On trips around the country, I’ve found that bowling alleys are often hidden gems for reasonably priced meals. The beer is typically cold and cheap, and the hours stretch on into the late night.
For decades, George Pappas’ Park Lanes on Montford Drive perfectly fit this profile. Thirsty insiders made a stop there for a beer when lines were too long at other, more trendy Montford venues. Park Lanes never lost its appeal for bowlers, many who have been coming here for years. And it’s (still) an awesome venue for a kid’s birthday party, a traditional Old Charlotte choice.
But as Montford morphed into a trendy dining strip, old regulars watched with fear. Would Park Lanes succumb to the demand for real estate? Would new owners buy it, gut it, and turn it into a celebrity chef showplace? Would another piece of Charlotte’s history be lost?
Park Lanes did eventually pass to new owners, but fortunately, the group, four guys (Mike Scornavacchi, Adam Williams, Patric Zimmer and Jamie Muir) who call themselves the Montford Bowling Group, chose to enhance – rather than destroy – the Park Lanes tradition.
Extensive renovations have opened up the streetfront wall of the bowling alley, creating several wide-open dining/bar areas inside and opening onto an extensive new deck system that wraps around the front and west side of the building. Enormous aluminum piers – shiny angles reflecting neon, sunsets, lightning – hold up a wide overhang. Underneath, an enormous dining area and huge outdoor bar - with 24 beer taps - is equipped with huge LCD screens. Around the corner, cornhole and other games provide a break from the indoor bowling action. Added to the authentic neon signs, the futuristic ‘50s inspired design transforms Park Lanes into a retro palace – with all the 21st century bells and whistles.
The partners selected the name Ten at Park Lanes for their new “total-entertainment” concept, embracing and expanding the old bowling alley.
The inside has been retrofitted, as well, with original ‘50s details reintroduced. Adam Williams says the bowling alley now looks more like it did when it was built. “We want to honor the building - the look and the architectural style,” he explains. Williams has been bowling at Park Lanes since he was a kid.
Several walls display photos from the early days of bowling. In them, you can trace the transformation from pin boys (cute costumes) through the first pin changers – enormous wrought iron monsters – to modern day high tech.
The pictures are fun, and give you something to look at while working your way through Ten’s considerable beer list and long menu of creative cocktails and shooters. Many include local moonshine (micro-moons? micro-shines?), produced right here in North Carolina, our newest cottage industry. A moonshine bar, designed to look like an old-timey still, keeps a variety of designer moonshines – including spicy Catdaddy, Troy and Sons, and several flavors of Junior Johnson’s signature Midnight Moon – on tap.
The Park Lanes’ set-up keeps the ‘shine at the perfect temperature for shooting – or sipping. Moonshine tastings are a fun - but not inexpensive - option for an evening here. Or you can take your moonshine in a variety of cocktails from moonshine martinis to Bloody Marys made with jalapeno and bacon infused moonshine. Lemonades based on berry -flavored ‘shine are summer favorites.
However, it’s the food being turned out by the Park Lanes’ new kitchen where Chef Paul Duncan has charge of an enormous custom-built rotisserie smoker capable of holding up to 400 lbs. of meat at a time, that transforms the Park Lanes experience into something special. Duncan keeps his smoker stuffed with beef, pork, sausages, chicken and turkey, plus a selection of veggies, jalapenos and cheeses, and stokes it with a designer selection of woods, turning out some of the best tasting barbecue we’ve had in awhile.
This may be treason to say out loud in North Carolina, but we like the smoked Angus Prime Rib, served in a variety of dishes, better than the also-excellent-but-ordinary pulled pork. Paired with a smooth local bleu cheese, the tender beef stars in the P.B.R. Sliders, a salad, a flatbread, tacos and several other dishes.
The meaty St. Louis style ribs are another stand-out. Treated to a savory dry rub, then smoked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, these disappeared from our table fast.
All the meats are enhanced by a quartet of house-made sauces. Our favorites: Coffee Jalapeno with a definite, but pleasant kick; and the sweet and yummy Honeycomb. The other two are an Apricot-Chipotle version of South Carolina mustard sauce and Piedmont Blond, a nice take on the Lexington tomato-and-vinegar school of “dip.”
The sides we tried included a wonderful cheddar-laced Mac ‘n Cheese (voted “like Momma used to make” – a high honor in our case) and some tasty smoked beans. The house-made Yukon Gold potato chips look like a good idea as well. They’d be perfect for testing the BBQ sauces.
We also tried a smoked pork belly skewer. The flavor – smoky, porky – was tasty, but the texture – well, it seemed like eating a big chunk of fat. (Which is what pork belly mostly is, if you think about it.) I like it better the way grandma used to fix it – fried crispy.
The Fifty-50 Burger had a similar problem. Made with a mixture of lean ground beef and pecan smoked bacon, the concept seems like it should work great – the fat in the bacon keeping the lean beef moist and infusing it with flavor, etc. In practice, however, we found the beef to be overwhelmed by the partially cooked and still very fatty bacon. Perhaps fine tuning in the kitchen will improve the mouth-feel of this promising dish.
Not everything on the menu is meat-based. The salads, laced with dried fruit, nuts, and cheese, looked and tasted crisp and fresh, dressed in nicely balanced house-made dressings. The wood-fired flatbreads come in several vegetarian versions.
Those headed down the gluten-free route (or who, like me, just don't like bread all that much) will appreciate the barbecue stacks, served in glass mason jars. You’re probably familiar with what is elsewhere called a “barbecue sundae” – pulled pork topped with layers of baked beans and coleslaw. Park Lanes offers that plus an intriguing version with layers of smoked Angus prime rib and mac ‘n cheese, topped with smoked jalapenos. Or you can design your own, choosing smoked meats and sides in your favored combo. A meal in a mason jar for $9.
Redesigned and refurbished, Ten at Park Lanes reclaims its position as the go-to destination on Montford Drive.
Ten at Park Lanes
1700 Montford Dr.
Charlotte, NC 28209
Renee Wright is the author of the Explorer’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and South Carolina’s Grand Strand, published in 2012 by Countryman Press.