Back in 2004, four friends opened Barcade, a marriage between vintage video games and craft beer in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Williamsburg neighborhood. Since then, Barcade has expanded to New Jersey and Philadelphia as numerous competitors with similar concepts around the country have followed.
To varying degrees, Baltimore has joined the fun in recent years. Game, opened last May, made the biggest splash as a massive video-game-warehouse-within-a-sports-bar. Bars like Johnny Rad's, Homeslyce and Mother's Federal Hill Grille have Skeeball machines, while Sticky Rice hosts "Warfare Wednesdays" using old systems like Nintendo 64. Not every concept works, like Canton's underutilized and short-lived Baltimore Bar Arcade.
In January, Boiler Room in Federal Hill entered the fray, and on a recent Friday night visit, it seemed like Baltimore's best take on the national trend to date.
In a way, that's not surprising, because Boiler Room is the second bar from the local management team behind Bookmakers Cocktail Club, one of the neighborhood's most refreshing additions in recent years. Bookmakers is a trusted source for drinks and customer service, and Boiler Room proves management wants those qualities to be calling cards.
But first, a patron's attention must be captured. Cue the loud and flashy machines taking up a good amount of Boiler Room's two floors.
Two "multicade" consoles offer many games-in-one, like "Mortal Kombat," "Pac-Man," "Paperboy" and likely whichever other classic titles you can remember. To the left of the L-shaped bar are a couple of pinball machines with Harley Davidson and "Game of Thrones" themes. There's also "Golden Tee," "Star Trek: Voyager" and basketball pop-a-shot machines. Games range from 50 cents to a dollar, and the machines are coin-and-paper operated. (The change machine on the first floor was out of change when I went, which seemed like a major hiccup, but the staff made getting change from behind the bar easy.)
As I watched a friend battle a stranger in "Tekken Tag Tournament," I couldn't help but smile and recall spending too much time at the arcade of my New Jersey mall, watching friends and strangers attract crowds through sheer button-mashing.
This partially explains the trend's appeal. Patrons enjoy the blast-from-the-past rush with a joystick in one hand and a pint glass in the other. For visitors like me, who don't own a video-game console and stopped caring about new releases years ago, Boiler Room's smart mix of vintage and really vintage games scratches a fleeting itch perfectly. Add a good beer to the mix and it gets even tougher to complain.
And that — Boiler Room's sense of balance — is what makes it a clear-cut winner: Games serve as conversation starters and enjoyable time-killers, but they are not the sole reason to visit. This is an all-encompassing good time, especially for groups, because the bar program is just as fun as the games. Gamers can play, and the uninterested have enough room to enjoy Boiler Room simply as a bar with plenty of seats and sporting events on flatscreen TVs.
Aiming to appeal to the bar-industry crowd, Boiler Room bases its bar program around 12 shot-and-beer combinations, an end-of-the-shift favorite order for servers and bartenders around the world.
Certain combos recall Bookmakers' sophistication (Allagash White and Yellow Chartreuse for $12, DC Brau Penn Quarter Porter and Jameson Caskmates for $10), but it all avoids unnecessary stuffiness. The Coney Island Brewing Company's Hard Root Beer and Fernet Branca ($10) makes a charming low-and-high-brow order, while you can't go wrong with a Brewer's Art Resurrection and shot of Pikesville Rye whiskey for $8.
You can create your own combinations, too, by ordering a beer and a "house shot." Boiler Room has eight of the latter, including the Knuckle Joe ($7, NOLA Coffee Liqueur and Powers Irish Whiskey) and Hadoken ($7, Fernet Branca and Fireball whiskey). I paired a Pac-Man Pickleback ($8, Jameson and pickle juice) with a 16-ounce Tecate ($3.50), and was more than content.
When I reviewed Game last September, I noted how it felt like a Dave and Buster's, which can be great or a tad overwhelming, depending on your mood. Boiler Room, on the other hand, feels like a comfortable hangout that could work most nights, regardless of circumstances.
The team behind now two excellent Federal Hill additions has proven it should not be boxed in — Bookmakers is a sophisticated respite from Federal Hill's party scene while Boiler Room has a nostalgic silly streak, and both work well. They know how to do a lot right, and they're having fun — both coin-operated and not — in the process.