Twenty-five years after she bought it, Bryant-Lake Bowl (810 W. Lake St., Mpls., bryantlakebowl.com) owner Kim Bartmann is selling her landmark restaurant-theater-bowling alley.
The buyer is Erica Gilbert. She started at the BLB 12 years ago as a wait assistant, and now works as “bartender, slash, manager, slash server,” she said.
Her plan? “I’m not doing anything to it. It’s perfect the way it is,” said Gilbert. “Everything is staying the same. Well, we’ll be getting some working chairs. Updating the chairs, that’s the highlight.”
Bartmann’s reasons for selling are simple.
“Because it’s time, and because Erica wanted to buy it,” she said. “I’ve always considered myself a responsible shepherd of a place that has been there for a long time, and will be there long into the future. Erica has worked there a long time, and I have other things to do. This feels good.”
Yes, Bartmann is a busy woman. She owns 10 Minneapolis restaurants: Barbette, Pat’s Tap, Bread & Pickle, Gigi’s Café, Tiny Diner, Red Stag Supperclub, the Bird, Trapeze, Book Club and the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
“We’ve lost so many coveted neighborhood restaurants in the city of Minneapolis over the last couple of years,” said Bartmann. “If everyone wants the Bryant-Lake Bowl to be here, then they’ve got to hopefully come in once in a while to have breakfast, or see a show, or bowl, and help keep it going.”
Bartmann, a visionary restaurateur, was operating one of the Twin Cities’ first coffeehouses, Cafe Wyrd (it’s now the home of Barbette), when she saw the culinary — and cultural — possibilities in the eight-lane bowling alley.
“I was really into beer and wine, and I thought, ‘Why can’t there be a place that has really good beer and wine, and an espresso machine, and not be pretentious?’” she said. “It was a kind of a wine-for-the-people thing. One day I drove past the Bryant-Lake Bowl and thought, ‘Wow, that would be a cool place for a wine bar, because you can’t be pretentious in a bowling alley.”
The BLB, which dates to 1936, has played a key role in Bartmann’s career as a restaurateur and impresario. When she bought the place from Bill Drouches in the summer of 1993, one of her first decisions was to convert the bowling alley’s game room into the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater.
“It was probably the first theater in the country with a model that supported the artists — with box office, marketing and tech — by splitting the proceeds at the door, fifty-fifty,” said Bartmann. “It worked great for the artists, and it still does.”
The 90-seat theater has helped to launch the careers of an incalculable number of performers and artists, including Emmy winner Maile Flanagan. As part of her hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show attitude, Bartmann recycled the theater’s seats from an east-metro high school.
“We went over with a truck and hauled them out,” she said. “They’re still in the same condition today as when we got them 25 years ago. They’re indestructible, knock on wood.”
When she took over ownership of the BLB, the only alcoholic libation being served from the battered (and original) mahogany bar was 3.2 Pig’s Eye beer. The sole menu item was potato chips, sold from a vending machine. During a quick, 30-day renovation, the bowling alley’s shoe counter was replaced with a kitchen. It’s still one of the smallest commercial kitchens in the Twin Cities, and its night-owl hours helped spark a late-night dining scene. Chef Laura Wade was recruited from Cafe Brenda.
“She brought in some really good food,” said Bartmann. “After Lucia’s, we were probably the second place to serve a mesclun salad. That was radical in 1993.”
The transaction should close in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Bartmann is gearing up for the BLB’s annual Halloween party on Oct. 31.
“I’ll be there,” she said. “And hopefully someone is going to give me a retirement watch.”