“I’ve let my parents down. My son down. In fact, sorry to everyone who knows me.”
Oh dear. Michelle, my Northern Soul colleague, didn’t enjoy our trip to Manchester’s All Star Lanes quite as much as I did. Despite protestations of “but I’m really good at this on Wii”, around 15 minutes passed before Michelle bothered the scoreboard. Meanwhile, I was coasting to a bowling victory, despite a distinct lack of proficiency at any sport except, oddly, this one.
It was perhaps for the best that we were playing in the VIP enclosure, shielded from the rest of the lanes by a discreet partition. As we were shown to the private room, I remarked how it felt like The White House’s bowling alley (yes, I’ve seen the pictures), little realising that’s exactly what was intended. With photos of JFK and Nixon on the walls and a discreet plaque, the uncanny resemblance was no accident; we felt proper special now.
Sadly, the elevated surroundings did little to bolster Michelle’s bowling prowess, or her consternation at losing to, let’s be frank, someone who was in her school’s remedial class for PE. But it was fun, really good fun. This is posh bowling, and the Deansgate site is All Star Lanes’ only venue outside London. Gone are the sticky floors, sweaty foot odours and cries of “can a lane marshall come to number nine” so reminiscent of my youth at Pilsworth Megabowl. Here it’s all pared-down scale, polished veneer and hoovered carpets. There’s even an extremely jolly man doling out the shoes called Elvis.
In the same way that flying in first class can ruin you for steerage, All Star Lanes buggers up any future thoughts of multiplex bowling. I mean, this is really nice. I knew what to expect having been to the original Bloomsbury location but it was encouraging to see that the management had successfully transferred all the satisfying aspects of the London experience to the North.
Much like the capital, this is a place you can enjoy without ever feeling a bowling ball in your hand. The spacious bar says “come hither and drink” while the restaurant and its welcoming booths are similarly enticing. Michelle and I opted for the Christmas menu. But, if I’m being honest, the day-to-day American diner offering was much more appealing. Another time, perhaps. Meanwhile, we sat back and waited for Christmas on a plate.
Starters were salt beef and pickle fritters for Michelle and smoked haddock chowder for me. Both hit the spot after an, erm, spot of bowling, but were a long way from making it into an entrée hall of fame (man, wouldn’t that be good? dough balls with garlic dip would be in awards contention if I sat on the judging panel – simple pleasures and all that). Then it was on to the mains. Cast your eye to the left of this page and you’ll see what I was dealing with. Yep, this is the Christmas dinner burger. Holy crap.
According to the menu, the Christmas dinner burger comprised ‘our turkey, cranberry and chestnut patty, duck fat roasted potato salad, sausage and apricot stuffing fritter, smoked Applewood cheese, and treacle cured bacon’. Looking at the menu now, I clearly mistook the potato salad for bubble and squeak which, if I’m honest, is a disappointing revelation. Nevertheless, for the most part, the burger did what it said on the tin, although the turkey was as chewy as a flattened roll of bubble wrap.
Thankfully, the dish came with a portion of tater tots, that all-American side order which, unless you spent your youth watching low-rent American sitcoms, is a mystery to us Brits. I’d describe them as mini potato croquettes and as fluffy as my cat Ellie after she’s slept in front of the fire. It was all I could do not to stand on my comfortable booth and shout “where have you been all my life?” to the world. Meanwhile, Michelle scoffed her appropriately Northern-sized portion (for that, read ample) of herb-baked fillet of salmon and declared herself replete. Or full. Meh, she was happy.
Afters were not long coming – for both of us the eggnog crème brûlée. I recall a satisfying ‘crack’ as I sullied the burnt caramel surface and a lot of nutmeg. By now I’d sated myself with the Pumpkin Nog cocktail, a festive concoction of gin shaken with pumpkin spice, caramel, milk, double cream and absinthe. Wait, was that absinthe? And another Nog? No wonder things were getting hazy. Nog. That’s a funny word.
So, All Star Lanes, you’ve shown me another way. I’ll be back to try your un-Christmassy menu and back to bowl like Presidents do. Although I’m not entirely sure that Michelle will want to come with me.
Oh, and to Lorna, my teenage school friend, I should tell you that “a lane marshall” isn’t a real person. Unless there’s a bowling specialist sprinting round an alley somewhere called Elaine.
By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
£1 from each sale of the Christmas dinner burger in Manchester goes to The Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital