Take a Tour of Chicago's Barcades & Pinball Bars

Posted by Josh 09 JUNE 2015
cool stuff

On a recent work trip to Chicago with Home Leisure Direct, I thought it would be great during some downtime to try out some of the famous Pinball Bars and Barcades in the area.

Being relatively new to the pinball machines scene, what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm, and when doing some research online before the trip I was really excited at the prospect of visiting all these places. I love finding vintage pinball machines in top condition. Nothing better than playing an impeccable classic.

I had a great time in each venue and I thought I would share my thoughts and opinions on each place. In total I visited five Barcades: both of the Headquarters, both of the Emporiums and Logan’s Bar. I will run through them in the order that I visited them.
 
 
Emporium - Logan Square

  • 14 x Pinball Machines
  • 13 x Arcade Cabinets 
  • 6 x Pool Tables
  • 4 x Football Tables
  • 3 x Airhockey
  • 1 x Shuffleboard
  • 2 x Super Chexx Hockey
  • 3 x Shuffle Bowling
  • Token Play

 

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This was my first experience and walking in I was completely blown away. I didn't really know what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this. I guess in my mind's eye I thought it would be a little grimy, a little small and a little empty. It was completely the opposite.

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I was greeted by a friendly doorman and promptly ID’d (my 40-something boss enjoyed this) which I hear is standard practice in the states. The outside windows and doors were smoked glass so as I walked in the first thing that hit me was just how massive the place was. The whole place had a clean yet industrial theme about it and clearly a lot of effort had gone into the décor. There was ample seating with tables available and a row of arcades on the left with the bar straight in front, and on the left a really welcome surprise: a shuffleboard table, which is something we sell but which I have never had the chance to play.

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Following on from the shuffleboard came the first row of pinball machines, five classics in a row: Jurassic Park, Breakshot, The Machine, Playboy and Baywatch

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Seeing Jurassic Park I immediately got my dollar notes out and changed up some tokens while Andy, my boss, offered to get the drinks in. Disappointingly they didn't have any draft or bottled beer as it was a craft beer bar, so we had two cans of ‘8 Bit’ lager. If I'm honest, I wasn't a fan and would have much preferred it if they had had more commercial beers on offer.

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It was nice to see so much choice from the pinballs and great to be able to play some machines I had not played before. All the machines were on and working, with the exception of Space Jam which was on but clearly had some faults and was showing signs of weathering, and Break Shot which had a faulty flipper and a broken shot target that had been replaced (but with the wrong size) and had subsequently become jammed, meaning you couldn't activate parts of the game.

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World Cup Soccer was my surprise favourite pinball at the bar (my getting number one on the scoreboard may play a part in this), but also it is a pin I have overlooked in the past despite actually being a really enjoyable game, with lots of game modes and great ramps. I even managed to activate the wizard mode resulting in a final playoff against Germany.

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Top Pinballs to Play:

  • Jurassic Park
  • White Water
  • The Machine
  • World Cup Soccer

All the arcade cabinets were working and in really good condition considering their age and the fact that they were originals.

They had six pool tables available, which was the most disappointing aspect of the bar since they were using Valley Pool tables and unfortunately they had not been maintained very well. The cloth was extremely worn, the cues had some missing tips and the playing surface was unlevelled to the point it was almost unplayable. This was a shame as this was the only Barcade we were planning on visiting with pool tables available. 

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[Andy tried to start the dancefloor off - to no avail]

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Shuffleboard

Table shuffleboard is a game in which players push metal-and-plastic weighted pucks (also called weights or quoits) down a long and smooth wooden table into a scoring area at the opposite end of the table. Shooting is performed with the hand directly, as opposed to deck shuffleboard's use of cue sticks. 

Shuffleboard tables vary in length, usually within a 9–22-foot range, and are at least 20 inches wide. Tables are intended to be kept level, but any given table may have its own slight slope, adding an extra challenge. In order to decrease friction, the table is periodically sprinkled liberally with tiny, salt-like beads of silicone (often referred to as shuffleboard wax even though silicone is not a wax, or sometimes as shuffleboard sand). These beads act like ball bearings, letting a puck slide down the table a great distance with only a slight push.

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For me, this was the highlight of the bar. In England I have yet to see a shuffleboard table in any bar and this was my first chance to have a game on one. It was in fantastic condition and really is a fun game - it's worth going to Emporium just to play this game.

Food

This was one of only two Barcades that had a food offering; it came in the form of a food truck parked inside the bar, which outsources venders to come in and prepare takeaway-style food. A cool idea, but executed poorly, as it was only offering doner kebabs on the night we went. I gave it a miss; it would have been nice to have a larger selection of food available with some lighter options.

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Pros:

  • Great selection of older pinballs
  • Most machines working
  • Food available on-site
  • Nicely done out with industrial style décor 
  • Largest variety of games from all bars visited
  • Large selection of beers 
  • Good atmosphere
  • Lots of seating available
  • Shuffleboard 

Cons:

  • No new pinball machines
  • No draft beer
  • Pay to play
  • Low pool table standards
  • Low toilet standards
  • Poor food selection

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Overall, I was really impressed with the Logan street Barcade. This is the second bar opened by the owners and you can see the improvements they have made. It was great to have such a vast choice of games to play, and although the pool tables were a real disappointment, it was ideally located in an up-and-coming part of town and was great to see how busy the bar was with the younger crowd.

Although they did offer food, it wasn't something any of the party I was with were interested in and I also didn't see anybody else eating. We actually left to get food and came back afterwards, so I feel they may be missing a big earning opportunity there. It was token play and at only two tokens per game represents good value - however, with other bars offering free play at all times my stingy side can’t help but see this as a negative.

It was a good introduction to the Barcade world yet I feel that the overall standards could be improved: I thought it did everything well but nothing perfectly.

 

 

Headquarters - River North 

  • 19 x Pinball Machines
  • 55 x Arcade Machines
  • Two Floors
  • Freeplay 

Walking up to Headquarters I was really interested to see how it compared to the Emporium we had visited the previous night, as the bar had been set quite high.

The pictures and my descriptions really cannot do this place justice - the attention to detail on the décor is unparalleled.

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From the individual comic book pages wallpapered on the walls, to the broken TVs surrounding the top bar with static and old TV shows playing in the background, to the wall filled with old 8-track tapes surrounding the DJ booth, there had been no expense and effort spared when designing and decorating this bar. It really is the most impressive-looking bar I have ever been in.

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As you walk in you are guided up a few steps and the room opens out into sections: a seating area to the left or right, a bar in front, a bar to the right, two rows of pinballs to the left of the bar and then a plethora of arcade machines. The selection of arcades was really impressive; they had everything from NBA Jam to Paperboy.

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There were also various wide screen TVs dotted about the place showing the live hockey game, which I also enjoyed.

We went to the bar and again unfortunately there was only craft beer available, so we ordered a round of rum and Cokes. At $10 a drink I thought it was a little pricey, but this could just well be city prices.

Over to the pinballs, there was a distinct upgrade in the quality of the machines: most if not all had LED upgrades, all the cabinets were in really good condition and many had colour DMD conversions as well as nice mods (the Tron arcade mod was my favourite). 

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All the machines were also much newer, having the full range of Stern pinballs from the last ten years. I personally prefer the newer pinball machines but Andy would have liked to have seen a few vintage (his era) machines available to play. They did however have some classics like The Addams Family, Monster Bash and Medieval Madness, all minty fresh and modded to the max. 

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We had a little wander round and noticed some stairs leading down to another section of the bar. This part is only open from Thursday to Saturday, which is a little disappointing as it’s like Aladdin's cave down there. The same effort, care and attention to detail had been taken down here, with the bar front and walls laced with vintage sinks and radiators.

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There were also loads more arcades down there and five more pinball machines: all newer Stern machines and also some of my favourites, which was a great find as I had not seen them in any bar to date - Avengers, X-Men, Iron Man, Transformers and The Walking Dead.

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All the machines matched the comic book themed walls which was a nice touch and another example of the thought that has gone into the design by the owners. I am used to the Limited Edition version of The Walking Dead so it was interesting to see the differences between the two machines, but also a little disappointing as there is a massive difference in the playfield between the two. In fairness, all of the bars who had these machines had the Pro editions, so I guess I am just a little spoiled at the Home Leisure Direct office and showrooms (where we have the Limited Edition).

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Top Pinballs to Play:

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Food 

This was the only other bar we went to that offered food. In contrast to the food truck in Emporium, Headquarters had a full menu. As it was craft beer week, all of the items on the menu were infused with beer in some way. This was a great idea and everything on the menu sounded really tasty, but unfortunately it was executed poorly and although everything was perfectly edible I wouldn't choose to eat there again.

Standards

The overall standards of this bar were the highest of all the places we visited, plus they had a really friendly and helpful doorman (Ron was more than happy to show us round the closed areas when we re-visited a few days later and spent time talking to us about the bar, the owners and the journey they had all been on).

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The bar staff were efficient, friendly and trained to deal with the machines if they had issues (which happened a fair bit in all the bars we visited), and they have an on-site engineer for big machine faults.

The toilets were really well-maintained and throughout the night were regularly cleaned, had paper towels as opposed to hand dryers (I prefer this) and even had a separate bin right next to the door to dispose of towels (for weirdos like me who don’t like to open the door after I have washed my hands, so I can use the towel instead).

Pros:

  • Incredibly well kitted out
  • Unparalleled attention to detail
  • Live sports on TVs
  • Massive selection of arcade machines - all working
  • Really high quality upgraded pinball machines
  • Freeplay
  • Selection of beers
  • Friendly staff
  • Great standards across the board 
  • Food served with full menu

Cons:

  • No draft beer
  • Food was not great
  • Not enough older pinball machines
  • A few faulty pins (these were fixed by our second visit a few days later)

Overall this was my favourite bar of all the ones we visited. The attention to detail really can not be given justice via the pictures; it was one of the most impressive bars I have been to, the music was great, the standards were fantastic, they have a great team there, the quality and quantity of machines they have there was really impressive and it was so nice to see such a mix of clientéle, from single guys to big mixed groups and couples. I even saw an older lady sipping on a coffee by herself, while she played some Tetris.

Having the machines all on freeplay really has paid off for them here: every single machine was being played, everybody was having a great time and everybody was getting to experience games they never would have paid to play, bringing retro goodness to all.

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[This happened too - work it Andy!]

 

 

Headquarters 1 - North Sheffield Ave.

  • 22 x Pinball Machines
  • 40 x Arcades
  • Freeplay (apart from Wizard of Oz)

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Walking into Headquarters 1, it had a lot to live up to compared to their newer bar. As we walked in we noticed that the setup was slightly different: it was spread over one floor but on different tiers. With two rooms, they have crammed as many machines as possible into the place, which is great for variety but did make it feel a little cramped.

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It was nice to see a bigger mix of pinballs in this bar, with some older machines as well as new ones. As with their other bar, all their machines are in great condition with LED upgrades, and a big bonus for me was that they have The Simpsons Pinball Party, which is a machine I have always wanted to play but have never had a chance.

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This bar seemed much busier, but I think this was due to the limited sitting and standing space as there were so many machines. As the night went on it was almost too busy and cramped.

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Walking through to the second room I did see quite a few machines turned off, disappointingly. Some others were being worked on, but all the arcade machines were working.

Although it wasn't as polished as the newer Headquarters it was still fantastically decked out, and an awful lot of work had gone into the decoration of the bar. My personal favourite was the ‘NES wall’ linking the two rooms, a whole wall ‘wallpapered’ with actual NES games.

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The second room had a lot of the newer machines, including Wizard of Oz, which was (from what I could tell) the only machine in either bar that was pay-to-play. We had a couple of games and were a little underwhelmed by what is a very impressive-looking machine but which has just a little bit too much going on for my liking.

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My highlights from this bar were the Duck Hunt arcade, The Simpsons Pinball Party, Mustang and Theatre of Magic; a fantastic machine which I've never played but which my boss Andy actually has as part of his personal collection (but I still managed to batter him on it). 

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Having all the machines on free play is such a massive treat, we took advantage and played every single machine including the critically slated Star Wars Episode I, which wasn't all that bad.

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Top Pinballs to Play:

  • The Simpsons Pinball Party
  • Family Guy
  • Mustang
  • Theatre of Magic

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There was a real party atmosphere in this bar, more than any other we had visited. As the night went on, the music got louder and the place got busier. The music was great and it was a shame we had to leave halfway through to get some food, as there was none on offer. They do allow you to bring food in although there is not much seating area to actually eat it.

On the whole, like their other bar the standards were really good and although it was really busy, the toilets were constantly being inspected and regularly cleaned (urinals filled with ice) which was quite cool (excuse the pun).

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Pros

  • Friendly team who actively fix pinball machines
  • Really good music
  • Party atmosphere
  • Great selection of new and old pinball machines
  • Free play
  • Great décor
  • High standards

Cons

  • Quite a few broken machines
  • No draft beer
  • No food available
  • Got too busy later in the evening to play machines
  • Lack of seating areas

It was a great first effort from the guys and it's also nice to see how they have learned from their first effort and implemented improvements in their second bar: with the inclusion of a food menu, more seating areas, more space and a second area that is opened up during busy periods. 

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Logan’s - W. Fullerton Ave.

  • 35 x Pinball machines
  • 20 x Arcades
  • Token Play

After a long taxi ride through the wrong side of town, we finally ended up at Logan’s. From the outside it was quite starkly different from the polished bars we had previously encountered. It was quite dilapidated from the outside, with lots of exposed wires hanging down from the numerous neon signs; walking in it had quite a grungy feel, but was clean and tidy. We were greeted by a friendly team member and guided to the bar in front and finally managed to get a commercial beer: the best tasting Miller Light of the trip, a welcome change from the craft beer in all the other bars.

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It was clear to see that the owner of this bar was a pinball enthusiast: it was almost as though it was his own personal collection on show. The walls were decorated with framed and backlit pinball classics as well as a really nice concept drawing of Bride of Pinbot, a poster for Pinball Circus, the prototype designed by Python Angelo and a signed print from Eugene Jarvis, something my boss was very impressed to see.

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As we walked in, on the left was a row of vintage pinball machines including Fireball, Iron Maiden, Eightball Deluxe and Flash Gordon. All were minty fresh and really well looked after; you could tell the owner looked after and loved these machines. 

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There were also some Nintendo ‘Players Choice’ machines which I have heard about but never seen, which are really cool machines to have. As you walk into the next room you have the toilets and small (in comparison to the other bars) selection of arcades, all of which are again in great condition, and then the third and biggest room is where the majority of pinball machines are held. They have a really good mixture of newer and brand new machines, all gloriously restored and modded and even some set up for tournament play. We have a Star Trek Pro at work and it was nice to play the premium edition they had at Logan’s. All apart from one machine (AC/DC) worked here.

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The biggest disappointment here was that not only were the machines token play, they were also set to "no ball save" meaning that out of all the bars, Logan’s was the least cost-effective. As well as this, the tilt levels were ridiculously sensitive - to the point where you couldn't nudge the machines at all, causing massive frustration to a player we were watching who was about to get a high score on The Walking Dead machine he was playing.

I can see this playing a big part in explaining why the machines were all working and in great condition, but I couldn't help but feel that the owner didn't actually want us to play and enjoy the machines - I half expected to see a ‘do not touch’ sign on the machines.

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Despite all of this it was great to have such a massive variety of machines to play from all different eras, and all in such great condition. All of the bar staff were really friendly and helpful, and as there was no music playing it was quite nice to hear the music from the machines.

 
Top Pinballs to Play:

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Pros:

  • Massive variety
  • Quality titles
  • Almost every machine working
  • Great new and old range
  • Owned by an enthusiast 
  • Commercial beers
  • Massively modded machines
  • Very authentic feel
  • Helpful staff
  • Able to hear the machines

Cons:

  • No Food
  • Pay to play
  • No ball save
  • Tilt settings
  • Bit too grungy
  • Uncleaned toilets
  • Dilapidated exterior 
  • No music or atmosphere   

On the whole, this was definitely the least polished of all the bars, but I almost don’t want to call this a bar; it's more like a pinball museum that serves drinks. It had by far the best choice and quality of machines of all the places we visited, but this comes with a price - not just for playing, but with no ball save and the restrictive tilt settings, I felt I enjoyed looking at the machines more than playing them, and I get a sneaky suspicion that that is the point.

 

 

Emporium 1 - Wicker Park

  • 12 x Pinball machines
  • 42 x Arcades
  • Token Play

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The last bar on our list was Emporium 1, which again felt a little out of town with not much else around, but was a great looking building all the same. We walked into an open-plan building split into two thin rooms that felt very spacious, though I'm not sure if this was because we turned up when they opened at 12pm and were the only people in there.

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The first room had arcade cabinets all up the left hand side of the wall with the toilets at the end and three pinball machines in the corner. The walls in both rooms were filled with retro game inspired graffiti that looked really cool and authentic, and really fit the industrial feel of the place.

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Another welcome addition was draft beer; the pumps were made out of an assortment of interesting ornaments, old telephones and even a NES light gun.

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The second room was a large open area with plenty of seating, a stage which looked like it was ready for live music and a dance floor that adds another dynamic on the weekends, as well as arcades across the wall and nine pinballs at the end. They had a nice mix of new and old machines including The Shadow and Diner, two machines which I have never played but which were two of the most enjoyable of any venue. I even managed to get number one on the scoreboard of Diner. Both games had really good game modes and were in great condition.

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Although it was token play, it was only one token (a quarter) per game and so represented great value for money.

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Top Pinballs to Play:

  • Diner
  • The Shadow
  • The Addams Family
  • WWE

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Again, there was no food available here but they also welcomed food from outside. However, as there wasn't really anywhere to eat nearby, this wasn't an option. 

Pros:

  • Open plan
  • Mix of new and old pinball machines
  • Live music on weekends
  • Draft beer
  • All machines apart from one working
  • Lots of seating area
  • Great artwork on walls

Cons:

  • Token play
  • No commercial beer
  • Smallest range of pinball machines
  • No food menu
  • Lacking something

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In the same vein as Headquarters, from this first effort you can see how the owners have seen the opportunities from their first venture and implemented this in their second bar. However, it wasn't as polished as the first Headquarters and I just felt that something was lacking, although this may be due to the fact that we were there at midday and didn't have the evening crowd there. Both Emporiums had limited pinball machines on show, but in Logan Square they have all the other machines like the shuffleboard and the pool tables; this one didn't, leaving it a little bare. In their defence, the machines they did have were all in great condition - just not enough choice to make the long trip across town for a revisit.


Written by Josh Cullum

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