Sunlight streamed through the skylights at the Highland Park Bowl recently, illuminating the buttery colored wooden expanses of the vintage bowling alley. It was just around noon and the bowlers, drinkers and preservationists hadn’t arrived yet.
Yes. Preservationists. You read correctly.
Located on North Figueroa, in a quickly gentrifying stretch of the block in Highland Park, it is one of many new businesses in the area drawing crowds. Behind the bar, Jared Mort, operations director, moved quickly from one task to the next, explaining that the masterful $2 million dollar renovation of the space, ripe with secrets and surprises, had attracted a lot of bowling alley-history aficionados, renovation buffs and preservation nuts as well.
“It’s not the usual crowd you expect when you open a new space,” he said. “But the story of the renovation itself was so unusual I think that people really wanted to see it for themselves.”
But beyond restoring the vintage bowling alley back to its original 1927 condition, Jared Mort has the job of fueling the crowd with food and drink. It is a challenge beyond challenges, when all the hoopla is about the renovation. How do you create a menu that measures up to a space of that quality? And how do you please the clientele who are so in awe of the perfectly polished bowling alley, that anything after just might be a disappointment on some level?
“In a space like this my thought was the simpler the better,” Mort said. “Nothing tricky or gimmicky and nothing intimidating,” he said. He decided on pizza cooked in a wood burning oven and envisioned the rest of the menu to be small, but perfectly crafted with a few beautiful crowd pleasers — not unlike the alley itself, simply and beautifully restored with a nod to the details.
And those details have a captive audience. Here’s how it all came about. Bear with me, we’ll get back to the food and drink momentarily.
It turns out the existence of the bowling alley was a complete shocker. When the owners of the 1933 Group (notorious for spots like Idle Hour — one of the last standing barrel bars in Los Angeles — Oldfield’s, Big Foot East, Big Foot West and La Cuevita) purchased the building, they had no idea that the bones of the original bowling alley lay waiting. It was a discovery that happened during the initial demolition of the interior when the dropped ceilings, additional walls and details added in the sixties to simply give it a facelift at the time, were peeled away.
“This space probably hasn’t looked this good since it opened the first time as a bowling alley in 1927,” he said.
Wiry, heavily inked and masterful at story telling, Mort has been a mainstay with the 1933 Group for years. He started his career when he managed a bar for a friend who opened a restaurant with gambling winnings from Las Vegas. Since then, he has opened and run the food and beverage programs at many restaurants and has been a privy to the highs and lows of the explosion of cocktail culture.
He went on to explain that when the bowling alley opened it was during prohibition. The original building housed a pharmacy, music room, bowling alley and bar. “Upstairs there were Doctors' offices where you could get a prescription for whiskey and then head back to the bar and the bowling alley to hang out and get a legal drink,” Mort said.
But over the years the building changed hands. The old bowling alley was literally covered over in 1966 with a new alley and nightclub venue, called Mr. T’s Bowl, by Joseph Theresa, an Italian immigrant who lived in Highland Park and owned a liquor store. The lanes closed some time in the 1980s and made way for a club, which showcased DIY Punk bands. And bands like the Breeders and Beck played there. Mr. T passed away in 2003 and his son ran the place until 2014, when the 1933 Group purchased the building.
But when the demolition started and the crew began to uncover the layers, the surprises kept coming: a bow-truss ceiling was unveiled with eight skylights, an original Arts & Crafts mural by the Anderson Brothers was discovered and a perfectly intact eight lane bowling alley with all the original machinery was unearthed.
“It was completely mind blowing for everyone,” Mort said. “At that point we wouldn’t have been surprised if we found a dead body.”
As they investigated the dusty corners, closets and spare rooms, the vestiges of entire long gone eras began to present themselves. Pinsetters and pins, flags and signage. And one of the biggest discoveries — an entire corner filled with a liquor delivery from the 1970s that had never been opened.
Which brings us back to the food and the drinks of course.
The decision to have wood burning pizza was a homage to Mr. T and his Italian roots, according to Mort, and there are lots of other nods to the history of Mr. T’s and the neighborhood itself on the menu.
The Neapolitan style pizza, made by executive chef and master pizzaiola Marco Aromantario is clearly the highlight. Pizza is personal to him. He described standing with friends outside of a pizza place in Puglia, simply eating pizza and drinking beer by their cars. “That’s how casual and communal pizza is to me, and that’s how it is at the Highland Park Bowl. It reminds me of home.”
When asked what his favorite pizza on the menu is, he is direct. “Of course my favorite pizza is Margherita, you can feel all of the toppings, from olive oil to the San Marzano tomatoes and tasty fresh mozzarella,” he said. “My second love is the Burrata, it is very delicious too, with our handmade pesto.”
Aromantario, from Bergamo, Italy, owned a pizza shop for years before moving to San Pedro, California and he claims there are a few things that makes his pizza truly Italian, including a mother yeast he has carried with him for years. He maintains with Napoli pizza the flour and proofing process is very important. He picked a very specific type of flour called Farina Autentica Pizza Napoletana 00 to mimic the texture of dough in Napoli. It is a 15 to 24 hour proofing process in 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which recreates the temperature and humidity in the caves in Napoli.
While classics like pizza Margherita (his personal favorite) and Quattro Formaggi are on the menu, he also makes a pizza with pancetta, egg, pecorino and black kale, among others with interesting ingredient combinations. And in a fairly short amount of time, the word is spreading. With many favorable reviews, the buzz about the pizza just may be catching up with the buzz about the restoration.
As far as the drinks go, it’s a little bit of trial and error. But Mort claimed, “it’s really just about paying close attention to who your customer is.”
He was clear that since it was a bowling alley and a live music venue, people needed to feel comfortable. He admitted that there were some critics in the first wave of customers. “Because people are used to having a lot of choices and are really educated about spirits these days, people have a lot of opinions,” he said. “But really complex craft cocktails can also be intimidating and we didn’t want that vibe,” he added.
There is a rotating selection of wine and beer, including some local favorites. Old-fashioneds and Moscow mules are on tap along with some classic cocktails with a twist like the “Fuzzyland”, named after a popular music night at Mr. T’s and the “Warren Loves his Momma” named after the film “Throw Mama from the Train”, which was filmed at Mr. T’s in 1987.
They are planning a series of cocktail events using the liquor inventory discovered during the renovation. “This place was literally a time capsule and it’s a lot of fun to share the information with people and plan events around these great stories,” he said.
Top photo: Courtesy of Wonho Frank Lee