I’ve only been to Sunset Park twice, and both times I’ve followed the exact same itinerary – and what a worthy one it is. I can’t wait to return and continue exploring, next time, to be sure, with a different line up. Regardless of where my next visit takes me, however, I have a feeling I will always recommend my twice-tried plan to any visitor; remarkably, it’s a plan that would suit pretty much any group size and appeal to pretty much any age group.
The plan is a simple one: a two-stop trip with a nice, long walk in-between. Chinese food, followed by a walk in Sunset Park – the actual park, not the entire neighborhood- followed by bowling.
You’ll begin at Metro Cafe, a friendly, causal and delicious Sichuan restaurant on Eighth Avenue (at 50th Street), which has become known as the Chinatown of Brooklyn. The texture of the spicy Mapo Tofu will woo even a non-tofu eater, and the divine, sweet and sour Pork with Eggplant in Garlic is a perfect accompaniment. Wash it all down with a Tsingtao or two, and you’re ready to bowl.
To get to the bowling alley, take a digestive walk through Sunset Park, where the views of Manhattan are real. The elevated vantage point is such that you might feel you are on a mountain, looking down on the city from across an expansive body of water. And I do mean expansive. If you felt like the trip down to Sunset Park was leading you too far from home, this view will not soothe your separation anxiety. When you are done admiring the views and the great distance, Melody Lanes awaits.
Melody Lanes is an institution. I imagine it feels just the same as it did the day opened. Heavily patterned carpet covers the floor of the entrance, where on one side sits the sign-up desk and shoe exchange, and on the other side sits the barroom, where the infamous bartender, Peter Napolitano, resides.
Mr. Napolitano is a verifiable hoot. He sports a bow-tie, suspenders, and the fattest chops you’ve ever seen. He’s ready to launch a minimum ten-minute-long-story to anyone that nears his tap. Deservingly dubbed a “bartender-philosopher” by The New York Times in a wonderful exposé from May, 2009, Peter Napolitano is one of a kind. During my last visit to the bowling alley, my lovely boyfriend and I got to hear Peter explain how the house he grew up in backed right up to the hospital where he was born. On a paper napkin, he drew a diagram to show us how the window of the room where his mother gave birth literally faced his childhood bunk beds, and although they have since built a building in-between the the hospital and his house, Peter could show us the alley-way that would still permit a clear pathway from window to window. Peter is a spectacular storyteller and a truly congenial man. Although I still didn’t want to ask for his photograph, he’s the type of person who wouldn’t think anything of it and would gladly agree with no suspicion or reservations. If only everyone was so unassuming and trustworthy.
One side of the bowling alley are the disco-bowling lanes, flashing lights, music, disco-ball and all. These are the lanes for the recreational bowler, and where I’ve bowled both times. The opposing side is reserved for the leagues and professional bowlers: the lights are fully iluminated and the sound of ten pins falling in one fell strike is the primary noise coming from this side of the room. As a layman, it’s fun to watch the other side, although I did feel somewhat intrusive even at the full distance of five, empty lanes away from the action.
But Melody Lanes is a friendly place; everyone is there to have a good time, and it was refreshing, for me, to hang out among people of all ages and backgrounds in one, communal space. If you still have room after a Sichuan feast, have some curly fries, a beer, and a gum ball, and maybe feel like you’ve gone back in time for a brief moment. Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to hear a tale from the legendary, Bay Ridge-born bartender.