If the Comet Pub & Lanes was really going for authentic, they would issue desiccated, red-white-and-blue bowling shoes, their innards as muggy as a jungle. There would be carpeting that smells of powdered cheese. The staff would be surly and the snacks would taste like well-oiled cardboard.
I’m happy to say that Comet — once the good ol’ Suburban Lanes in Decatur — is a mod and kitschy pleasure palace. The shoes are black and pristine and they look very cool. The mid-century design is all about the details, from the shuffleboard courts fronted by Oriental rugs to the framed Comet Man covers arrayed outside the men’s room to the many poppy orange accents. The servers are both sunny and chill.
How’s the food, though? Well, that depends on how you look at things. Compared with the rubber corn dogs and Day Glo orange nachos you’ll find at most bowling alleys, Comet’s offerings are stunning.
But, I came at this place knowing that the team behind it had transformed another unlikely suspect — the cavernous billiards and beer hall Twain’s — into a culinary gem. Chef Savannah Sasser has come up with twists on pub grub there that are both clever and delicious, like barbecue chicken on steamed spent-grain buns, dressed with cracklins, pickled radishes, turnips and mustard seeds.
Comet’s menu looks equally promising, taking typical alley-side noshes like pizza, wings and burgers and classing them up. Comet’s corn dog, for instance, is a Pine Street Market smoked chicken sausage fried in waffle batter with maple bacon aioli on the side.
A tantalizing menu is one thing. Execution is another. And, in the latter, we encountered some gaffes.
The two patties in our Comet burger, for instance, were a travesty — a pair of hard-and-gamy meat pucks. You know a burger is incurably dry when it can’t even be saved by an oozy fried egg, melted cheddar and bacon.
Likewise, the centerpiece of the Rich Girl sandwich — cornmeal-fried pickled shrimp — was a blemish in an otherwise yummy setting of fluffy white bun, hot tomato aioli and sweetly spiced house bread-and-butter pickles. The shrimp were mealy and tough and tasted simply like overfried shrimp. There was no punch from the pickling.
The deep fryer was kinder to other dishes. The Georgia hot chicken is a fun version of this ubiquitous standard. The meat is a fat-rich thigh rather than a breast, which is a favorite switcheroo at Twain’s as well. The thigh is pounded thin and sprawls over its nicely squishy bun. It’s fried to a burnished brown and its crunch is impressive.
The best thing about the sandwich (besides more of those acid-sweet bread-and-butter pickles) is its drizzle of honey. It coats your mouth with salty sweetness a moment before the no-holds-barred hot sauce kicks in and renders your tongue numb for a good many minutes. You’ll probably want to take a deep breath and bowl a few frames before going in for more.
The Comet Hot Pins, essentially jalapeno poppers, are also masterfully fried. They’re crunchy and golden, but underneath their crust are pickled jalapenos that are also crunchy. Way too crunchy. And thick. It’s impossible to enjoy the squirt of molten pimento cheese inside.
At some point, while my daughters giggled through their gutter balls and my husband sipped on a rare, crisp and fruity Creature Comforts Tropicalia, I took a stroll down the Comet’s long stretch of alleys and saw pizza after pizza after pizza on other diners’ squat, orange tables.
Because we had a pizza of our own, I can tell you, these bowlers were on to something.
The crust is on the thick side, buttery and firmly crunchy, so there’ll be no sauce or mozzarella flopping onto your nice, clean shoes. That sauce has a freshness to it, and the cheese is a little heavy-handed, but very tasty. On our ricotta-rich Farmer, Pine Street summer sausage was cozily mild; a few eggplant slices were inedibly tough, but those were easy enough to pluck off and discard. Overall, it was a fine pie.
We went to the Comet on a Wednesday night and it was packed. Regardless of the food, there is a crowd that’s hungry for these swank lanes and thirsty for pitchers of beer from a lovely, local-heavy list. (My favorite decorative detail — the menu board over the bar, where retro plastic letters spell out, “WELCOME TO THE COMET. NOW DRINK.”)
You won’t be drinking Twain’s famous brews here. Due to some arcane beer laws, they can’t be sold at the Comet. But the beers they do have are creatively curated. There are a handful of wines by the glass, and, on the cocktail menu, there are two homages to the ultimate bowler, the Big Lebowski himself. One is, of course, a White Russian. The other is a tequila-coffee liqueur-mole bitters concoction called the El Duderino.
Which is another way of saying, this is a place you go for the clatter of the pins and the fizz of the beer more than for the food. And I’m fine with that. The Comet is an old-school delight, and a little subpar grub — at least, by the high standards set by Twain’s — isn’t going to ruin anyone’s fun.
The Comet Pub & Lanes5 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Mondays, 10 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Sundays. 2619 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. 470-225-1931, cometpubandlanes.com.