It’s the lights lining the pinball machine. It’s the familiar sounds of Pac-Man gobbling dots or Mortal Kombat’s “Finish him.” It’s nailing the high score in skee ball or it’s winning at Mario Kart. It’s a combination of sights and sounds so rooted in a generation’s culture that it would be unnatural not to feel like home. It’s collective nostalgia: the arcade bar.
Proving to be salvation for those who avoid the dance club or sports bar, this new cultural phenomenon is social sanctuary for gamers, geeks and lovers of an era past. It’s a watering hole unlike any before, and it’s popping up in cities big and small.
But how did asking “What kind of arcade bar do you guys have around here?” turn into the Friday night norm? It started with Brooklyn’s Barcade, which opened in 2004 as a craft beer bar that also offered a wide selection of arcade games.
“We all liked craft beer and liked American beer,” says Paul Kermizian, CEO and co-founder of Barcade. “We wanted to open a bar we wanted to hang out in more than anything else. We never expected to be this popular or even probably still be open at this point.” [Laughs.]
Barcade opened its first location in Brooklyn in 2004 and has since expanded to Philadelphia, Manhattan, and Jersey City, NJ, with plans of further expansion to New Haven and Los Angeles. Kermizian says he was into both craft beer and arcade games; the combination of the two “niche” hobbies overlapped in an unprecedented way, spawning the growth of what would become one of the hottest trends in American bar culture.
“It really doesn’t seem like it was that great of a match,” Kermizian says. “It doesn’t really seem like they would go together, being a beer bar and being a video game bar. But, you know, [it’s] two things that people are into who are slightly obsessive over it. There’s a lot of overlap in the nerdiness of the two. We just wanted to do something fun that we hadn’t seen before. We never thought that it would be this popular. It really doesn't make any sense.” [Laughs.]
While the concept of each arcade bar is the same—pairing alcoholic drinks with video games—each bar has its own twist. Each takes on a life of its own within the city it resides. Emporium in Chicago mixes table games with pinball and arcade games; Ground Kontrol in Portland hosts DJs and comedy shows; 16-Bit Bar in Cleveland finds its identity through creating drinks with nostalgic pop-culture indebted names like “Bill Nye,” “The Dude” and “Hulk Hogan.” Up-Down, which opened in 2013 in Des Moines and expanded to Kansas City earlier this year, adds flavor to its establishment by playing reruns of WWE on its televisions, hosting a skee ball league and hanging posters of classic films like Pulp Fiction and Short Circuit on the walls. “We try to make sure when we’re designing and building the bar [so that] even if you wanted to come in and not play games, it would still be a bar that you would hang out at,” says Josh Ivey, Up-Down co-owner.
Designing and building a non-arcade bar sounds difficult enough—add in the American Pickers-style revival and maintenance of games older than most of the people playing and things can get difficult. Ivey learned the hard way when he opened Up-Down. He admitted to overpaying for some games in his early trades and purchases. “I’d rent a truck and make a bunch of contacts on Craigslist and I would take off for two days,” Ivey says. “ [I’d] see what I liked, bring it back and have people start [to] work on it.”
Ivey and Sam Summers, who is also a co-owner of Up-Down, together own Wooly’s—a mid-sized music venue located above the bar. Wooly’s is Des Moines’ home to an array of touring bands in the scene. This summer the venue hosts We Are Harlot, Against Me!, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness.
Only a flight of stairs away from Up-Down, the crowds at Wooly’s play a big part in the type of culture the arcade bar attracts. “We were going to set [Up-Down] up to do well because we were putting it next to Wooly’s,” Summers says. “We felt like it would build well off of what we have going on here—people coming before shows or after shows.”
Jourdan Adler, founder of Denver’s The 1up, aligned his arcade bar with live music in a more direct way. He turned The 1up’s second location, which opened in December 2014, into a music venue. “Music has always been such a large part of my life [and] I wanted to bring all of it together,” Adler says. “It was a pipe dream and we made it happen. It’s probably one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done.”
The 1up thrives on being authentic. From having all original games to a website with a retro design, it’s also booked upcoming performances from acts such as Jamie xx and arcade entertainment.
Adler doesn’t see places like The 1up strictly catering to “nerd culture.” In the 11 years since Kermizian opened Barcade in Brooklyn, embracing a love for video games and craft drinks has become part of the social mainstream. “I don’t think there’s anything you can say is ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ anymore because all of us are so mainstream—we make it all happen,” Adler says. “It’s no longer this pigeonholed sect of people. We are the mainstream.”
“The beer attracts a crowd that may not be into the games at all, and then we have people come who don’t drink at all [and] just want to play our games,” Kermizian says.
Arcade bars flourish under the idea of being for the person not inclined to hit a dance club with blaring hip-hop or a bar televising 12 different sports at once. The atmosphere revolves around games, which—outside of the intense competitive player—fosters easier conversation than somewhere where the main objective is watching a game or dancing.
“Some of the negative things that you can associate with going out and nightlife culture…we try to ensure that we are not allowing those things,” says Kermizian.
Summers sums it up simplistically: “We want to make people feel comfortable and not in an aggressive area. We don’t have fights, really. It’s a total chill, laid back [place].”
While an array of arcade bars have already become staples in communities across the country, the bubble doesn’t seem to be bursting in the near future. Recent additions to the scene include locations in Charlotte, Cincinnati and Huntsville, Ala. Firefly Music Festival even set up an on-site arcade bar for its annual event.
So what’re you waiting for? Grab a friend, a craft beer and play Pac-Man until your thumbs falls off.