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Triangle, Charlotte see bar arcades open for those who love craft beer and classic video games

Kawsar Chavez, left, and her husband Mark Chavez play pinball while on an evening date at Boxcar Bar + Arcade in Raleigh.
Kawsar Chavez, left, and her husband Mark Chavez play pinball while on an evening date at Boxcar Bar + Arcade in Raleigh. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Birdsong Brewing’s MexiCali Stout is a hard beer to put down, but holding it while playing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game is a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, Abari Game Bar in Charlotte, which hosts its grand opening at 1721 N. Davidson St. on March 26, has freestanding cup holders between all of its games, which include classic cabinets like “Dig Dug” and “Donkey Kong” as well as seven pinball machines. With my pint secured, my hands are free to bash the buttons before me, bidding Raphael to plow his way through a legion of foot soldiers.

I’m not sure who is happier in this moment: 13-year-old me or 33-year-old me.

I’m not sure who is happier in this moment: 13-year-old me or 33-year-old me.

That’s the kind of nostalgia served up at arcade bars around the state, of which Abari is just the latest to open.

“A lot of people around our age – I’d say mid-20s to late-30s – really grew up in the video game era, whether it was arcades or consoles,” said founder Zach Pulliam. “When you’re in here, you feel like a kid again. And that’s kind of what I wanted to foster.”

While Abari is the first true arcade bar to open in Charlotte, the Triangle area has several. Chapel Hill has The Baxter Bar and Arcade, Durham has Social Games and Brews, and Raleigh is home to both The Level Up Kitchen & Barcadium as well as Boxcar Bar + Arcade.

The selection of classic cabinets and craft beers varies among them, but each plays off that same basic formula.

“What we all want to do is stuff from our childhood, but with an adult twist,” said Joe Miller, one of the founders of The Baxter. “Instead of soda and pizza, we can now do beer and pizza.”

Miller reminisces about drinking Miller High Life and playing “Joust” for hours at Kings Barcade in Raleigh before it closed in 2007 (the business later reopened, but sans the arcade games). He worked a variety of bartending jobs before opening The Baxter with three others in 2014.

“I’ve worked at heavy metal bars, dance clubs, music venues,” said Miller, “and I’ve never seen a place as happy as an arcade bar.”

Keeping patrons happy at The Baxter is a large selection of bottles and cans as well as six taps that rotate through various local and regional offerings. The cabinets and pinball games are rotated through as well to keep things fresh and interesting. Miller has around 50 different games inside the bar, and another 50 stowed away in two storage units.

In addition to offering a trip down memory lane, these games also provide a more interactive experience than simply “going out for drinks.”

“I think ultimately people just like the entertainment value, the option to actually do something while you’re out at a bar,” said Kristen Maniscalco, marketing director at Boxcar Bar + Arcade.

Another reason for the rise in arcade bars? Nerd culture in general is celebrated these days, whether someone is geeking out over an obscure arcade game or the hop profile in their IPA.

I think craft beer and video games go hand in hand because nerd became more of an endearing term later on in life.

Jonathan Seelbinder, owner of The Level Up Kitchen and Barcadium in Raleigh

“I think craft beer and video games go hand in hand because nerd became more of an endearing term later on in life,” said Jonathan Seelbinder, owner of The Level Up Kitchen and Barcadium. “For a lot of us that grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, nerd was a derogatory thing. But a lot of people love being called nerds now.”

Running an arcade bar is not without its challenges. All those quarters that are pumped into the machines at The Baxter, for example, basically just cover the maintenance of the machines. Parts are constantly going out on the units, and The Baxter also employs a full-time game technician. Then there’s the task of acquiring the games themselves, the cost of which is now rising as more arcade bars open up.

But the reception to these new arcade bars has been positive, which has several of the owners considering expansion. Miller is looking to open a pinball museum – perhaps with a restaurant and bar – in the Durham area. In addition to The Level Up, Seelbinder owns several other bars under the Local Icon Hospitality group. He will add a brewery to the mix later this year when he opens Little City Brewing and Provision Co. in Raleigh’s Glenwood South area. Once open, the brewery’s beers will be available at The Level Up.

Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at cltbeer@gmail.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.

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