Collier’s Weekly: The Rise of the Activity Bar

Pinball? Duckpin bowling? Vintage arcade machines? There’s a boom in bars with games — and some are nailing the trend better than others.

Pinz 128

Suddenly, I have thoughts on duckpin bowling.

In addition to venue venues — covered in this space a few weeks ago — I’ve noticed another sort of nightlife proliferating around these parts. We’ll call them “activity bars,” a usually large and often loud sort of gathering place where there’s more to do than stare at TVs and knock back beers.

Activity bars have one or more of the following: pinball machines; vintage arcade machines; duckpin bowling; large-scale shuffleboard; a selection of board games; some variation on cornhole; or outdoor seating areas, exclusively surrounding a fire feature. They all have oversized Jenga sets. (Seriously: Every last one. Big Jenga.)

I’ve been to quite a few activity bars recently; they seem to be multiplying, apparently an effect of the post-pandemic drive to get people back out of the house. Generally, I like them; I’m all for adding some fun and flair to the tried and true sports-bar model.

But, as is my tendency, I have opinions. I’m addressing these less to the patrons, to whom my advice is simple: go to the one you like, and have a good time. Rather, these are for the proprietors. With the market for these spots beginning to crowd, some activity bar or another is going to emerge as the best in town. Here’s what I’m looking for when I go in.

1. Have a main event.

A lot of activity bars have a great many things to mess around with, from those inevitable Jenga games to vintage “Space Invaders” cabinets. No complaints; options are good. But it should be clear what the focal point of an establishment is. Can I get a salad and watch a football game at a Dave & Buster’s? Sure. But it’s pretty obvious that the reason anyone goes in is to play the arcade games. If it’s a duckpin bowling place with other stuff, great; if I walk in and wonder what precisely I’m supposed to be doing, the place lacks focus.

2. Turn the volume down, please.

To be fair, I’m getting to the age where this is a request I have of most places I visit. But at generally busy, quite chaotic activity bars, having a blaring soundtrack does little other than give me a mild headache and make it harder to talk to friends. If I’m already competing with the sounds of scattering bowling pins, blipping pinball machines or the wooden thwuck of axe throwing, I shouldn’t also be straining to be heard over a pop hit from the early ’00s. This ain’t a nightclub. (We tried activity bar/nightclub hybrids in the ’10s — remember the big one out in Robinson? They’re all gone. For a reason.)

3. The drinks and food have to be good — but affordable.

As far as I know, there’s no activity bar where the activities don’t carry some kind of cost; some have certain types of fun offered for free, but all charge for premium games and activities. In other words, I’m automatically spending money when I come in the door, no matter what I get in addition — so I shouldn’t experience sticker shock when I look at the menu. Depending on what I’m playing and how long I’m playing it, I can probably expect to drop $10-30 on games; I’d like a beer for about $6 and a sandwich for about $10, please. This shouldn’t be the most expensive outing of my month.

4. Whatever your capacity is, lower it.

I’ve been at activity bars at peak hours, and it’s not a pleasant experience. If I have to squeeze past people to get to the bar and wait hours to play a game, I’m just going to go home. Far be it from me to limit the ability of local establishments to make as much money as possible, but better to ensure that 80% as many people are having a good time than risk 100% of people feeling vaguely irritated.

5. You still have to be a good bar.

Duckpin bowling, cornhole and big ol’ Jenga are great, but they’re not going to make me come back if all the normal bar stuff isn’t working well. Hire staff, train them and pay them well so they are inclined to help me with my dumb bowling questions and point me to a good cocktail. Pay attention to the beer list. Have specials so I feel like I’m saving money (even if it’s only a buck or two). Create a safe and welcoming environment. In general, don’t rely on your games and gimmicks to cover up other sins — be a worthy time even for those with no interest in the bells and whistles. After all, there are suddenly a shocking number of places to hurl bowling balls and play pinball — why not be the best?

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