The scene: While golf courses around the world have struggled in recent years, with many closing, Topgolf has been surprisingly successful and continues to grow. Topgolf basically takes a bowling alley approach to the sport, using balls with embedded microchips. Instead of a lane, players rent a driving range bay by the hour, complete with comfortable seating for up to eight, and choose from a variety of skill challenge games, hitting balls to bull’s eye-style targets at different distances, while the computer automatically keeps score. The top in Topgolf stands for target-oriented practice, but most people are not practicing, they are just having fun. There are numerous games to choose from, and Topgolf wows both hardcore golfers and those who never play at the same time. It’s impossible not to compare it to bowling: Serious players might bring their own equipment, while most choose clubs off the loaner racks, but everyone is there to have fun, and it is a highly social and family-friendly event.
In addition to a slate of golf-derived games, Topgolf offers an extensive full-service menu and beverage program, and this is a key to its success. Bays have a party atmosphere, and while menus vary slightly by location and some have local specialties, the constant is a lot of shareable comfort food good enough to keep fans coming back. Full service is offered while you play by “Bay Hosts,” and most locations also have full bars or dining areas throughout, often with lots of TVs and doubling as sports bars (some people come for the food and scene and don’t even bother with the golf). The largest Topgolf and U.S. flagship is in Las Vegas, attached to the MGM Grand casino resort. It spans four levels, has two pools with private cabanas, VIP areas, and combines the city’s penchant for exclusive “Day Clubs” and pool parties with the Topgolf ethos. Celebs that have come to play include Drake, Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake, and the Vegas location also has a communal “lawn” area with games like corn hole, offers occasional yoga classes, hosts concerts with nationally known bands, has DJs on weekends, and there are five bars throughout, all with full food service. Many guests eat while they wait for bays – on busy weekends this can stretch two to three hours.
There are currently more than 40 Topgolf locations in 27 states, with several more on the way. The company is based in Dallas and has more venues in Texas than any other state (11) including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Other major cities with existing or soon-to-open locations include Scottsdale, Salt Lake, Cleveland, Nashville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Baltimore, D.C., Detroit, St. Louis, Charlotte and Pittsburgh. There are also locations in the United Kingdom and Australia, Mexico, Canada, and Dubai are on the way, and the latest offering is the Topgolf Suite, a miniature version of the experience using indoor simulators, installed in hotels, casinos, fitness clubs and stadiums. There are seven open in this country and more than that under construction.
Reason to visit: Jumbo Pretzel Board, Crispy Sea Bass Sliders, chicken and waffle sliders, Injectable Donut Holes.
The food: The multi-page menu is reminiscent of fast-casual chains like Chili’s or Applebee’s, but the quality of food is far better, and the concept more fun. For example, there are lots of shareable foods, but they take a creative twist, and one of the most memorable and popular is the Jumbo Pretzel Board, a charcuterie platter concept that foregoes bread for an enormous – a foot and a half across – soft pretzel, piled with sliced kielbasa, sopressata, porchetta, cheese cubes, sliced apple, blackberries, grapes and candied pecans, with a side bowl of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) cheese sauce for dipping. It’s hardly the best thing ever, but it is impossible not to smile at it, and the salty-cheesy-meaty combination and dip is addictive, while the quality of the sliced meats is surprisingly good. For those who want the cheese sauce and pretzel combo minus all the rest, many locations also offer a pretzel bite and dip starter.
There are lots of appetizers, and they are big on wings in several styles, but the best are the signature grilled “Backyard” version, which taste meatier and more homemade than the fried hot wings (in four sauce options) with nice char marks and a smokiness that elevates them above most bar wings. These are brined for 24 hours before cooking, then dry rubbed, and after grilling, served with a garlic vinaigrette, and they are really tasty. The array of apps includes standards like nachos, tacos and quesadillas, and house-marinated steak strips with grilled shishito peppers. The beef was a bit bland, but the peppers were great.
In general, there is also a lot of care taken on presentation. The menu stretches on for many pages, but the main courses break into three main categories: flatbreads, burgers and sliders. The flatbreads are also aimed at sharing, and as pizza goes they are good but not great, though the best seller is the salumi, and the quality of the three meat toppings is high, with near-perfect toppings.
The burgers have been a favorite for as long as Topgolf has been in business, and in some markets fans consider them among the best in town. They are made from a blend of ground chuck, short rib and brisket, and served on standout brioche buns. They are definitely way above average, but what really makes them fun and special is the array of options, such as the popular Mac Daddy, topped with beloved comfort food favorite macaroni and cheese; the Sunrise, with smoked bacon, cheddar and fried egg; or in Vegas, the Memphis, an ode to Elvis, with peanut butter, raspberry jalapeño jelly, smoked pork belly and cheddar.
But it is the slider trios that really shine, and these are a better fit for the group aesthetic than a big burger. I was surprised when the Bay Host told me that one of the most popular items on the entire menu was the Crispy Sea Bass Sliders, but once I tried them I understood why – these were my favorite, with perfectly crunchy breading surrounding light fish meat, topped with tomato jam and slightly spicy remoulade. It was a perfect combo of flavor and texture, and while it is optionally available grilled, this would forgo the pleasing crunch. On the other hand, another fried seafood effort, the Asian crispy shrimp, was a bit of a fail, crunchy and with good sauce but the actual protein was lost in the shuffle and there was little shrimp taste. Another fun and creative favorite slider is the chicken and waffles, a mini fried chicken cutlet between two slider-sized round waffles. Why wouldn’t you try that? Other cool slider variants include Greek steak pitas with tzatziki sauce and feta cheese, and hot ham and cheese. The recurring theme is fun and creative riffs on sliders. All of the sandwiches and burgers are available with an array of chips, fries or sweet potato fries, but I found the simple tater tots to be the best, cooked to the perfect level of exterior crispness.
There are several signature dishes, like the giant pretzel, on the Topgolf national menu, but none is as much a standout must-try as the Injectable Donut Holes. This is a decadent plate of two dozen cinnamon sugar-dusted doughnut holes, served warm and accompanied by needles containing your choice of two fillings, such as chocolate sauce, Bavarian cream or raspberry jelly. You shoot them up and then you shoot them down. These are also offered in an “adult” version with booze-infused sauces.
In that vein, drinking is a big part of the Topgolf scene, and the bar menu is equally broad, with a slate of local draughts, cans and bottles of beer for each location, plus tons of national selections, and a very full cocktail menu that includes “Golfbags,” shareable (for two or more) punches served in light-up souvenir plastic glasses shaped like classic golf bags that you get to keep. There are separate full-page menus for mules, margaritas, Bloody Marys and so on, an extensive wine list, and in Vegas, nightclub-style “bottle service” with several top-shelf champagnes such as Dom Perignon running $595-$1,195 at the higher end. On the other hand, the rest of the menu, for both food and booze, is quite reasonably priced, especially given the pleasantly surprising quality of most items.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – for golf lovers.
Rating: Mmmm (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Topgolf has 40-plus U.S. locations, with many more on the way, in more than half the states, plus international locations; topgolf.com/us
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.
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