Bryant-Lake Bowl turns 20

A Q&A with Kim Bartmann

File photo Credit: Kim Bartmann at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Though its 10-pin roots trace back to the 1930s, the Bryant-Lake Bowl as we know it is rolling up on its 20th anniversary. In 1993, a 29-year-old Kim Bartmann opened her hybrid bowling alley/theater/wine and beer bar in a pre-condo-era Uptown. In restaurant years, 20 is the new 80. But the BLB’s cachet among neighborhood dwellers and alt-type regulars hasn’t waned with its senior status. The cozy, come-as-you-are restaurant is an institution in an ever-changing neighborhood.

Bartmann and her sister Kari Bartmann, who together run Bryant-Lake Bowl and other Minneapolis restaurants including nearby Barbette and Pat’s Tap, ring in the big 2-0 with an Oct. 31 party. The Current will be live broadcasting from the Lyn-Lake haunt from 3–7 p.m. with all-day happy hour specials. We caught up with Kim ahead of the festivities to talk 20 years of BLB. 

Q: What do you remember about opening night? 

Bartmann: I was painting blue on the wall in the theater up until about a half hour before our party started. At about 2 o’clock that afternoon there was a giant pile of lumber in the middle of the dining room.

Were you sweating bullets? 

No, I lack that brain cell. I lack the risk gene. It doesn’t even occur to me that something isn’t going to work, although a lot of people said that it wouldn’t. This was a terrible neighborhood. The Jungle Theater was here and that was doing alright. The bar on Lake and Lyndale had closed around then because someone was shot in there. Very different neighborhood.

I was going to ask you what the Lyn-Lake restaurant scene was like back then. 

There wasn’t one. There was It’s Greek to Me, which has always been awesome, and Dulono’s.

What made you think this was the right place, then?

I wanted to imagine a wine bar that wasn’t pretentious, where everyone felt welcome. I drove by this space one day and thought a bowling alley would be a cool space to have a wine bar. I came in here and talked to the owner, Mr. Bill Drouches. The theater was an arcade at that time. Actually, the day I came in to talk to Mr. Drouches there was a police officer hanging a camera on the ceiling pointing at the doorway of the game room because there was drug dealing going on in there. I assured [Drouches] that I wanted to get rid of the game room and make it into a theater and I wanted to have open bowling all the time so people felt like they could come and go bowling whenever they wanted to, as opposed to league bowling which is how every other bowling alley in the world survives. He thought that was a fantastic idea and we went from there.

Organic and farm-to-table food is all the rage now, but you’ve been doing it for a long time. 

We’ve been selling grass-fed beef burgers for over 10 years now. I went to a talk given by Judy Wicks, who’s sort of a food hero and sustainability pioneer. After I heard that talk I came back, took a bunch of stuff off the menu and announced that within the year we would be selling locally sourced stuff, more sustainably grown ingredients and things like that. 

What are some of the fondest memories you have of running BLB? 

I’ve met some really awesome people: artists, musicians, wind-energy engineers [laughs]. Really a variety. The proudest I was, was an early mention in the Reader that said you can find a family bowling next to a bunch of grunge rockers [and] a couple of drag queens or something. This has always been a really diverse environment and I think that’s really exciting.

Bryant-Lake Bowl has a lot of identities. Is it difficult to keep everything on its A-game with so many different facets?

Yes, it is. But each thing feeds and encourages the other. We still have people, probably every week, where someone new comes here and eats or has a good beer, because they’re coming to a theater show. The same with the restaurant, people come here for breakfast and go, “Oh, that comedy show looks fun. Maybe I’ll try the theater.”

You’ve always been very engaged in the community, voicing your opinion on things like the proposed patio ordinance or the block parties you guys throw.

As far as I know the only ordinance ever signed outside of City Hall was signed here at Bryant-Lake Bowl. That would be the non-smoking ordinance. Whether you like it or not, that’s what happened and after a big meeting with our staff I decided to publicly support that. I was the only restaurant person to do so. I got a lot of angry messages on my answering machine over that one [laughs].

You’ve said you really care about the theater. Do you handle any of the booking?

No, I used to participate in that quite a bit, but I haven’t in a very long time. You know, the theater was not my idea. Danny Schmitz, who at the time was a struggling theater producer, had this idea if we provided a theater and a box office and taught people how to promote their shows, that we could split the door with them and we would have this little engine of people coming through here all the time and doing cool things, which has worked really well.

Sustainable food and sustainable theater?

That’s right [laughs]. We are approaching sustainability. The goal has always been to break even. I would say we are approaching that goal. 

The restaurant industry tends to see a lot of turnover.

Nobody’s around for 20 years.

What’s given BLB that longevity?

Bowling has its own energy. Before I bought it, Danny and I invited a ton of people to come and go bowling so we could stand in the game room and listen to how loud it would be. It was no surprise it wasn’t silent in the game room, but what was a surprise was that all of our too-cool-for-school, Uptown, rocker/punk/whatever friends were laughing and having a good time and really yukking it up. I think the bowling alley aspect of this place strips any potential pretense out of whatever we do in here.