A new bowling alley with retro vibes is open in Hyde Park with boozy milkshakes and fried chicken sandwiches from a lauded local pit master. Seven Ten Social, the latest project from former Southport Lanes owner Steve Soble, aims to become a neighborhood hotspot that maintains a charming old-school feel while weaving in modern technology like automatic scoring and ordering kiosks in lieu of servers. The new business is a replacement for Seven Ten Lanes, another Soble-owned bowling alley that closed last year at 1055 E. 55th Street.
The Seven Ten name has a history with Soble who used the moniker for his now-shutttered Lincoln Park bowling alley that stood next to his brewery. Still, Soble says the South Side alley represents a fresh start and an opportunity to keep bowling culture alive despite pandemic obstacles and the flashy lure of high-tech gaming. “We’ve embraced the moment and are looking at this as the evolution of a neighborhood bowling alley, bar, and grill,” he says. “If we don’t change and we aren’t forward-thinking about how we do this business, we will probably be a dinosaur.”
In an effort to balance nostalgia with the high expectations of contemporary diners, Soble has again partnered Lillie’s Q’s Charlie McKenna to create a tight menu of fun and family-friendly options. McKenna has worked with Soble as he moved Lillie’s Q from its original Bucktown location to inside District Brew Yards in West Town. Lillie’s Q is known nationally for its line of barbecue sauces available across the country.
On the South Side, McKenna has cooked up wagyu beef burgers (American cheese, pickles, onions, burger sauce) and fried chicken sandwiches (dry, Buffalo, or Nashville hot), plus chicken wings, tenders, and crinkle-cut fries.
Patrons of all ages can top off their game with a traditional milkshake (vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry), and adults can upgrade to boozy versions like the Frozen Chocolate Mudslide (chocolate shake, vodka, Bailey’s, Kahlua) or Ice Cream Colada (vanilla shake, Malibu Rum, pineapple juice). Those who’d rather cut to the chase can choose among a dozen cocktails like the Gaucho and the Cowboy (High West Double Rye, Avión Reposado Tequila, orange bitters, maple syrup) or from a small collection of craft beers on tap.
McKenna has even more plans for bowling alley diners on the way: he’s currently at work on Roux, an all-day breakfast spot with a New Orleans-inspired menu of beignets and more, that will operate out of Seven Ten Social. An opening date for Roux is not yet available.
As with all corners of the hospitality industry, Seven Ten has faced staffing challenges. This prompted operators to turn to self-service kiosks where customers order food and drink sans human interaction. The move means that the staff is small but more highly paid, Soble explains. It’s also designed to help minimize contentions interactions between employees and patrons like conflicts over masks and vaccination cards seen across the country. “We’re hosting the party but not serving people like we used to,” he says.
Designed to evoke the playful and laid-back atmosphere at the heart of old school bowling culture, Seven Ten Social seats 40 diners between booths, tables, and a 12-seat bar. Corrugated metal and white subway tile create a blank slate that’s offset by pops of color provided by a large green neon sign that reads “Hyde Park,” marquee lighting prompting visitors to “Eat Drink Bowl,” and row after row of rainbow-hued bowling balls.
In a major transition from the previous alley’s 1960s-era equipment, Seven Ten Social’s eight bowling lanes are equipped with automatic scoring. “Once we bit the bullet, it was a completely different experience,” Soble says. “Now we have a vintage look with new technology and it’s a seamless operation — pins don’t get jammed, balls don’t get stuck.”
Independent bowling alleys across the U.S. were already in a precarious position before COVID-19 struck, but indoor dining bans and pivots to takeout and delivery have further roiled the niche industry. Chicago saw the impact of that struggle in September 2020 when Soble permanently closed historic bar, bowling alley, and billiards hall Southport Lanes after nearly a century due to financial hardship due to the pandemic. “Southport Lanes is really about the community getting together, and when you take away these communal spaces and you’re not able to do that safely, it’s really hard to make it work,” he told Eater at the time.
Seven Ten Social, 1055 E. 55th Street, Open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 3 p.m. to midnight Friday; noon to midnight Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.