New arcade bar gives nostalgia an extra life
By Kevin Smead | SDUN Reporter
Growing up in the ‘90s, I experienced arcades in their waning years. By the time I hit my teens, arcades, much like VHS and cassette tapes, were pretty much history. Admittedly, there’s a large part of me that wishes I could have present in the heyday of the coin-op machine. This longing
manifests itself every time I come across a great arcade cabinet at a bar. “Street Fighter II” at Bar Pink? Yes, please. Soda Bar’s double whammy of “Battletoads” and “NFL Blitz ’99”? There aren’t enough quarters in the world. So when I heard about the opening of a bar boasting a host of classic—and some semi-contemporary—arcade cabinets, my interest was very much piqued.
That bar is Coin-Op Game Room, situated near the now booming intersection of 30th Street and University Avenue. A vibrant, lively destination, Coin-Op Game Room really does house some of the best classic arcade cabinets and pinball machines. It also wouldn’t be North Park if there wasn’t a full selection of craft beer, cocktails and fine foods to compliment the clicking of pinball flippers and clacking of joysticks. While the concept is novel, it’s not exactly revolutionary, and in the hyper-competitive San Diego restaurant scene, it takes quite a bit of ingenuity and business prowess to be successful. With that in mind, one must ask: Does Coin-Op Game Room’s appeal to childhood nostalgia translate into Friday night adult fun?
The answer, for the most part, is yes. Coin-Op Game Room is not only designed to be a nostalgic playground, but a solid addition to nightlife in North Park. Gone are El Take It Easy’s wooden exterior panels and dim lighting. Coin-Op Game Room is mostly open air, with a front patio and rail seating facing the sidewalk. The renovation is a smart move on the owner’s part, as the openness creates an inviting atmosphere extremely enticing to those passing by on the street. If you can look in and see all those people having a blast, racking up high score after high score on the old arcade cabinets, why wouldn’t you want to join in?
This highly social atmosphere is present throughout Coin-Op Game Room. Arcade games aren’t meant to be experienced alone, after all. There’s nothing like the thrill of achieving the high score with a group gathered around, watching and cheering you on. It’s a sensation that never gets old, whether you grew up with arcades or not. Even if you’re not playing games, it’s hard not to make an acquaintance or two. Except for the standard stools, the only seating inside the bar proper is a long, banquet style table that encourages patrons to get comfy with their neighbors, whether they know them or not. Other atmospheric touches round out the bar, such as game token themed tables on the patio and a practical—if not oddly nostalgic—change machine.
The one area where Coin-Op Game Room is not particularly impressive, though by no means awful, is on the dining side of things. Drinks are pretty standard fare, with the bar serving up a variety of signature cocktails, which start at about $8. Pints generally hover in the $6-7 range, and this being San Diego, there’s always a great selection of craft beers on tap, mostly from local brewers. They even have their own interpretation of a spiked punch bowl, which will run groups upwards of $20.
When it comes to food, the menu isn’t what earns the bar its extra life, despite its riffing on the 1Up. The menu is mostly comprised of bite-sized items at less-than-bite-sized prices. Snacks range from $3 to $5, while their selection of sliders and other bar fare starts at around $9. I had pulled pork sliders, which were extremely tasty, but a little bit unsatisfying. Part of me wished I’d have converted that $10 to quarters and parked it all night on the “Joust” machine hiding by the restrooms. This is a minor quibble, however, as coming for the food is not really the end to anyone’s journey here. If it’s good, cheap bar fare you’re looking for, then sorry, but your princess is in another castle.
When it comes down to it, though, Coin-Op Game Room impressively takes our fond memories of things past and materializes them into a physical space that is warm, accessible, and just plain fun. Whether you’re new to arcades or you feel at home with your fingers on the plastic buttons, it’s a solid addition to anybody’s North Park bar crawl that will eat your quarters for years to come.