My afternoon begins with a leisurely stroll through downtown Campbell, but the quiet is soon interrupted as I step through the door of the former Gaslighter Theater. I am immediately greeted with the sounds of bells, whistles, laughterand a very distinct “wakka, wakka, wakka…” that I hadn’t heard in years.
I peer into the corner and witness a group of young adults sipping on cold draft beers while playing four-player Pac-Man Battle Royale, then I almost trip over a pack of young kids darting across the room. They move from machine to machine like bees pollinating flowers, but instead of buzzing, they laugh and are enthralled by these 8-bit relics of days past.
Welcome to one of the South Bay’s newest gastropubs. LvL Up, which recently opened in downtown Campbell, is part of a trend that’s slowly been spreading across the country. It fuses our childhood (arcades) and adulthood (bars) into one homogenous, dreamlike place that you pray you’ll never have to leave: a bar-arcade.
Barring the ubiquitous Dave & Buster’s, the concept dates back to 2004, when a group of friends in Brooklyn first opened a bar that served craft beer and also housed classic arcade games. Appropriately named Barcade, the venue saw great success in the northeastern U.S., where they’ve opened up seven locations. A planned expansion out West has its sights set on Los Angeles in the near future. Thinking on it now, the combination seems to be almost a no-brainer, but as with all things, being the first also means your brand becomes the Kleenex of tissue paper. Barcade has successfully defended their name in court, as other such establishments have attempted to use that term in their respective monikers.
Closer to home, there have been several places in the Bay Area that have followed this formula of games and brewsone of which is Brewcade in San Francisco. The one nagging question I had when I first began looking into this concept was, why did it take so long for us in the South Baythe birthplace of video games and bars with coin operated game machinesto finally get our first bar-arcade? I reached out to the proprietor of Brewcade, Shawn Vergara, and asked him this very thing.
“Unlike a traditional bar, opening an arcade-bar poses many unique challenges when it comes to the games,” Vergara explains. “With the games becoming more expensive and harder to come by, curating an eclectic inventory takes time and money.”
But as with all things, when it rains it pours, now that LvL Up is officially off the ground, another bar-arcade is in the process of beginning to open up in the little hamlet of downtown San Jose. From the people that brought us Paper Plane comes miniBoss, which is slated to open in early fall of this year in the old Toons nightclub location on East Santa Clara Street. Co-owner George Lahlouh is ecstatic about this new ventureespecially when it comes to what they will have to offer in terms of games. “We will have an assortment of arcade and pinball machinesabout 32 to 36 in total,” he says. “The majority of the games are late ’80s-, early ’90s-era games such Street Fighter 2, NBA Jam and some of the earlier stuff being games like Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Tron.”
Lahlouh also revealed to me that they will actually have two establishments in one; to go along with miniBoss will be a walk-up counter service restaurant aptly-named SuperGood to help fill the almost 5,800 square feet of space. “Although we will operate as a single entity, we want our guests to feel like they’re getting two different but complementary experiences in one place,” Lahlouh explains. “The food program will be led by Chef Winson Duong, who currently runs our food program at Paper Plane. I don’t want to reveal too muchbut really great stuff is in store here, so get excited!”
LvL Up has nowhere near the square footage that miniBoss will, but they do an excellent job in making full use of their space. They have over 25 classic arcade games, as well as six pinball machines. “The plan from the very beginning was to have some of our arcade games on rotation,” explains Ares Clough, the marketing director for LvL Up. “The film industry has done a good job hyping up certain games (i.e., Rampage), so we’ll be keeping a close eye on upcoming films to make future game rotations relevant.”
Rotating games might sound easy when you’re talking about switching out cartridges, but to rotate full-sized arcade games you need someone with a giant collection to make that all possible. Enter California Extreme, an annual arcade game conventionand one of the largest purveyors of classic arcade and pinball games on the West Coast. All games are leased through them and this helps to take care of any ancillary maintenance, new acquisition costs and helps to keep the business fresh.
Now with games out of the way, LvL Up could focus on a real hook to draw the crowd. Co-owner and former Café Stritch chef David Ramsay was on board to curate a menu to elevate them from a simple bar to a gastropub. “Chef Ramsay really wanted a focus on high-end pub fare. From Baby Back Sticky Ribs to our Ahi Shoyu Poke Salad, our menu is incredibly diverse. We have the full menu planned out and are working our way up to it,” Clough says. “We didn’t want to overwhelm the kitchen, so we’re gradually adding more to the menu as the weeks go on. We are a little over half-menu right now and hope to have the full menu available within the next few weeks.”
To go along with their kick-ass menu, co-owner and mixologist extraordinaire Josh Schulenberg, has crafted several signature gaming-themed cocktails, such as the Hadouken, Over 9,000?! and Elder Scroll.
Beyond the arcade games, food and drinks the one thing that caught my attention early on at LvL Up was the family-friendly atmosphere. I was anticipating an adult-only crowd. The presence of young kids was an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise. LvL Up’s policy is all ages are welcome before 8pm, and then it becomes adults (21+) only. They also provide patrons with a multitude of board games, which friends and families eagerly participated in while noshing and sipping as they sat on their parklike wooden benches and tables. “We’re more than the arcade,” Clough states. “We definitely want to provide entertainment for our patronsbut more than that the owners jumped into this concept with the intention of providing a nostalgic experience through immersion.”
As with all new concepts, there’s always potential for failure, as patrons can be fickle folks that fear to tread into uncharted territories. Several gaming-type restaurants (i.e., uWink, AFK Gamer Lounge) have opened in the South Bay and closed for various reasons. Lahlouh seemed confident stating, “The emphasis here is on ‘fun’ and really tying in the food and drinks to feed that atmosphere. As much as we would like to think we will be swimming in a vault full of quarters like Scrooge McDuck, we are realists and understand what really pays the bills are the food and drink.” He further elaborates, “We know as long as we keep those our primary core objectives, we will position ourselves to be successful.”
I never really got my answer why it’s taken so long for a bar-arcade scene to show up in Silicon Valley, but everything happens for a reason, I suppose. “What we are certain of is that the timing is more right now than ever,” Lahlouh professes. “All of us ’80s/’90s arcade kids are all grown-up, but the kid is still in there somewhere. Fast forward 20 years, swap the soda pop for a refreshing craft brewand let’s party like it’s 1989!”