Bowling Alley Diners Offer A Certain Je Ne Sais Pas
Linda was nervous.
"Are you guys locals?"
It was obvious something was afoot. The lilt of her accent turned somewhat aggravated: "And you just want lunch?"
"No game?" She leveled a stare on me.
"We're just looking for some lunch," I meekly replied.
I could only imagine what words of incredulity splashed between the synapses of her mind. But I bet it was something like this, You came to the bowling alley . . . for lunch?
I should explain: Aaron and I were on a mission. We had come to Glen Burnie for the express purpose of comparing the dining experiences offered by two rival bowling alleys: the old-school Bowl America (7155 Ritchie Highway,  761-7005) and the upstart AMF Ritchie Lanes (6608 Ritchie Highway,  761-3800). Both alleys are only about a mile apart. That's where the similarities end. Ritchie Lanes boasts neon graphics and gleaming lanes and a sound system designed for late-night "Xtreme Bowling" (on the afternoon we were there only three lanes were in use and the most extreme thing heard was Natalie Cole cooing over the speakers). Bowl America is housed in an older concrete building, and though it does get down at night with "Cosmic Bowling," there is no afternoon music--only the sound of balls rushing toward pins amid the beige and browns of mid-'70s décor.
We had no illusions as to the type of food we would find at each establishment. There is a reason most folks don't go out to dinner at the bowling alley. That said, I'm a traditionalist when it comes to bowling, and I'm not a fan of the yuppiefication going on in many modern lanes. I don't go to the bowling alley to eat calamari and drink microbrews. I go to the bowling alley to bowl. And when I'm bowling, I don't want to be bothered with having to decide what to order from a bistro menu. Give me a pizza and a pitcher of beer. That's bowling food.
Sitting at the diner-style burgundy stools at Bowl America, Aaron and I gave our order to one of three women working the small kitchen. I ordered a small cheese pizza with a side of fried zucchini sticks; Aaron chose a double cheeseburger with fries and a side of onion rings. Beer and soda topped off the meal.
The burger came packed as two thick quarter-pound patties separated by slices of American cheese and topped with lettuce, onion, and tomato. The bun was a thing of beauty, a thick sesame-encrusted roll full of air and hubris. This was no dinky burger. This thing was meant for a hungry bowler.
The pizza left a little to be desired, however. Obviously a toaster-oven job, the tomato sauce overpowered the thin skim of cheese and crackerlike crust. I was happy, however, to see deep-fried zucchini on the menu--that's old school. And while our deep-fried items may have been the cause of suffering later that afternoon, in the moment they were perfect illustrations of quick, unpretentious bowling fare.
All in all, I'd say we left with a pretty good impression of Bowl America. The staff was friendly and helpful, the food was passable, and the beer was cold. All in all, a good bowling-alley dining experience.
Pulling into the Ritchie Lanes' parking lot, I bet Aaron there would be no more than one person working the kitchen. Sure enough, the aforementioned Linda was the sole employee. We tried to order as nearly identical a meal to what we had just eaten at Bowl America. Ritchie Lanes didn't have the zucchini, and Aaron had to settle for a single patty on his cheeseburger, but otherwise we were pretty even.
Where Bowl America's pie was a mediocre toaster-oven thing, the pizza at Ritchie Lanes was nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. A small round pie burnt and scarred, it could have easily passed as a soiled Frisbee. The garlic fries were not much better. Wet and gooey with some kind of translucent sauce, they reeked of grease.
On Aaron's end, things looked a little better. The burger was reasonable and came with fresh onions and a tomato on the side. Having just eaten a double cheeseburger 10 minutes prior, Aaron wasn't complaining about having to go single this time around.
The shining glory of Ritchie Lanes was the onion rings. These were among the largest, thickest deep-fried onions I'd ever seen. The largest of them were a good two inches across and in circumference were wider than my hand. These were onion rings of the gods.
Midway through our meal, Linda stopped by our table to check on us. The alley was quiet, with only two lanes in use. We sat at a table on the far side of the alley near the darkened lounge.
"I know who you are," she called to us with a big smile on her face.
Aaron and I looked at one another.
"You're my Secret Shoppers."
I flipped through the card catalog of my mind to the "S" section. Secret Shoppers (n.): folks who get paid by customer-service firms to shop and eat food at chain retailers and restaurants.
I smiled back, "No, no, we're just having lunch."
Linda would have none of it. "You are my Secret Shoppers. Well, my name is Linda; I'm not wearing my name tag, but my name is Linda. I had heard of this happening before. They told me, `Look out for Secret Shoppers.'"
Linda straightened a chair and then sauntered back to the kitchen, taking a seat at the counter unable to conceal her pride.
We didn't want to let her down, so on our way out and in his best radio voice--he is a radio professional, so he knows a thing or two about radio voices--Aaron signaled to Linda saying: "Linda, thank you very much for lunch. It was excellent."
As we left, I overheard her saying to a customer as she was pouring a fountain drink, "They are Secret Shoppers."
On the ride home, Aaron and I barely talked. My sole priority was ignoring the oncoming indigestion and keeping my eyes on the road. What we did decide, however, was that there was something magical about the bowling alley. See, if we had been in a fast-food restaurant eating equally greasy food or if we had just ordered the exact same food from the alleys as carry-out--a shuddering thought--we likely never would have been able to munch it all down, let alone find any enjoyment in it. But something about eating that food in a bowling alley--among the clatter and crash of ball returns and the whirl of 15-pound balls sliding over oiled wood planks--gave a special resonance to the meal.
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