Most bowling alley food tastes like it's sailed down the lane a couple of times or marinated overnight in the fumes from stale cigarettes and sweaty rental shoes. Greece is a country, not a condiment, okay? And even in summer, frozen french fries taste better when they're cooked all the way through.
But as luck wouldn't have it, even on the heartburn highway, there's a detour or two--places where one can wear tiger-striped oxfords, take the green glitter ball out for a spin, and score a meal that wasn't born yesterday.
"I don't know how to make omelets," confesses LaToya Palmer, the Breakfast Queen at Cedar Center Lanes. "I do eggs over easy, scrambled eggs and cheese . . . I come in at eight, and I always start a big pot of grits." While she works, the phone rings--take-out customers calling to make sure she's the one at the grill, not some second-rate ball polisher. Women in squeaky-soled shoes pick up their Styrofoam suitcases laden with Double Pinochles (two eggs, bacon or sausage, and toast), Baby Splits (two eggs, toast), and No Taps (two pancakes, sausages, or bacon--christened after the term for the last game at the end of the league season, when nine pins down equals a strike).
For Lisa Butterfield--a worker at the cleaners next door who's phoned in her BLT and is indignant that it's not ready yet--lunch is just a snack before breakfast. "I'll be back later for my Baby Split," she warns as she daintily peels the tomatoes off her sandwich, shaking her head. Apparently, when Butterfield said "BLT," she really meant "BL"--a secret code lost on Palmer today.
The nineteen-year-old Palmer started here in 1997, while she was a senior at Brush High School. "I used to work over at the dollar show at Loehmann's Plaza," she says. "This place has helped me grow up a lot. Somebody came in here yesterday and admired how mature I've gotten." Smiling, Palmer claims she learned how to cook in the womb, but manager Rico Lake says he taught her.
"It's the truth--don't you look at me like that," he tells Palmer. "None of you guys knew how to cook." Lake decided to start serving breakfast last year for the night-shift postal workers who'd bowl after work and couldn't stomach breaded mushrooms and mozzarella sticks at the crack of dawn. This summer, he plans to teach Palmer how to fix the bowling alley machinery, but she feels safer flipping pancakes. "Last time I went back there, I saw a pin fly right by me and hit the wall," she says. "I walked away and came right back up to the front."
Tuxedo Lanes in Parma specializes in "crummy food," says Ed Stohrer, the owner of the 1950s-era storefront relic. "Anything you can throw in the microwave, we can cook here." So he encourages pinheads to bring in grub from the two other tenants in the building--State Road Pizza and the Jigsaw Saloon, which makes a mean set of barbecued ribs, an okay Italian sausage sandwich, and pierogi hand-formed by the little old ladies at St. Josaphat's Ukrainian church just down the street.
Frank Meszar, 63, the owner of Meszar's Lanes in Cleveland, makes good chili, not happy chili. He first whipped it up a couple years ago, when business was so bad he had idle time in the afternoons. Business is still bad. "Our lunch counter used to be pretty busy," says Meszar, a former custodian for the Cleveland City Schools. "The [cook] that was here before was here for fifteen years, but we had to let her go.
"It's a tough life, bowling," Meszar continues. "I drove past a schools truck today and thought, 'God, I could have been retired.'" Time for seconds.
Cedar Center Lanes, which serves breakfast from 8 a.m. until noon, is located at 13934 Cedar Road in University Heights; call 216-371-2695. Tuxedo Lanes is at 5326 State Road; call 216-749-2213 for hours. Meszar's Lanes, 4231 Fulton Road, opens its lunch counter at 4 p.m.; call 216-741-7933.