After one heck of a long build, Melbourne's newest home of good times opens to the public today. The Keys Leisure Centre in Preston could well be the city's most multifaceted venue too.
It can cater to 650 punters, who'll have the choice of taking up residence in one of the dozen bowling lanes at the venue’s heart, or spending time in the arcade, bistro or beer garden – all while being kept sated by the 42 taps spread across its three bars.
Getting The Keys to this point has taken close to three years, but co-founder Tom Peasnell says the idea had been in the works for much longer for him and fellow founder Jon Rowatt.
“We've had this plan to do a bowling alley for about seven years,” Tom says. “We’ve been on multiple trips to America to get it moving.”
Eventually, the pair found the right site to bring their vision to life: an historic 2,000 square metre warehouse. Initially, the intention was to open The Keys last summer but once they started building it they decided instead to take their time to get it just right.
“We took a long time with it,” Tom admits. “About halfway through the build, we were rushing to get it over and we went, ‘Fuck this. Let’s make it the way we want to make it' – and spent another year on it.”
It’s certainly impressive, with custom-designed stained glass windows decorating the bars and reception area, bar panels that conjure the feel of an old pub, and recycled and reclaimed materials a feature throughout. Their bowling machinery is sourced from America and, with The Keys being a COVID project, they faced continually delays getting stuff shipped into Australia.
“It was about getting that connection between old and new,” Tom says. “We didn't want to be a vintage bowling alley where everything was fully vintage and breaking down and where the gameplay and everything wasn’t that fun.”
The pair have long been bowling fans and, as hospitality professionals, they felt Melbourne would embrace a venue that brought together bowling, pool, arcade machines and a quality hospitality offering under the one roof. It's an approach that echoes some other recent openings in the craft beer world where good beer is just part of a grander concept: the likes of Moon Dog World and Bodriggy in Melbourne, or The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre in Sydney.
And the hope at The Keys is that people will be just as likely to visit for a drink or a meal as they are eager to test their skills in one of the lanes.
“We’re not good bowlers," Tom says, 'but we used to go bowling every second week or so. We really enjoy the social aspect of it, but the only problem with going to some places [is] the food and beverages offering just isn’t there.”
And when it comes to creating hospo spaces that work, they know what they're doing. Tom is a chef by trade and involved in the likes of Nico’s Sandwich Deli, Dexter and Takeaway Pizza. He and Jon are also involved in Dom's Social Club, a three-level venue in Melbourne’s CBD that features a pizzeria, pool room and rooftop bar.
The menu at The Keys is made up of pub classics and pizza, while 14 different beers from the likes of Bodriggy, KAIJU! and 3 Ravens, including two brewed just for the venue, pour across its three bars. [You can read about the team behind that tap system, Chilled Solutions, and their efforts to ensure The Dude's favourite White Russians are pouring here.]
Given the venue’s scope and size, they’ve kept the tap list fairly approachable in the hope they’ll attract an audience in the suburbs beyond Thornbury and Preston, while you'll find everything from Budweiser to Future Mountain in can and bottle.
“When you do a venue of this size, you need to be very approachable,” Tom says. “You can't just be going to craft beer drinkers, even though we drink craft beers, and that's our schtick.
“So the way we've done it, we've got a really extensive sort of pack list and really approachable tap list. So that’s really pretty well known Melbourne breweries and a few odder ones, but we’re essentially trying to hit certain styles.”
He adds: “Bowling can be cool but it’s pretty much not cool. So, we’re trying to get really approachable in what we’re doing so we aren’t shocking for anyone. But craft beer drinkers can walk in and go, ‘Yeah that’s a sick IPA!'."
The Keys Leisure Centre is located at 1/188 Plenty Road, Preston. You'll find it and hundreds of other good beer venues and breweries in our free Crafty Pint app.