If you have ever longed for a hipster Chuck E. Cheese, you’re in luck. Punch Bowl Social, a vast game-playing and drinking establishment that also happens to be a gigantic restaurant, lacks pizza but has games, noise and cocktails to spare.
The local outpost of a rapidly growing “eatertainment” chain occupies a marquee location at the corner of 5th and J streets, looking out over Golden 1 Center, and with one corner opening directly into the new Kimpton Sawyer hotel. The chain, the brainchild of founder Robert Thompson, has a Southern vibe (Thompson dreamed it up while running a billiards bar and Cuban lounge in Nashville), but the first branch opened in Denver. Sacramento’s brings the total locations to 12, with nine more set to open this year.
Sacramento’s Punch Bowl Social nods to local flavors, as each link in the chain does, but retains a menu with lots of Southern touches; consulting chef Hugh Acheson, though Canadian by birth, is known for restaurants in Georgia, as well as his "Top Chef Masters" appearances. You’ll find grits at brunch, pimiento cheese and fried chicken at dinner and watermelon in one of the eponymous punch bowls, but also local fave Preservation & Co. bloody Mary mix and Ettore’s desserts.
Other menu items skew toward comfort classics, and they are often upscaled (the Kobe-beef hot dog, for example, comes with fried shallots). Healthier outliers include a “superfood grain bowl” and the vegetable minestrone with pistou.
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With enough room to hold 850 people and many, many games (including a bocce patio, eight bowling lanes and karaoke), the two-story place is big enough to warrant an interactive floor plan on the website.
I almost wished I had printed out that floor plan when I arrived. It can be difficult to find the main entrance, which is up a long staircase next to Urban Outfitters. At the top of the stairs, a dark passageway punctuated by wobbly tiles felt unwelcoming. On each of my visits a staffer apologized for the loose tiles and said they were planning to fix them.
The place embraces a "more is more" aesthetic that the website calls “dirty modern” (don’t worry, the restaurant itself is quite clean), which seems to mean that if an item has been even vaguely adjacent to a trend in restaurant design of the past half-decade or so, it’s here. Exposed pipes, dozens of different kinds of light fixtures, a neon DINER sign over the frantic kitchen (despite no strong diner theme anywhere else): check, check, check.
Why are there foxhunting-themed oil paintings over the short bowling lanes, or siding painted that cabin-in-the-woods deep-green color alongside? There’s no way to know. But it all adds up to a place that practically screams at you to have fun.
It’s not hard to catch the fun vibe, especially when you chat with one of the bubbly servers or run over to the vintage arcade. If you’re after a quiet meal or not interested in darts or bowling, however, this might not be the spot for you. (Note that all activities are first come, first served.)
Drinks are a strength. From the classics menu, the old-fashioned is indeed classic and boozy. The punches, available in single servings or variously sized eponymous punch bowls, are strong but balanced; I like the freshness and tang of the Watermelon Polo, which could easily have veered too sweet. The Orchard & Oak married bourbon and hard cider successfully. Sometimes, the bar’s hand with herbs and spices (many drinks are topped with sage leaves or contain aromatic syrups, like cardamom) can be heavy. The Pillow Talk, advertised on the menu as prizewinning, had such a forward lavender aroma it smelled at first like a bath bomb. (The flavor settled down as I drank it.)
A chocolate milkshake was thick and rich, but shy on chocolaty flavor, possibly because they are made with soft serve. There’s also a terrifying lineup of over-the-top boozy “adult milkshakes,” for which I confess I am not the target audience. If you are, though, get at it: There’s one with Jim Beam maple whiskey, one with banana-infused brandy and salted caramel.
Brunch service on a Saturday was by far the quietest I saw the restaurant on three visits. (Breakfast dishes are served until 3 p.m. every weekday as well.) The house bloody Mary with Preservation & Co. mix, was fine, but not exceptional.
Biscuits and mushroom gravy was a nice vegetarian twist on the usually meaty classic, with savory gravy heavily redolent of thyme and a good helping of crisp, well-browned potatoes enhanced by the surprise of chewy, silky, sometimes sticky-crunchy cloves of roasted garlic. The dish had some pitfalls, though. Biscuits were tender but not flaky, and a pallid half of allegedly roasted plum tomato was so hard as to be inedible, even after cooking. What’s the point of putting such an off-season item on the plate? Four perplexing, equally pointless slices of avocado on the side added nothing to the dish and had overripe brown spots to boot.
My companion’s grit breakfast bowl also hailed from the South, with spicy Tasso ham chunks alongside bland kale and a big scoop of cheering, cherry-red pickled peppers, the best thing I tasted at Punch Bowl Social. The grits looked great — you could see melty white cheddar stringing from the spoon when taking a bite — but tasted utterly bland, quite a feat given all the cheese.
Also under-seasoned, and over-fried, was gluten-free fried chicken at dinner. Making a gluten-free breading, in this case from organic brown rice flour, is a noble goal that went sadly awry here, lending the chicken’s exterior the rough look and texture of sand. The chicken, mostly boneless pieces, was dry, not tender, and I couldn’t taste any salt or spice. A buttery hot sauce alongside for dipping helped, but couldn’t quite rescue the dish.
I found the missing salt from the grits and the fried chicken on a plate of nachos anointed with plasticky-textured white queso fundido, a great deal of what seemed to be cotija cheese, pickled red onion, creditable carnitas, fresh jalapeño slices, incongruous roasted cauliflower, and a bizarre scoop of solid “jalapeño crema.” Although adept at the time-honored nacho job of soaking up booze, this strangely conceived dish needed both a lighter hand with toppings and a much sturdier chip than the ones it featured.
A more successful appetizer came in the shape of thick-cut house-fried potato chips with a creamy “French onion” dip. Though the onions needed more patient caramelization, the dip had good flavor.
An odd bright-red minestrone was advertised as being served with pistou (why a French basil sauce instead of an Italian pesto?) In any case, I couldn’t find it. None of the ingredients tasted like they had been cooked together, with some beans hard as chalk, others melting. Zucchini, a solitary ribbon of kale, pearl couscous and a tasteless tomato broth completed the dish.
The cheery “super grain bowl,” with quinoa and agreeably crunchy fried farro, succeeded better, sporting kale, more of those excellent red pickled peppers, a poached egg, and plush shiitakes.
Spaghetti with bouncy meatballs was basic, and the “knockoff” burger — two patties with lots of lettuce, special sauce and American cheese — satisfied. Silky chunks of lobster made up for a few tough pieces in the lobster roll, one of the more expensive — but better — menu items, as was the savory, straightforward chicken pot pie crowned with a towering puff of pastry.
Desserts come from Ettore’s and are very much afterthoughts. I’m guessing most guests drink their dessert in high-octane milkshake form. Even the dessert menu is tiny, barely bigger than a postage stamp. We tried a “chocolate decadence,” which was like a cake pop in Mason jar form, ice cold and dense. I’m not normally one to wish for dessert to be gooier, but this solid item needed more creamy give.
Punch Bowl Social sprawls and entices, aiming to offer something for everyone on the menu and the activity floors alike. If the result sometimes feels try-hard, chaotic and unfocused, especially in the food selection, that might be just a side effect — and it’s probably one that won’t determine the success of the place, which is set up to do well thanks to its location and free-flowing drinks.) If you’re looking for a revelatory dining experience, pass. If you’re looking for a downtown meet-up spot to drink, people-watch, play games and eat something better than my memory of Chuck E. Cheese pizza, Punch Bowl Social is for you.
Punch Bowl Social
500 J St., 916-925-5610; www.punchbowlsocial.com
Hours: 11-2 a.m. Monday-Friday; 9-2 a.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-midnight Sunday
Beverage options: Full bar with specialty cocktails, punch bowls (as the name implies), boozy milkshakes and a big lineup of nonalcoholic options.
Vegetarian friendly: Surprisingly so, given its bro-food vibe, but vegetarians take note: The marking V on the menu doesn’t necessarily mean it is vegetarian; it may mean it can be made that way on request. Ask if in doubt.
Gluten-free options: Yes, there are many, but as with the vegetarian items noted above, a G next to a dish on the menu may only mean it can be made gluten free on request. Best to ask.
Noise levels: Unabashedly deafening, to the point where in busy areas of the establishment (such as the open-seating area near the bar, next to bowling lanes) it’s hard to shout loud enough so servers can hear your order. If you’re after quiet conversation, go for early brunch or pick another place.
Ambiance: Sensory overload central, Punch Bowl Social is buzzy, crowded, and determinedly fun. The décor across the vast warren of rooms and activities is a kitchen-sink mishmash of every hipster-modern-rustic-industrial signifier from every restaurant opening of the last half-decade, whether it’s vintage-look foxhunting paintings over the bowling lanes or the Edison bulbs in the light fixtures.
This over-the-top entertainment, drinking and food venue (in that order), part of an ambitious chain, fits its half-glitzy-half-gritty downtown location, offering games, classic and inventive cocktails and serviceable, somewhat beside-the-point food that does the job of feeding the hungry hordes here to booze and bowl.
In a word, uneven — not a shock, given the gigantic venue; it’s hard to churn out consistency for hundreds of guests. Unsalted grits, sandy-dry fried chicken and nachos with soggy chips were lows. Highs included crunchy, thick-cut potato chips, an above-passable lobster roll and a surprising bright, zippy grain-and-veggie bowl.
Enthusiastic and surprisingly smooth and efficient, given the restaurant’s size. Servers were bubbly, friendly and well trained.
Prices are reasonable, especially given the marquee setting. Drinks are $8-13, entrees $12-21. Also, they’ll validate parking at DOCO’s underground garage, though beware of high-event pricing on game nights.