Original alley opened in 1959, was run for decades by the Kawano family

Gilroy resident Ryan Brown shows good form at the newly renovated Gilroy Bowl. Photo by Marty Cheek

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek

The sound of bowling balls crashing into pins and the laughter of families fill the air once again at the newly renovated Gilroy Bowl. The beloved downtown landmark reopened its doors March 15 after a pandemic-induced hiatus.

Local entrepreneur David Leal, the visionary behind the revitalization project, has transformed the 65-year-old bowling alley into a modern “boutique” entertainment destination, complete  with nine lanes, a restaurant, and a bar, all while paying homage to the city’s rich history.

For decades, Gilroyans enjoyed spending time at the then 10-lane Gilroy Bowl in the heart of downtown. They either played a few games hurling balls at the pins or enjoyed a meal at Scotty’s Restaurant, the adjacent hometown-style diner that served a combination of American, Mexican and Japanese fare.

The town’s beloved bowling alley first opened its doors in 1959 when Gilroy’s population was nearly 5,000.  Henry Kong and Buzz White were the original owners. (The site had previously been a Ford auto dealership owned by  the Byers brothers.)

Tom Kawano bought the bowling business in 1968. His son, Scott Kawano, began working there in 1971 and later took over, running it with his business partner Al Rozal for several decades.

With the COVID-19 quarantine mandated by county health officials, they were forced to close the Gilroy Bowl’s doors. It  closed permanently Dec. 20, 2020. The shutdown left a void in the community’s recreational scene.

Luckily, thanks to Leal’s vision and investment, the Gilroy Bowl has been given a new lease on life. He and his wife, Kelly, had run a portable restroom rental company.

“It was on the market for sale, and I was bored, and I wanted a project, so I figured, let me take this on,” he said. “Of course, it’s over budget and over schedule, but, hey, that’s construction for you.”

The renovated Gilroy Bowl is far from a typical bowling alley. Leal and his business partner John Holder have transformed the space into a modernized “boutique bowling alley” with nine lanes. (One of the original lanes had to be taken out for ADA compliance and to add an emergency exit.) They’ve set up a modern restaurant now serving dinner — family-friendly fare such as pizza, burgers and wings. They plan to serve a lunch menu in the next month and possibly a weekend breakfast sometime in the future. A tasteful bar serving a wide variety of drinks, wines and beers greets guests as they come through the sweeping front entrance.

The interior along the bowling lanes is adorned with large, historic photos showcasing Gilroy’s rich history, including images of the old Strand Theater, Gilroy Hot Springs, and the Milias Hotel and restaurant. A stunning 64-foot LED digital display spans the wall above the bowling lanes, adding a high-tech touch to the nostalgic atmosphere.

Leal’s commitment to the community is evident in his hiring practices, with 95 percent of the employees Gilroy residents.

“We’re happy we’ve got local staff,” he said. “That’s a plus for the community. Some of them have worked here in the past. It was great to bring them back.”

Photo by Marty Cheek

The reopening of Gilroy Bowl has been met with enthusiasm from the community.

“The day after we opened, we had a line out the door of families,” Leal said. “So that was what I wanted. Seeing families in here was the best feeling. Families with kids off their cell phones and out there having a good time — it was awesome.”

Local historian Phill Laursen, who advised Leal on the historic photos, said he was impressed when he walked in and witnessed the dramatic transformation. He recalled coming to the Gilroy Bowl with his kids when they were little.

“The look of this place is so different now. I’m so glad it’s been opened up — and is really modern now,” he said with excitement. “It’s a very lively place. And the food is great.”

In its first week after the soft opening, Ryan Brown quickly became a regular on the lanes, enjoying after-hours time with his kids knocking down the pins.

“We’re really excited about Gilroy having this bowling alley. It’s been a big part of Gilroy for a long time,” said the Gilroy resident since 2005. “To see this really pop up, it’s the best. And it’s family friendly. The food is good. The drinks are good. I’ve been here with my family four times (in seven days).”

Brown sees the modernized Gilroy Bowl becoming an entertainment attraction bringing family and friends downtown for a few hours of fun. It can also serve as a party venue as well as an entertainment site for local corporations and businesses for playful team-building events. That means the Gilroy Bowl will be a magnet helping other downtown businesses draw customers, he said.

“I’m really excited. I think this is going to really, really rejuvenate a lot of the downtown area,” Brown said. “There’s been a lot of progress with businesses opening up here, and that’s really great, but this place is going to bring more people downtown.”

Photo by Marty Cheek

Leal also sees the revitalized Gilroy Bowl as a catalyst for downtown revitalization.

“Hopefully, it’s a starting point to revitalize the downtown,” he said. “We have more than 65,000 people in this town, and it’s growing. But everyone leaves town to do things in other places. I know this is just the starting point to begin again.”

As the South Valley continues to grow, with new wineries and restaurants enticing out-of-town visitors, Leal believes the bowling alley will be an attractive additional destination for people to discover and enjoy downtown Gilroy.

“I know of no town that has a bowling alley in the center of it, and it’s a boutique bowling alley,” he proudly said.

With its blend of nostalgia, modern amenities, and a commitment to the community, the new Gilroy Bowl is poised to become a cherished gathering place for families and friends, just as it was when it first opened its doors in 1968. As Leal put it, “This is a real turning point for downtown Gilroy. It’s going to bring a lot of people downtown. There’s so much opportunity.”