches, easy chairs and gas fireplaces. Above each fireplace is a TV, and this afternoon each has drawn the attention of a cheering group of football fans.

Down on the lanes, I notice a woman with a cool, 1960s-looking blue bowling bag. She got it at Goodwill, she says. She owns her own ball and bowls in a league in Milwaukie. She knows all about Grand Central in the old days - in fact, she used to tend bar in the Pump Room.

She agrees with me that it's a little weird to see the place so spiffed up. That's OK, though, she says: 'There are a lot of other crappy bowling alleys out there.'

My favorite thing about bowling is that you always get a second try. It's good to see the old Grand Central getting the same chance.