Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time.
Midtown Bowl is where old and new Atlanta seem to merge. Families, lovers, friends, and coworkers, native Atlantans and folks who recently moved to town, this is where a random assortment of people regularly mingle around 32 lanes at the bowling alley on Piedmont Circle. People bowl while singing along to a range of tunes playing over the sound system, from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to Jill Scott’s “Gettin’ In the Way” to current pop and hip-hop hits.
Opened in 1960, it’s one of the city’s most beloved institutions that really comes alive in true Atlanta style on Saturday nights. But there’s another often overlooked element factoring into the success of Midtown Bowl in recent years: the food.
The simple yet good food served here continues to earn the respect of loyal patrons who for decades have kept the kitchen at Midtown Bowl busy on a daily basis, lending to its credibility as being more than just a bowling alley in Atlanta. There’s customary snack options offered on the menu, like mozzarella sticks, popcorn chicken, Southwest chicken egg rolls, and battered fried pickle chips served with a side of ranch dressing. The Big Nasty is Midtown Bowl’s take on loaded fries mixed with tater tots and tortilla chips topped with nacho cheese, jalapenos, and chili. It’s an oft-ordered menu item — a fact confirmed repeatedly on a recent Saturday night by the number of last names called out over the speaker asking people to come pick up the dish at the order counter.
Wings are served steaming hot and sauced in hot sauce, sweet chili, or honey garlic. The cracker-thin-crust pepperoni pizza on the menu honestly has no business looking better than the pies at popular (and far more expensive) Atlanta pizzerias. The cooks in the kitchen at Midtown Bowl know not to skimp on the pepperonis topping this pizza or the melty cheese that creeps to the edge of the crust, leaving only a narrow outline of sauce. The burger comes sandwiched in a fluffy potato bun and is garnished with onions, bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, and Grey Poupon. It, too, can go toe to toe with more than a few burgers found on Atlanta “best of” lists.
Midtown Bowl also carries close to 200 local, domestic, and imported craft beers behind the bar, a list that frequently attracts well-informed beer nerds in Atlanta to the bowling alley.
“You’ve got a whole Belgian top shelf that is really a Belgian top-shelf,” says Midtown Bowl manager Mike Syass. “Then [you’ll find] some serious IPAs. Then you look over there at stouts, and you’re like, ‘Why do they have all this?’”
The IPA shelves alone are represented by a number of local and regional breweries, including A Night on Ponce from Decatur brewery Three Taverns Brewery, Cosmik Debris double IPA from Creature Comforts in Athens, and Chance IPA from Wild Leap Brewing Company in LaGrange. The $15 a bottle Lunch IPA from Maine Beer Company is also stocked behind the bar at Midtown Bowl. The sticker price might be shocking to some, but those familiar with the exceptionally balanced IPA know why.
“Check check check…” says Syass through the speaker while standing on the tall platform at the shoe counter near the front door. It’s around 10:30 p.m. “These women up here lost a bet, and they were supposed to tell y’all they lost a bet, so I’m going to hand them the mic real quick…”
Three smiling, shameless ladies step up to the mic, stating their names and sharing they’ve just been defeated at Lane 31. Customers applaud and laugh. It’s Saturday night in Atlanta, and the vibe is amazing.
A Gen-X father and his teenage daughter take a moment to dance together in front of Lane 26. They two-step to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” until the song fades out. A small crew is setting up for a late-evening birthday party. 11 p.m. rolls around, and R&B group SWV now playing over the sound system ropes everyone into a public karaoke session with their timeless hit “Weak”.
The mood inside Midtown Bowl can only be described as ultra-regular and familiar. While most people gathered around the various lanes have never met before, they all appear to know and understand the vibe of Midtown Bowl and the bowling alley’s place in the culture of Atlanta. The familiarity you feel when you step inside Midtown Bowl is likely due to it being a landmark in the city, with a playlist created by a team that knows its audience well and cooks who serve bowling alley fare at its best. This kitchen may never win a James Beard award or garner a Michelin star, but that’s not the point.
If you’ve not been to Midtown Bowl in a minute, treat the brightly lit retro-style sign out front as a beacon. Maybe it’s been too long since your last visit, but the familiarity comes flooding back the minute you step through the doors. You know you’re still in Atlanta.
“I’ve been working here for 16 years,” says Syass, a man who looks as unbothered as anybody can be, perhaps because he loves his job. “Everything and anything can walk in here.”
Open Sunday and Wednesday, 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Thursday, 12 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 12 p.m. to 2 a.m.