LINCOLN SQUARE — The bar at Lincoln Square Lanes tells the story of the space's just-revealed remodel: spanking new draft beer taps set in 90-year-old maple wood salvaged from the alley's original lanes.
The goal was to preserve the history and integrity of the Lanes for loyal customers — things such as hand-scoring and the "Abe Lincoln" mural on the wall over the alleys — while upgrading the overall environment to appeal to newcomers.
So far, reviews suggest mission accomplished.
"I think it looks great," said Kara Doszkewycz, 30, who works at Matty K's Hardware, just below the alley. "I love that they opened the windows. I'm glad they kept the mural."
Bridget and Chris Guy, frequent bowlers at the alley, were hesitant to check out the changes, but the pair were pleasantly surprised by the makeover.
"There was something charming about it, it was a little funky before," said Bridget Guy, 35. "Lincoln Square has become so new and trendy, Lincoln Lanes has been a stalwart."
"This has got a really good feel," said Chris Guy, 43, who was particularly impressed with the pressed-tin ceiling. "They did it right. They kept the good pinball machines."
Matt Kollar, owner of Matty K's, popped upstairs to test out the lanes and welcome his old-new neighbor.
"The more people who come by the building itself, it's free advertising," he said. "The more reasons people have to come to the northwest side of [Lincoln] Square ... sometimes people forget we're here."
Putting the Lanes — "the best hidden secret" — back on people's radar was precisely the goal of the remodel, according to manager Jim Spencer, who grew up in Lincoln Square and has been coming to the Lanes "my whole life."
Until a few months ago, Spencer wasn't sure Lincoln Square Lanes, 4874 N. Lincoln Ave., had a future.
"Was it maybe going to be an unfortunate end to an era?"
The Lanes' history in Lincoln Square dates back to 1918 and while longevity is to be prized, Spencer said the alley had become "set in time."
What Bridget Guy labeled "funky" others considered off-putting.
"It was a tomb," Spencer said of the decor, which was heavy on black paint and covered windows.
Too many of the Lanes' longtime customers had either passed away or moved and there weren't enough "new faces to take their places," he said.
"We never had a marketing plan. It was just, people found it," he said. "If you don't reach out to those new faces ... they didn't know it was here."
Late last fall, owner Dick Drehobel's sons decided to invest in the business and fund a renovation, according to Spencer.
"They stepped up."
In November, the Lanes shut down and work began on the reconstruction. Brick was exposed, the tin ceiling was refurbished, windows were uncovered (Spencer can now look across the street at his alma mater St. Matthias) and four bowling lanes were removed to make room for a greatly expanded bar area.
On a recent evening during the Lanes' soft opening — "There's still a lot of t's to cross and i's to dot" — Spencer pointed to the lone foursome on the bowling lanes and then noted four times as many people at the bar.
"The bar is where the place is going to live or die," he said. "We needed and wanted for people to have more things to do."
That includes the addition of pool tables, a dozen big-screen TVs and a larger stage for what he hopes will be nightly live music. An executive chef, whose name Spencer wasn't at liberty to reveal ("I can say he has an unbelievable background in fine dining"), has been hired to head the overhauled kitchen.
The menu is still being finalized, but "our goal is to have this as a destination for people to dine," he said.
If all this sounds like a far cry from the average bowling alley, Spencer directs skeptics' attention to the Lanes' much beloved mural, which proclaims the lanes "Lincoln Square Recreation."
With the remodel, owners have taken the recreation part to heart.
Said Spencer, "There's more room for more fun."