“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be in the position of owning a bowling alley,” says Molly Bradshaw, who has nonetheless done exactly that for the past 12 years at Mission Bowling Club.
Having taken over a raw, skylight-filled space around the block from a gas station known for its fried chicken, the bowling center is sanctioned by the United States Bowling Congress, the governing body that ensures its six lanes are perfectly level. But there are a few departures from the norm. For one, the walkway, or the distance from where you start to the foul line, is three feet shorter than the traditional 16 feet (still within the guidelines, though).
And no one at the center has yet achieved bowling nirvana by bowling a perfect game, which requires throwing 12 strikes in a row without choking, to earn a score of 300. If and when someone does it, the club can then bestow an official ring on them, anointing them as a sort of demigod. As jewelry goes, they rate a notch or two down on the gaudy-macho scale from what you get after winning the Super Bowl.
“When we opened, we had a drink called the TBD, and we were going to let anyone who bowled a 300 here name that,” said Bradshaw, whose personal high score is about 200. “And in perpetuity!”
If you haven’t bowled much since your pizza-party days, Mission Bowling Club isn’t going to jog your memory. If you want that time-capsule experience—or its closest approximation, anyway—Clayton Valley Bowl in the East Bay city of Concord has plenty of Day-Glo formica and threadbare carpet, plus an enclosed indoor smoking section with a sign insisting it’s for tobacco use only.
At Mission Bowling, instead of leagues and a mechanical claw machine, there’s elevated pub fare like mac & cheese bites, popcorn chicken and what Bradshaw calls “a “recognized burger in the burger world.”
Rather than fluorescent lights and bored teenagers spraying shoes with disinfectant, there’s a dog-friendly patio in front and a full cocktail bar. Try the Bitter Kween, a fanciful but sturdy mix of rosé, Cynar, Luxardo sour cherry liqueur and prosecco. Seven years remain on the 20-year lease, and the alley is still introducing new generations to bowling. Goth Night is coming.
Like the 2020 demise of Albany Bowl before it, the imminent closure of Sea Bowl, a Pacifica institution for decades, illustrates the diminished state of bowling. Once the staple of TV dads, the intensity of the best bad-weather physical activity remains, as inimitably portrayed by The Jesus character in The Big Lebowski.
“We do have folks bringing in their balls and their own equipment,” Bradshaw said. “So we know they're serious. They're fully invested in it.”
That also means rituals—some of which Mission Bowling Club strongly encourages, like elaborate wind-ups, a kind of yoga-like loosening of the arms, or what Bradshaw calls “a lot of polishing.”
The flip side of that is what’s sometimes called “lane courtesy”—or the lack thereof. Bradshaw says bowling etiquette is no longer widely understood, and appreciates that the regulars are so patient with the newbies.
“It's back to kindergarten in a lot of ways. People have to wait their turn!” she says. “But, you know: You share the balls. You share the space.”
The biggest sensory element of a bowling alley is, of course, hearing a 15-pound ball slide down the oiled lane and fling 10 neatly organized wooden pins into momentary chaos. It’s a quintessentially satisfying and evocative sound. But few people actually get to peer behind the pin-setting mechanism as it spits the ball out and restores order.
It’s mesmerizing to watch—and very loud, like a newspaper press, and with a full-time mechanic on duty. Mission Bowling Club’s machines came from a 40-year-old bowling center in Fort Bragg that had closed just as Bradshaw was opening up.
“So they're over 50 years old now,” she said. "The only thing that's sort of electronic are the cameras that signal when the ball passes a laser. It says, ‘It's time to come down, sweep and reset.’ But everything else is belts, gears, motors.”
📍3176 17th St., SF
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