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KaiApril 2, 2020

Why I love: Metrolanes, the best (bowling alley) bar in Auckland


Sam Brooks shares central Auckland’s best-kept drinking secret, the bowling alley bastion that has become his ‘third place’.

One of the first pieces I wrote for The Spinoff was a review of Metrolanes, the bowling alley bar that had quickly found a place in my heart. It is, in my mind, the best bar in the Auckland CBD. Since then, the place has become less a fling and more a soulmate. Or, to step away from anthropomorphising a bowling alley bar, it’s become my third place.

‘Third place’ is a term I first came across in a piece I think about often – ‘Every New Zealander needs a third place’ by Rebekah White, editor of NZ Geographic. In short, your third place is a place that isn’t work or home, but a place where you can hang out in a truly neutral space, among both friends and strangers. I’ve always had a third place, whether it was when I was growing up in Papakura or spending the better part of the last decade living in Auckland’s CBD. When I was young, I used to go to a grassy roundabout in the middle of Opaheke to sit there and read accompanied by my Discman (I am not old, but I am not young). Once I was gone for so long that my grandparents went driving around looking for me. I’d been reading for four hours, and hadn’t realised. Time stopped outside the third place.

When I moved to the CBD, my third place shifted. Sometimes I’d just go to the Domain with a few cans of a cheap RTD (Smirnoff Ice, the shortest road to a sugar crash) and read a book, but that didn’t feel much like a third place. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found my central city oasis: Metrolanes.

Metrolanes is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bowling alley in the multi-level complex that used to be known as SkyCity Metro and even before that, Planet Hollywood. People raise their eyebrows whenever I recommend it. It doesn’t have the hipster cred of a Golden Dawn (RIP) or the filter-ready lighting of an SPQR, and also… it’s a bowling alley bar.

Once I promise people that I’m not there to bowl, I start the sales pitch. The wine is relatively cheap – it used to be $30 for a bottle during happy hour, now it’s $35. The food is better than you’d expect: bountiful amounts of well-salted fries, and pizza saturated in the most yellow cheese you’ve ever seen. The music is whatever is on the TVs; it could be Juice TV, or whatever music channel has now lurched into filling Juice’s place.

But the main thing is the deck. I’ve no idea what windfall of fortune allowed a bowling alley bar to have the best view in the central city, but it’s one I’m thankful for. The deck in question overlooks Aotea Square, at an angle that catches the sunset just right. It’s cool in summer, warm in winter and you can smoke, if that’s your particular vice – and hey, there’s no judgement from me. I drink at a bowling alley bar. I’ve celebrated three birthdays there.

The view from Metrolanes at sunset (Photo: Sam Brooks)

At some stage in the past year, Metrolanes turned from a fun place – where mates could have a smoke and gossip about other mates over cheap wine – into a personal bastion. It became a place where I would never risk running into someone I hadn’t specifically invited to be there. Because for some, home isn’t where everyone knows your name. Home is where the bartender knows your order.

There are innumerable benefits to living in a small community. They can fill up the gaps left by family, or by time. They can rally around you. People know you, know your problems, know your drama. You can show up somewhere, to an event, to a party, and be sure to see people you know you can have a conversation with. But those communities can also be stifling; it only takes a little bit of redecoration for a penthouse suite to look like a cage.

Some bars are great because they set the tone and dictate the vibe. I like those places, but they can be a bit stressful – you always have to think before you invite someone there. Will they like the vibe? Will they feel comfortable or safe there? Some bars overstep, being so full of personality you feel like you’re intruding just by bringing your custom there. A bar like that tends not to last. To quote the modern day philosopher Peter Griffin: “It insists upon itself.”

Metrolanes doesn’t have that problem. It’s a blank slate of a bar, and I say that as the highest compliment. It fills that third place necessity – it’s neutral. It is what you make of it. You bring the people, you set the vibe, you dictate the tone. It might be completely different from the table next to you, but that’s fine. There’s enough room for everybody on that deck.

If you think it’s a bowling alley, it’s a bowling alley. If you think it’s a place to share a quick bottle before a show, that’s what it is. If it’s a place for you and your closest mates to get away from your community because there’s nothing more exhausting than performing for a small audience, that’s what it is.

I was in self-isolation for about a week before the rest of the country. Self-imposed and pre-emptive, but isolation nonetheless. I started going a bit stir-crazy a few days before the country did, and felt in my bones, like some old sea captain, that the lockdown was coming. I’m fairly good at being by myself, at staving off loneliness while being alone, but I’m not good at not having a third place. I picked up a book, Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book, and went down to Metrolanes to sit on that deck, reading and drinking as the sun set. 

When I was about a hundred pages deep, two teenagers in baggy hoodies sneaked past me. They sat down towards the end of the deck, taking long pulls off a litre bottle of red Scrumpy. They sat together, gossiping while looking askance at me, probably afraid that I’d dob them in. I didn’t need to. There was room for everyone on that deck. The sun setting was the only indication of the world outside; a world less than a week from daily briefings, righteous narking and lockdown. You wouldn’t know it then; ‘Lanes remained ‘Lanes.

Keep going!