I first started going to bars legally in 1979 at the age of 18 (yes, the drinking age in New Jersey was actually 18 then). At that time there was a revolution of sorts underway––a technological revolution that was changing the way games were played in bars. The blinking bulbs and noisy bells of the old pinball machines were being replaced by the pixilated monitors and electronic sound effects of a new kind of barroom entertainment––the video game. Games like Asteroids and Space Invaders, which seem positively primitive by today’s high tech, 3D, fully interactive gaming standard, were absolutely mind-blowing technology in their day. After all, we were living in a world without personal computers, and the computers that did exist were so enormous that they took up an entire room. There was no internet and Macintosh apples were just a type of fruit. So these new games were very thrilling indeed, and they quickly spread throughout our culture, from bars to shopping mall arcades, to the local bowling alleys and pizzerias; these large stand-up fun boxes were soon everywhere.
I got hooked early on Astro Fighter, which I’d found at my local bar. But how could you not get excited about a game that billed itself as “The most exciting game in the universe?” I’d pump quarter after quarter into the machine, shooting descending alien space ships and trying to “get past the ‘Master’ to my refueling station” so that I could get to the next level and more game time. I’d be banging the firing buttons and jerking the joy stick from side to side, forward and back, all the while trying to balance my mug of beer on the slanting control panel beneath the game’s display screen.
But outer space battle games were only the tip of the video game iceberg. Over the next few years in the 1980s a slew of new and increasingly move advanced games would be released and become popular, like Centipede, Frogger and my personal favorite, Galaga, to name just a few. But the heyday of the giant video games in bars would not last forever and eventually video game playing became more of an at home activity with the popularity of Xboxes, Wii and online gaming. That’s a shame because there is just something about the drinking beer and banging on games in an arcade setting that really go together.
That’s why I was very excited when I made my first visit to a bar called Barcade in Jersey City recently. The name Barcade sort of says it all and describes the place perfectly. It’s exactly that: a bar and an arcade. But the real selling point of the place is the that it features an extensive selection or fine craft beers and just about any classic video game that you’d ever want to play.
When you step inside the vast, cavernous space of Barcade you are instantly transported back to the golden age of the video arcades of the 1980s. The sound effects of the dozens of machines echo throughout the place, mixing with music from the sound system and the din of the crowd. The darkened interior of the former bank building is punctuated by the brightly colored flickering lights of the video game monitors. That’s when you know it’s time to grab a pint of beer at the bar and get your game on!
I was a little late to the Barcade party, I must admit. The first location of what would become a chain opened in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 2004. The Jersey City location followed in 2011 and another opened in Philadelphia soon after. A forth location is scheduled to open in Manhattan soon in the Chelsea district.
The concept of Barcade was the brainchild Paul Kermizian and three of his college buddies. The four partners would get together in Paul’s apartment in Brooklyn to drink beer and play a few of the vintage video games that Paul had collected, including Zaxxon, Pacman, Tetris, and Paul’s personal favorite, a game called Mappy.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Paul over a few beers at Barcade’s Jersey City location. Paul, who is now 38, was born and raised in Bound Brook, NJ, where he first became enthralled with video games at a young age. I asked him how the whole idea of Barcade originally came about.
“I’d have parties and friends over and the games were really popular,” he told me. “And I just noticed that whenever people came over they’d say, ‘Turn on the games, turn on the games!’ My partners and I were just friends at the time and all working in different creative fields, so we decided to open a bar together as a way to get a steady income.”
So how many games do you now own?
Between the four locations they have about 170 games on the floor, but we own about 240 total. [Here are some games you’ll find at Barcade: Aliens, Asteroids, BurgerTime, Centipede, Cosmic Alien, Cosmic Avenger, Donkey Kong, The Empire Strikes Back, Frogger, Mappy, Mario Bros., Millipede, Missile Command, Ms. Pacman, Q*bert, Star Wars, Tapper, Tetris, Zaxxon…to name just a few.
Paul describes the atmosphere of Barcade as, “Warehousey—gigantic, dark and industrial. That’s kind of our look by design. The games bring a lot of atmosphere on their own.”]
Some of these games must be very rare at this point. Where do you find them all?
The first game I bought was Mappy for my apartment and I got it so long ago that I bought it off a classified ad in the newspaper. But when eBay came along shortly before we opened the first location in Brooklyn, that really changed the way you were able to get classic video games. So we were able to buy a lot of them on eBay and through that met a lot of collectors who we buy from.
I have to assume that many of the games purchased on eBay are not in optimum running condition. Is it difficult to repair and maintain these vintage machines?
In the beginning we didn’t know that much about working on them, so over the years we’ve had a few techs that work for us—they were the magicians. Since then I’ve learned a lot, I can do a lot of repairs, and all of our general managers are pretty handy as well.
[Paul told me that Barcade is now able to buy games that are in a state of disrepair cheap and with an investment of $50 and a couple hours of labor they can have the machine up and running again. “Definitely beats paying a thousand bucks for a game,” he says.]
So how did your love afair with the video game begin?
I was one of the young kids at the arcade at eight, nine years old in 1983. I was too young to go to bars, but I’d go to bowling alleys like Greenbrook Lanes on Route 22, which was one of the biggest arcades around with like 40 games. I remember playing Q*bert there and BurgerTime. When we opened this place, my mom dug up pictures of me at around eight years old playing Q*bert and Dig Dug and said, ‘Wow, who would have thought you’d be doing this as a job?!’ I was so young that I’d get pushed out of the way a lot at the more popular games, so some of my favorites got to be the weird ones that nobody else was playing, like Mappy, Tapper and Timber. With the space fighter type games there was always some high school kid in a Rush jacket playing and you could never get on it. I’d put my quarters down, but it was like, forget it.
Barcade doesn’t just attract the casual gamers though. There are some truly hardcore players that frequent the bar, and they’re not there for the great beer selection. The first night that I visited there was a guy playing Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back who only dropped a single quarter into the machine and never walked away from the game all night. I kept pacing around the barroom for hours waiting for my chance to play as his score continued to climb for into intergalactic figures. I never did get my chance to “use the force” that night.
I asked Paul if he minded people coming in who could play all night on a single quarter and never leave their game to purchase a beer from the bar. “No, we get enough other people who come in that will drop a hundred bucks for a round of Patron who never play a game at all, so it all balances out. It’s nice to have players of that caliber come and get their name on our high score board.”
Even without the games, Barcade would be a great bar, with the incredible selection of craft brews that it offers on its 24 revolving taps. I asked Paul who was responsible for choosing the beers.
“Originally in Brooklyn I did all the beer curating,” he told me. Paul admits to being a real beer enthusiast as well as a gaming junkie. “I got into craft brews pretty early on in college when I was housemates with a bunch of guys. Milwaukee’s Best was my first beer, and I realized there’s got to be more to beer than this. So pretty quickly I got into different beers and trying different stuff. I even directed a documentary film about the American craft beer industry called American Beer in 2002, which came out in 2004. You can find it on DVD. Basically my crew and I, there were five of us, went across the country in a van and went to 38 breweries in 40 days, taking tours and interviewing all the owners—all the big guys in American craft beer. We got a lot of great footage…and drank a lot!”
Here are just a few of the beers you might find on tap at Barcade in any given month: Abita Restoration, Allagash Dubbel Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Carton B.D.G., Climax IPA, Doc’s Draft Cider, Dogfish Head Chateau Jiahu, Fisherman’s Brew, Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel, Harpoon Saison Various, Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild, Long Trail Imperial Pumpkin, Oskar Blues Chaka, Dale’s Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, Sixpoint Black Soul, Three Heads Loopy, Victory Festbier…and the list goes on and on.
Now, with all that great beer to enjoy, you need some good grub to go with the suds. The Jersey City Barcade was the first to serve food, and like the beer they offer, there is an eclectic combination of fare to choose from. Along with the usual bar favorites that you’d expect to find at any pub, like nachos and quesadillas, the menu features some less common delicacies, like deviled eggs, bratwurst, and something they call a “Piggy Pocket,” which is pulled pork, chimichurri sauce and sriracha pressed in a potato roll.
Another house specialty is pickled hop shoots—tender hop shoots, grown in Washington State, served on a bed of pickled local vegetables. And there are plenty of hardy sandwiches too, with names like “El Cubano,” “The Brooklyn,” the “Grinderman,” and the “Knishwich,”—a potato knish sliced and stuffed with swiss cheese and pastrami or turkey. They even put their own spin on all-time American standards like grilled cheese, which is served with cheddar and swiss, maitre d’ butter on pressed Texas toast. And if these don’t make your mouth water then you’d better check your pulse because you might be dead: Mac & cheese with pulled pork, or a waffle sandwich made of chicken or Taylor ham with American cheese and side of Grade A maple syrup.
Barcade seems to be such a great idea that I couldn’t help wondering if there might be the possibility of it becoming a national franchise business sometime in the future.
“Anything is possible,” Paul says, “but we’re growing slowly and at our own pace, and keeping it close.” I asked if the partners had even been approached about the idea of branching out to a wider market. “Yeah, we have. We’ve had a lot of inquiries about the availability, but we’re kinda control freaks. I can’t even bring myself to let someone run a location in another state, so I don’t know how we’d be able to go public. Maybe someday we’ll be ready for something like that, but right now we have a good thing going and our locations are well received.”
Before Barcade was incorporated, other bars were using the term “barcade” casually to describe their bussiness, but none were actually doing business under the name. So Paul and his partners were able to obtain a national trademark on the brand. These days the future looks quite bright indeed for the this burgeoning company which was founded by four friends who had two things in common: A passion for drinking great beer and a love of playing classic video games. Who ever would have guessed that that combination would be the formula for a succesful business model?