The first thing to know about the combination bar/arcades showing up around the Triangle – temples where you can get your drink on and play such throwback money-suckers as “Joust,” “Donkey Kong Jr.” and that Playboy pinball machine that excited you a bit too much as a kid – is that you must never refer to them as “barcades”!
The guys who operate the recently opened Level Up Kitchen and Barcadium in downtown Raleigh know all too well what transpires if you even think about calling your spot a barcade. “You guys can’t call us a barcade because there’s a place called Barcade in New York that has that term trademarked,” says Level Up co-manager Brian Schilling. “So, they sent us a cease-and-desist saying to tell people not to call (us) a barcade ... ”
“Legally,” adds co-manager Chris Gyles, “we have to call it a ‘barcadium.’”
Other arcade bars around the Triangle have found a way to dodge the naming issue. There’s another recently opened spot in downtown Raleigh called Boxcar Bar + Arcade. In Durham, there’s Social Games & Brews. And, in Carrboro, there’s one called the Baxter Bar & Arcade.
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Arcade bars – watering holes where gaming purists can go to play vintage video games in their original cabinets – may seem like an oddity to some. So why are they suddenly popping up all over?
For the 8,000-square-foot Level Up, which opened a few weeks ago, local club owner Jon Seelbinder (he also runs The Architect bar in downtown Raleigh) was looking for something different to open downtown.
“He was traveling the country, trying to find ideas,” says Schilling. “And there are different arcade bars around the country that are doing really well. And there’s nothing in the area, so he wanted to bring it to this area.”
That’s the same story for Boxcar owner/manager Jerrad Bement, who was looking for something to occupy the space that previously housed his last nightlife business, Spy.
“I’ve always been into video games,” Bement says. “I’ve always been into draft beer. I stumbled across a place in Texas that had a similar vibe – not really like this, but close – and just thought it would be so great in Raleigh.”
Located in the Warehouse District, Boxcar opened its 6,500-square-foot space in December and has a wide collection of draft beer, bourbon and pinball and video games, which, unlike the system at Level Up, you play with tokens instead of quarters. At the back of the bar, Boxcar also has skee-ball, air hockey and two flat screens connected to Atari, Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles.
Not just hipsters
According to Bement, the clientele at Boxcar has been diverse, especially in age. “We have people from 21 to 70 years old,” he says. “Kids come in with their parents and their kids play games. They need to be accompanied by their parents.”
Since opening in October, the Baxter (yes, it’s named after the Fantastic Four headquarters!) has reserved Sunday afternoon for families to come and play its collection of more than 50 video and pinball games. But for the rest of the week, it’s a mature, hip crowd.
“Man, we got everything from hipsters, punkers, college kids, young professionals, old professionals – you name it, we got it,” says Baxter co-owner Joe Miller.
The year-old Social has also been bringing college kids and young adults, thanks to its arcade games, classic consoles and a championship-sized (22-foot) shuffleboard table.
“We are super-close to Duke, so we do host some undergrad functions,” says Mark Cromwell, one of the partners at Social. “But, for the most part, it’s males between the ages of 25 to 35.”
Level Up, which is equipped with a full restaurant, hosts parties for kids. Along with a menu of appetizers, sliders and tacos – plus an eclectic list of bottled and canned beer – Level Up gives parents a chance to hip their kids to some video-game history.
“I think certain people get a joy out of it,” says Schilling, “of bringing their kids around and being, like, hey, these are the games I used to play, as opposed to the video games that they have now.”
Level Up is not done with its renovations. While the second floor is open for business, currently housing 14 or so games and two pinball machines, managers are looking to open up the first floor in about four to six weeks, where there will be more games and more dining space. Schilling says the ultimate goal is to have enough games in storage so that they can rotate them in and out and always offer something new.
Raleigh’s ‘barcade’ history
The arcade bar actually has a prominent place in Raleigh nightlife history. Back in 1999, a trio of Raleigh musicians opened up Kings Barcade on South McDowell Street. Co-owner Steve Popson claims this was the first arcade bar in the country, way before Barcade in New York opened its doors.
“It just happened that they decided to copyright the word,” says Popson, who also ran the Blue Bassoon Classic Arcade in the mid-’90s.
Kings was successful for nearly a decade, until the landlord chose to demolish the building in 2007 to build a parking deck. In 2010, Kings rose again on West Martin Street – except for the arcade part (Kings is now a bar and live music venue, but kept the kingsbarcade.com Web address). Popson says the New York club wasn’t putting pressure on them to nix any video-game plans; it was more an issue of space.
“Altogether, the building we occupy now is larger than the old Kings,” he says, “but the actual floor housing Kings is smaller than the original Kings space and so, unfortunately, we simply didn’t have the space for the games or pool tables that were part of the original Kings Barcade.”
But even though Kings is no longer an arcade bar (for frequent patrons who are also nostalgic gamers, Popson says there are a couple of arcade games downstairs at basement bar Neptunes Parlour), Popson is glad these havens for old-school game enthusiasts are around, and he hopes they’ll stay around for a long time.
“The games that we presented – and I still own a few – are really great machines and represent some great game design as well as each one being unique with controllers and graphics,” Popson says. “And for me, personally, they are an important and fun part of U.S. pop culture.”
Boxcar Bar + Arcade
330 W. Davie St., Raleigh
919-803-2796 or theboxcarbar.com
Level Up Kitchen
126 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh
919-833-3866 or levelupnc.com
1007 W. Main St., Durham
108 N. Graham St., Carrboro
919-869-7486 or baxterarcade.com