Before the pandemic, Outer Orbit bar and Hawaiian restaurant in San Francisco hosted monthly pinball tournaments. (Courtesy of Outer Orbit)

Before the pandemic, Outer Orbit bar and Hawaiian restaurant in San Francisco hosted monthly pinball tournaments. (Courtesy of Outer Orbit)

The plight of the barcades: How three gaming bars are surviving the pandemic

By Charles Lewis III

Bay City News Foundation

One year into the pandemic, more and more people are doing something radical: They’re making plans.

“Plans” in this case meaning “any innocuous or important activity outside of one’s residential living space.” It really shouldn’t be that surprising: Despite a less-than-ideal rollout, those who have taken one or more of the approved vaccines often describe the immense sense of relief they felt once the injection was over, as if a weight had been lifted. It means that these scientifically proven medications are bringing us all one step closer to life outside of our literal and figurative bubbles.

The question is what will be left to do once we do venture out? As schools, churches and public parks argue with government officials over when (and how) to resume, a frighteningly large number of social businesses have had to close permanently. Although some restaurants and gyms have online and/or outdoor variations, most big-city businesses are built around getting as many people as possible to walk through the doors.

Arcade bars don’t have that option. Outdoor eating sheds have become a fixture on Bay Area streets over the past year, but “barcades” have no such equivalent; the games would be easy targets for thieves and vandals, and the notoriously erratic Bay Area weather would do a number on the game cabinets. As such, it’s become a common story for fans of these unique venues to hear that they’ve pushed back planned reopenings or closed for good.

Nevertheless, the light of hope shines through for gamers and their favorite watering holes. While several barcades experiment with socially distant soft reopenings, others have moved their food and drink choices to delivery, and moved the gaming online via Twitch streams. It hasn’t provided the income of pre-COVID business, but it has proven that the locations struck a chord with the communities they serve.

This has kept them all pretty busy, but the owners of three beloved locations shared with us some of their photos, memories and high hopes of welcoming back gamers some day very, very soon.

This summer Outer Orbit, which was hopping before the pandemic, started to livestream pinball to stay engaged with its community. (Courtesy of David Law for Outer Orbit)

This summer Outer Orbit, which was hopping before the pandemic, started to livestream pinball to stay engaged with its community. (Courtesy of David Law for Outer Orbit)

Christian Gainsley of Outer Orbit, San Francisco

How did you start?

My wife and I love our neighborhood of Bernal Heights and are big fans of pinball, so we thought it would be wonderful to open a family-friendly pinball joint to serve our community. I’m originally from Hawaii, and my wife and I are big fans of the cuisine there, so we decided to riff off of their contemporary food scene and bring a taste of it to SF. It’s been a little over two years now, and it’s been amazing. We’ve gotten to know so many families and regulars, we had multiple monthly pinball tournaments, and are really proud of our food and craft beer programs.

Most popular game and drink?

We really strive to stay current with the pinball scene, so we’re constantly cycling through ‘machines’ from past eras and also buying all the new releases as they come out. Pinball has seen a massive resurgence in popularity in the last 10 years, and there are multiple companies producing machines nowadays. We’re also constantly changing up our beer selection, too, and rarely buy the same beer twice so a lot of the experience changes with each visit.

Tell us about a special moment.

When COVID began we spent the first three months shut down in the hopes that we could wait it out, but to keep in touch with the community, we started livestreaming pinball on Twitch every week. We would bring in different members of the community for each show, and folks from the community would tune in and hang out and chat. It was a really wonderful way to see friends and get your fill of playing or watching pinball. And some of the folks in the community are really great entertainers, as it turns out.

What gets people through the door?

There’s something so fascinating about the physical spectacle of playing pinball. It reminds us of our youth when arcades were popular, but it’s also a reprieve from our daily existence of having a screen constantly in front of us. You just can’t program what happens in a pinball machine — it’s physical objects smashing into each other and producing serendipitous outcomes. Gaming is now a pretty common activity for most people during the day, though usually confined to one’s phone, an act that is self-isolating. Arcades allow for the social element that’s often missing by bringing people together to interact through lighthearted play, and of course, drinking is also social and calming for competitive nerves.

What do you think will be lost if bars like yours disappear?

Now more than ever, we need a return of the real. So much of our life during COVID has been virtualized and even more mediated through screens than before.

Interactions with people in the flesh, touch that isn’t just a tap or click, discovery through all five senses; taking in the whole context of what it means to be a human. Spaces like our restaurant or other barcades allow for this escape from the virtual.

Have you taken part in any of the larger-scale fundraisers?

We just launched a GoFundMe to help us through this latest shutdown. We are adamant that we not furlough staff, but we don’t quite need the labor while just doing takeaway. We’ve run in the red every month since COVID began, and we’re running low on personal savings, but our community has been amazing with supporting this fundraising, and it looks like we might make it through these next few months.

What’s the one thing you want people under lockdown to remember about your bar?

Gosh, I just want our patrons to remember having a good time in a uniquely San Francisco spot. These unique spaces in SF are what make it special. Solid Hawaiian-inspired dishes, pinball fanaticism and craft beer? It’s an odd mix for sure, but when you build a community, anything can be successful.

Before the pandemic, MiniBoss was know for its Ziggy Piggy cocktail — a reference to "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" — made of Reposado Tequila, Amaro Montenegro, Chareau aloe vera liqueur, fresh watermelon syrup, lemon juice and a touch of bubblegum extract and served in an upside-down-pig mug with a helium balloon tied to its leg.  (Courtesy of MiniBoss)

George Lahlouh of MiniBoss, San Jose

How did you start?

MiniBoss first opened in February 2019. Myself and my business partners Dan Phan and Johnny Wang own a few other establishments in Downtown San Jose (Paper Plane and Original Gravity Public House). Our focus has always been very much on making sure our service is tip-top, as well as having creative high-quality cocktails, beer offerings and dishes to serve our guests.

We all grew up on video games and arcades, and the concept always seemed really exciting and fun to us. My partners Dan and Johnny wouldn’t even have ever met had they not met online on a Counter Strike server at their dorm hall at U.C. Irvine circa early 2K, LOL. We always enjoyed being at bars and restaurants and striking up a convo with friends and family or random folks you may meet, but it was always so much more engaging to be able to participate in “activities” outside of just drinking and conversing.

Arcade bars are just so much fun because you can get down on a little friendly competition with friends or a random person you just met, while getting to experience some of that old-school nostalgia that these games inherently impart on anyone who plays them.

Most popular game and drink?

Hmmm, this is a tough one; a few of the games are really popular. I’d say our highest earners/most popular games are either the four-player Pac-Man Battle Royale or the classic six-player X-Men. Those would get a lot of play, especially on Friday and Saturday night when the big groups of friends would come out and want to play those large multiplayer games with each other.

Most popular drink has to be the Ziggy Piggy (a reference from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). It’s a cocktail consisting of Reposado Tequila, Amaro Montenegro, Chareau aloe vera liqueur, fresh watermelon syrup, lemon juice and a touch of bubblegum extract. It comes served in a pig mug that’s inverted with a helium balloon tied to its leg, which also has some bubblegum extract in it for aroma and effect.

Tell us about truly special moment.

Sadly, we were only open about a year before COVID hit, so we don’t have too many crazy stories or memories that standout like this. We did recently meet someone who told us he met his fiancee at MiniBoss, which always makes us feel good. He said he met her while waiting to play on the Puzzle Fighter machine, and just like that, true love at first sight! Having owned our other bars for almost seven and nine years respectively, we’ve heard a lot of stories like this now, and it’s always great to hear people say “We would never have met if you had never opened this bar!” We’re happy to be assisting in the process of repopulating our planet.

What gets people through the door?

I think stigmas associated with video games have changed over the years. For most folks, video games will always seem like something intended for a much younger generation. But if you look at the market of modern-day console games, a great majority of the revenue being generated is coming from an age demographic of young men and women well into their 20s, 30s and beyond. So many of us just want to be big kids nowadays. You can even look and see how toys like LEGO went from being so specifically focused on childrens’ themes to now co-branding and licensing things like the 1980s Batwing and Batmobile or the Ghostbusters Ecto-1 vehicle from the original “Ghostbusters” movies. So, many of us are looking for opportunities to relive those nostalgic childhood memories that were so special to us, and I think as long as that’s out there, there will be folks looking to capitalize on that.

There’s a segment of bar concepts that you can define as “escapist” bars — bars that take you away to a time and a place, whether it’s a 1920s-style speakeasy bar or a classic Polynesian-style 1950s-style tiki bar. In so many ways, the arcade was a big part of the ’80s and early-’90s, and we wanted to create a place which took people back to those times. We have games as new as Killer Queen (which is a 10-player game that was created in 2013) to Namco’s Ms. Pac-Man or Nintendo’s Punch-Out, which were released in 1983, and many, many games in between. We’re a place where the big kids can relive their childhood memories, maybe play something new and have a great drink and great company while doing so.

What do you think will be lost if bars like yours disappear?

I think that we might lose that era of classic games all over again. The arcade bar had a rebirth in the early 2000s, and has since proliferated across the country and the world. So many of the classic games and themes that coexist have been shared with a new generation, as well as have been there for the older generation of folks that wanted to experience those games and times all over again. I’ve always felt we can better appreciate where we are if we better know where we come from. If we lose arcade bars, it would be really sad to see that chapter of history go dark, especially for the younger generation that never got to experience any of it.

Have you taken part in any fundraisers?

We have provided free meals, and done a number of other charitable programs throughout the COVID pandemic, but nothing specifically geared toward fundraising for the industry as a whole or on a large scale. The world has been on fire since this pandemic began, so a lot of our charitable participation has been with the BLM and anti-racism movements. We also started a GoFundMe for our own establishments, which generated a good amount of funds that went directly to our furloughed staff, but those fundraisers were just for our 100 out-of-work employees.

What’s the one thing you want people under lockdown to remember about your bar?

I think what’s most important is people remember that we are still here, and we are waiting for that day where we can reopen safely again! I think people appreciate now more than ever the chance to go out to a bar and gather with friends and loved ones. I think for a lot of us, it’s going to be both strange and exciting when we can stand side-by-side at an arcade machine or pinball with our best friends and play games together again. Once those vaccinations get out there, masks start coming off (we’ll see about that one; has to at some point, right?), and the day finally comes to return some sense of normal, all those things we loved doing and can do again, will feel exciting and new all over, and we will most certainly be due for a little fun!

Dave Ramsay, owner of LvL Up in Campbell and San Jose, says arcade bars offer a "powerful shared experience rarely found in gaming today." (Courtesy of LvL Up San Jose)

David Ramsay of LvL Up, San Jose and Campbell

How did you start?

LvL Up Campbell opened up on May 4, 2018. Several of the owners were working at Cafe Stritch in Downtown San Jose and got the idea for starting an arcade bar when they had California Extreme bring in several pinball and arcade games for one weekend.

What’s the most popular game and drink?

Most popular games include Jurassic Park, Killer Queen, Street Fighter II and most of the pinball machines. Popular house cocktails include OVER 9000 and Elder Scroll. We also offer tasty snacks including many varieties of mac ‘n’ cheese and chicken wings with our house-made LvL Up Buffalo Sauce.

Tell us about a truly special moment.

Many of our hosted parties have been memorable; we have a great space to host companies, families and friends. Probably the most notable moments were the past few Halloweens: the “Thriller” flash mob. One hundred zombies flooded our lobby and arcade to perform their version of the “Thriller” dance in costume.

What gets people through the door?

For arcade bar appeal, it’s a lot of nostalgia and connecting with others. Multiplayer games offer an opportunity to team up with friends or opponents in-person, unlike playing console games online at home. It’s a powerful shared experience rarely found in gaming today, since modern consoles are moving away from couch gaming co-op to more online.

What do you think will be lost if bars like yours disappear?

We plan to stick around — in fact, we opened a second location in Downtown San Jose (March 5, 2020) just as the pandemic hit. However, arcade bars offer an important arena for connection with the history of gaming and each other. If they disappear, there might be a void in in-person venues for passionate folks to celebrate gaming and local culture.

Have you taken part in any fundraisers for?

We started a GoFundMe for our employees for LvL Up specifically.

What’s the one thing you want people under lockdown to remember about your bar?

We currently offer takeout, delivery food and cocktails seven days-a-weekend!

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.

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