The Ballroom has become something of a Toronto media darling since the start of its publicity blitz in mid-November. The nine-lane bowling-alley-slash-sports-bar, located at Richmond and John streets, was first profiled in the Star and the Globe. Then there was a photo spread on Toronto Life‘s website. NOW Magazine has since credited the place with helping kill the club district, and at least one notable local food columnist has already deigned to complain, on Twitter, about the burgers served there.
For an establishment that hasn’t even technically opened (it’s already open for business, and has been since late December, but the official launch isn’t until February 1) those are huge accomplishments, all. Because of all this, The Ballroom is pretty well picked over as news, but we thought we saw one last giblet dangling from the story’s ribcage: they must have had to jump through some crazy hoops to get all their bowling gear, right? Surely it’s not possible to buy mint-condition bowling lanes and pinsetting machinery direct from the manufacturer in this day and age?
“We looked at getting circa-1950s machines,” says Thanos Tripi, one of five partners behind The Ballroom. “But refurbishing them was very difficult, warranties weren’t good, so we went with brand new, top of the line.”
“Everything is assembled off-site. Two, three weeks, it was done.”
The Ballroom’s lanes were purchased directly from Brunswick, which not only still makes a full line of bowling gear and machinery but even touts bowling alley modernization on its very modern website.
Bowling at The Ballroom is the centrepiece for an enormous, two-floor sports bar complex, with an ambiance more Bay Street than Big Lebowski. The ceilings drip with artist-made lighting fixtures. There are enough HDTVs scattered around that to avoid knowing the score in whatever sports game happened to be on would mean staring at the floor. Each lane has its own leather couches for players to recline on, and at the rental shoe counter—in place of the usual tired-looking guy holding a can of disinfectant spray—are two young women, Jade and Tiffany.
“Our food is locally sourced, and everything is done in-house,” says Tripi, sipping an espresso at a table on the second floor. “We have quinoa salad, steak salad, we’ve got a grilled tuna salad. The name of the items is very familiar as far as comfort food, but the way it comes to you is just in a whole different level.” The hot dogs are made of “artisanal beef.”
Unsurprisingly, the lane prices are high. They vary from thirty-five to sixty-five dollars per hour, before tax, depending on the time, and what day of the week it is. (Weekend evenings are the most expensive.)
The space was a nightclub called Montana before renovations got underway in August, but Tripi brushes off any suggestion that transforming the ground floor into a bowling alley was especially difficult. “We just did our research, and called in a couple people,” he says. “Then we found a bowling whisperer.”
The whisperer was Chaun McLellan, a professional bowling consultant. “I’ve hung out at bowling alleys since the age of probably six or seven,” he says.
A mosaic on the second floor.
McLellan is helping The Ballroom develop some of its service offerings, including a laneside valet service for shoes (a Ballroom employee will ferry your footwear to and from the service desk), and, eventually, league bowling, with seasons to span six, eight, and twelve weeks, as opposed to the traditional thirty-three, says McLellan. This is in deference to changing levels of public enthusiasm for bowling.
In the sixties and seventies, he says, “you’d just open the door and leagues would file in.” He thinks the decline of league bowling began in the 1980s. This timeline is borne out, somewhat, by the history of the sport in Toronto. The last alley that existed in the downtown core, prior to the advent of The Ballroom, was the Olympia Edward bowling centre, a sixty-four-lane mecca for five-pin league play. It closed in 1979. The following year, the World’s Biggest Book Store opened in its place, where it remains to this day. The building is about a kilometre away from The Ballroom’s location.
But it appears that the time has come for a revival, even if the clientele has changed. “Bay Street guys are already asking me, ‘Where can I get my own ball?'” says McLellan.
Luxury bowling alleys already exist in other metropolitan areas. Upscale chains like Bowlmor and Lucky Strike are operating in a few cities in the U.S. Lucky Strike, whose corporate website includes a point-by-point explanation of their dress code for patrons (“Strictly Enforced”), has a location in Vaughan. The owners of The Ballroom have said that they plan to expand to other cities.
Even in its traditional, unglamourous form, the sport is far from dead. The Bowling Proprietors Association of America claims a total membership in excess of four thousand, a number they say is on the increase. Executives at the Bowling Proprietors Association of Canada were not available for comment, but the organization claims a membership of approximately five hundred. There are fifteen bowling alleys with Toronto addresses listed in the Yellow Pages (not including The Ballroom), and many more throughout the GTA.
At The Ballroom, a woman with frazzled gray hair, in a powder-blue winter ski jacket, opens a door and steps inside. She asks McLellan about the place and seems enthralled with his answers. But next to the leather couches, the quinoa salad, and Jade and Tiffany, she looks lost.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.
We originally identified the club which previously inhabited The Ballroom’s space as Dakota. In fact, the club was called Montana. We also misidentified the location of The Ballroom as Queen and John; it is actually at Richmond and John.