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The Play's the Thing

Where to go to be a sport -- without working up a sweat.

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I've been a New Yorker long enough to know how an urban professional is expected to entertain herself on a weekend night: It usually involves donning a little black dress. But lately, after a hard week, I've just wanted to go someplace where I could wear jeans. Drink beer. Talk about sitcoms. So I decided to drop the stylish cocktails and lit-crit chatter for some serious, straight-ahead sport. Not the athletic kind, of course, but the sort of mano a mano combat immortalized by my heroes Ralph Kramden, Al Bundy, and Archie Bunker.

NOT-SO-DARK ALLEYS
Bowlmor Lanes

If, like me, you haven't been to Bowlmor since it was pleasantly decrepit, you're in for a shock: These days, the 42-lane center, complete with mood lighting, plush seating, and a Lichtenstein triptych behind the bar, might as well be an annex of the new Condé Nast building. No surprise, then, that the place was crawling with model types and we found ourselves in the company of Adam Sandler.

Given the prospect of an hours-long wait for a lane, we perused a menu at the bar. We stubbornly bypassed the grilled tuna and sirloin to order cheeseburgers, which were delicious except for a dry, highfalutin bun. (They were also a relative bargain, at $5.95 each.) As for the bowling itself ($5.95 per game on the weekend, $3 for shoes), the bad news was that here, like everywhere else these days, you can't score your own, and the automated scoring rushes you through your game. The good news: My competition was so distracted by a leather-clad blonde in the next lane that I almost won.

110 University Place (255-8188); open weeknights until at least 1 a.m., weekends until 4 a.m.

AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes

At least this recently constructed alley is true to itself: a spiffy, suburban-type destination, with high ceilings, an open feel, lots of blond wood, and a center café with undistinguished food. "The architects designed it to conquer the stereotypes of bowling, which involve smoking and beer drinking by heavy-set bald men," explained general manager Dan Dubeau, who added, "New Yorkers are very discerning."

Maybe I'm a little too discerning. The last time I'd bowled here, an employee had sized me for a ball (which is an admittedly nice amenity) and then refused to give me a six-pound ball, adding that if I couldn't manage eight pounds, I "shouldn't be bowling." I carried the burdensome equipment to the lanes and promptly lost my footing on the slippery floor. The next time, while bowling an excessively pricey game ($6.25 apiece, plus $4 for shoes) and drinking an expensive bottle of Sam Adams ($5), I had the opposite problem: The floor was too sticky, and my friend Lorie, a trained bowler, said she couldn't perform her follow-through. Dubeau later explained to me that because the place is located directly above the water, the humidity level is very high, which makes the lanes sticky unless they're "conditioned" twice a day. On my first visit, the lane must have just been treated; this time, when they were overdue, we should have fetched some "E-Z Slide powder" from the pro shop. But we learned this too late. What redeemed our visit was the presence of Skee Ball and air hockey in the game room.

Chelsea Piers (835-BOWL); open weeknights until 1 a.m., weekends until 4 a.m.

Leisure Time Bowling Center

Here, at last, was an alley that was keepin' it real, starting with the location (deep in the belly of the Port Authority). While waiting for a lane, we joined the all-boroughs crowd in the lounge, where we listened to Janet Jackson and Phil Collins tunes, watched the big-screen TV, and drank cheap beer. We also did time in the, shall we say, authentic snack bar, where we nonetheless enjoyed the tender chicken fingers ($6.25).

I liked the bowling best here because there were plentiful balls in all sizes; it was cheap ($4.75 a game, $3 for shoes); and the automated scorer had no-nonsense graphics. (I find it condescending to see a cartoon reenactment of my gutter balls.) All that, and the fact that my beloved referred to the other female bowlers as "skanky."

Ninth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, second floor (268-6909); open weeknights until 1 a.m., weekends until 4 a.m.

CORNER POCKETS
Chelsea Billiards

Walking into the 52-table hall at Chelsea Billiards, I was almost scared off by the prominently displayed (and imposing to an amateur) snooker tables. But otherwise, it was happily unostentatious, and we got a table right away ($14 an hour; this and all prices below are for two people on a weekend night). I was feeling the beginnings of a long relationship, until our waitress murmured the word renovation: The new owner is about to sink lots of cash into turning this place into a high-end palace, complete with an elevated café and a downstairs lounge. The nerve.

54 West 21st Street (989-0096); open 24 hours, seven days a week.

Amsterdam Billiard Club

I was prepared to loathe ABC, which comedian and co-owner David Brenner opened in 1990; I figured it had to be snooty, since it's uptown, draws a celebrity crowd (both Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Sorvino play several nights a week), and hosts pro tournaments. Besides, my friend had told me the place had the best cappuccino he'd ever tasted, which hardly seemed proper. But the West Side location in particular ($17 an hour; on the East Side, it's $14), which is welcoming without being a fern bar -- won me over. And yes, the cappuccino was exquisite.

344 Amsterdam Avenue (496-8180) and 210 East 86th Street (570-4545); open weekdays until 3 a.m., weekends until 4 a.m.

Corner Billiards

Though one of the few women in this deadly serious establishment, I managed to feel comfortable, but I can't say we had a particularly laid-back evening; we found ourselves speaking in hushed and earnest tones about the game. "I always feel like I should be a better player when I come here," my friend whispered to me. I think the place in fact made me a better player: The contemplative air aided my concentration, so I actually made a few shots.

85 Fourth Avenue (995-1314); open weekdays until 2 a.m., weekends until 3 a.m.

BULLSEYES
Sandy's Place

I was happy to find that darts have yet to be New York-ified; it's the last bastion of grungy folks who feel the need to justify their Guinness drinking with a bit of sport. Sandy's Place (more popularly known by its former name, Muffin's Pub) boasts the most boards in Manhattan (five), arranged in the separate darts area, which is one of the best and roomiest setups in the city. There's even a built-in gauge of how good you are: If Isis, Sandy's Belgian sheep dog, stays underneath the board while you're shooting, consider yourself a decent player.

699 Second Avenue, near 37th Street (599-9349); open until 4 a.m. seven days a week.

The Pour House
McCarthy's Bar & Grill

Through some deeply placed sources in the darts world, I learned that serious players like to pad their income at weekly tournaments called the Luck of the Draw. The idea is that everyone puts in $5 (the bar matches the pot), two-player teams are drawn at random, and the winners split the loot. Sandy's hosts one on Wednesdays, but the real action takes flight at the Pour House on Sunday nights and McCarthy's on Thursdays. Although I'd been told that darts players are generally helpful and approachable, I decided not to test their patience by entering, preferring to consider the game a spectator sport. I plan to come back and play on Saturday afternoons, when the only competition is usually a friendly bartender.

The Pour House, 1710 Second Avenue, near 88th Street (987-3790); open until 4 a.m.; McCarthy's, 345 Second Avenue, at 20th Street (477-6201), open until 4 a.m.

Puffy's Tavern

There are more than a hundred darts bars in Manhattan (many can be found at www.nydo.org) and any serious darts player has a personal favorite. "Puffy's is the place where I learned to play darts," says Roger Herbert, co-director of the New York Darts Organization. "It's not one of the best setups, but I like the bar." Roger's usually there on Fridays, and if it's a slow night, he's happy to give people impromptu lessons on how to position their arms or perfect their strategy. Because while darts may look easy, people like me -- who aren't that familiar with the game or gifted with physical coordination in general -- need all the pointers they can get.

81 Hudson Street (766-9159), open until 4 a.m.


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