Back in July, the website Brokelyn threw a party at Williamsburg’s Crown Victoria that it dubbed “Salute Your Jorts.” The theme of the evening was summer camp. A “bug juice cocktail” was just $4. In addition to Ping-Pong and bocce, the planned activities included spin the bottle and making friendship bracelets and macaroni art. Attendees were told, “don’t forget clean undies, just in case they get strung up the flagpole.” It sounded horrible, the low-water mark of a trend in recent years of turning bars into amusement parks for adults.
Nevertheless, the event was a rousing success: it turned out that the appetite for atavism was robust among the drinky class in New York.
“Just because we’re older doesn’t mean we don’t like the same things as when we were kids,” explained Tim Donnelly, who helped organize the event. “We can just be drunk while doing it now.”
He restated the problem, “If there were a Chuck E. Cheese for grownups, I would totally go.”
As it turns out, there is; in fact, there are many of them. In the past half-dozen years or so—at an increasing rate—bars with children’s games have been opening in New York, particularly in the garland of yuppie Brooklyn extending from Gowanus to Greenpoint.
At Red Hook’s Brooklyn Crab, there is mini-golf and cornhole, a beanbag-tossing game. In Clinton Hill, there is the Brooklyn Tap room, with foosball and Ping-Pong tables. In Williamsburg, one finds Barcade, with its vintage video-game machines; Full Circle, a skee-ball-themed bar, and Bushwick Country Club, which features a down-at-the-heels putt-putt course out back. In Manhattan there is Susan Sarandon’s SPiN, a boozy table-tennis club, and the West Village’s Fat Cat, the apotheosis of the phenomenon, which features a myriad of games, including Ping-Pong tables for “$5.50/per person/per hour (prorated .09/min) Sun-Thu.”
And they have done very well catering to the new alco-lescent crowds.
But whatever happened to just having a drink and a lively conversation? The idea that intelligent, interesting adults could gather over some glasses of one fortified thing or another and carry on an exchange of sentiment and ideas while getting somewhere between reasonably and blindingly drunk? While such things do still happen in some corners of the city, there is an annoying emergence of these establishments that not only cater to but encourage patrons who prefer to behave like their much younger selves.
“Everyone knows this—it’s not something I think—there’s a very prolonged youthfulness now. It really seems to last forever!” author and conversationalist Fran Lebowitz told The Observer recently. “Their idea of being sociable is not to sit around and talk. Their idea of being sociable is to sit around and play games. To me, this seems childish. Whenever people ask me to play a game, I say, ‘I don’t play games.’ And they say, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s a game … There’s been a general disappearance of adulthood.”
To Ms. Lebowitz, who will be in conversation onstage with Frank Rich at Town Hall later this month, there is little in life more important than the verbal arts.
“Conversation to me is something that requires lot of time. I don’t want to sound conceited, but I think you’d have to look long and hard to find someone who has wasted more time than me. I mean, I’ve wasted decades of my life—mostly talking! Talking to me is something that fills my life.
“When our current and perhaps endless mayor, when he was only in his like 10th term, whenever he made that smoking law in bars—which actually really shocked me—I actually said to him—although if you were questioning him, he would not recall this—I said, ‘Do you want to know what sitting around in bars and restaurants talking and smoking is called? The history of art, that’s what it’s called.’”
Indeed. It’s hard to imagine many great ideas have been hatched over a microbrew and a foosball table.
Nevertheless, The Observer and a companion decided to take a tour of these atavistic drink shops on a recent Sunday evening, starting with Williamsburg’s Barcade, to witness this Never Never Land of liquor and perpetual children.
A cavernous, characterless room with 1980s arcade games lining the walls, Barcade is a dystopian version of a teen hangout, Blade Runner meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
After securing a drink, our companion left to survey the room. The Observer approached a 20-something couple visiting from London, Amy Chapman and Chris Curd. They were huddled around a Frogger machine, by their account faring “piss poor” at the game.
Ms. Chapman was particularly impressed by the concept of Barcade. “It makes me want to go home and start one myself. It’s such an amazing idea,” she enthused.
“It’s awesome,” Mr. Curd concurred.
Agree to disagree. But did they not have similar diversions in London?
“Not in bars. It’s mostly gambling machines,” responded Mr. Curd
“It’s mostly a thing for kids,” added Ms. Chapman.
Fancy that. We rejoined our companion at the bar. He informed us of his attempt at regaining the gaming prowess of his youth. “I just made it 30 seconds into Contra and just died. I just blew a dollar on Contra,” he said. “Fucking Contra.”
But what of the vibe, the boozy teenageness of the joint?
“There’s something very nonthreatening about this place,” the companion mused. “There’s no one attractive. It’s like, ‘Let’s just go and play some video games.’ I mean, I guess they’re just nerds … Alright, I’m getting some change.”
In addition to being childish and silly, there was something decidedly unsexy about the superimposition of adolescent accoutrements into the context of a bar. It took away the potential, the edge and the libidinous quality that the best boozing joints give off.
When we reached him by phone, Jason Kosmas, co-owner of the swank bar Employees Only, went even further, pointing out that games of this sort, while ostensibly sociable activities, are actually kind of antisocial.
“You go out with your friends and you spend time with your friends,” he explained. “You know, it’s a wagon train. You go out with your friends and you sort of form a little fortress, and nobody else really comes in.”
As opposed to his establishment, which he said is structured around possibility. “Ultimately, in those places [like his own], people are going to get laid,” he explained. “The word ‘laid’ has different connotations for different people. It might be that they want a great drink, or they might want to see someone famous, or they might want to make a business connection. Something’s gonna happen to them that is out of their ordinary life. Or, most importantly, get laid.”
Imagine as part of this metaphor getting the day’s high score on Galaga. Doesn’t work, right?
Cocktail guru Jim Meehan found that his bar PDT had so much sexual charisma—and such drinkable concoctions—that he had to institute a “No PDA at PDT, hands on the table, tongues inside your mouth” point of etiquette.
“It’s bizarre to me,” he said of the gaming bars. “I work all the time, so going to a bar with my friends to catch up is actually a luxury. I would never go to a place to play lawn darts.”
From Barcade, The Observer and our companion ventured next to the Bushwick Country Club, whose mini-golf course the bartender humbly described as “six holes which you can put a ball into with a club.” It did, however, have a windmill made of entirely of PBR cans. (Go Bushwick!)
There were no golfers present, so we asked the bartender about the proliferation of games in bars.
He responded with consternation that his friends had signed him up for a cornhole league.
Had anyone ever gotten laid by playing in a cornhole league?
“Probably,” he said. “Every team has to have at least one girl on it. I’m sure that someone can get laid from cornhole. You end up with a lot of guys with their shirts off. But those same guys would probably have their shirts off anyway.”
We headed over to Full Circle, a bar so wedded to its skee-ball-centric identity that its name is the term for rolling an expert-level round of the “sport.”
The crowd, if that’s the word, was exclusively male, save the bartender.
(After sinking $10 into the skee-ball alley in about five minutes, we realized another incentive for bar owners to feature games.)
We encountered George McNeese, co-owner of the buzzy Bed-Stuy eatery Do or Dine. He comes to Full Circle about once a week and is even in a skee-ball league with his girlfriend.
He apprised us of the tyranny of small differences within the alco-lescent demimonde.
“If you go to Barcade, it’s going to be filled with people who are more or less looking for a bar scene. You know, it’s going to be filled with hipsters and all sorts of shit that I don’t want to deal with,” said Mr. McNeese, who was wearing oversize clear-framed glasses, a tote bag that looked like a Nintendo controller and a phone cord as a necklace. “It’s gonna be packed, and the drinks are gonna be overpriced. You know, I just want to have a couple beers and play some skee-ball.”
This last reminded us of something Jim Meehan had pointed out. “In a city like New York,” he said, “where there are so many bars and so many people, each bar can fill a specific niche, because they don’t have the collective responsibility. For instance, I just got back from Michigan—there were like two bars in town. If you’re one of two bars, there’s probably more pressure to appeal to a broad audience, whereas if there are like a million bars for 6 million people you can, and especially if you’re small, you can fill a specific niche and be successful.”
Unfortunately, he was right: there is clearly a market for bars catering to nostalgic activity-philes.
Of course, the infantilizing of the bar-going experience is lent a kind of dismaying symmetry by the recent contretemps at the Park Slope beer garden Greenwood Park, where among Yelp reviewers there has been considerable outcry not about grown-ups behaving like kids, but about them actually bringing kids.
“It’s not daycare it’s a BAR,” groused one.
“Too many kids, and I don’t mean 20-somethings, I mean actual children,” bitched another.
And a third noted, “Bars also don’t have proper entertainment for kids.” Erroneously, it turns out. You guessed it, Greenwood Park has games!
As Fran Lebowitz pointed out, “Any environment devolves to the youngest person in the room.” So, why not gather around the bocce courts, young and old alike, and collapse the distinction? In no time, one could look from child to adult, and from adult to child, and from child to adult again, and already it would be impossible to say which was which.