From Pinball To Throwing Axes: Game-Filled Bars

As a child, Ian Hilton would head to Bethesda’s Montgomery Mall and pump quarter after quarter into now-classic games like Gauntlet and bubble hockey. Now, the local restaurateur is bringing some arcade favorites to Washington’s 14th Street neighborhood, albeit with an adult twist.

The 70s-themed Players Club is the latest concept from Ian and his brother and business partner, Eric Hilton. The two have opened bars and restaurants across DC, including American Ice Company and Chez Billy Sud. Something focused around games, however, was a new experience. The underground space was designed to appeal to people looking for something more than just a place to drink – the brothers included.

“We don’t go to places to meet women – we’re both married,” Ian says, laughing. “It gets to the point where you kind of want to have something fun to do.”

He found a mix of old and new favorites for the bar, which also includes a selection of vinyl records and exaggerated lounge decor. There will be some TVs on too, but without the rowdy sports bar vibe.

“I tracked down some of those old games and hoped people would get the joke and think it was fun,” he continues. “We’ll find out, I guess.”

In a city full of bars and restaurants, providing games has become a way to stand out and offer a reason for return visits and longer stays. They’re also an especially welcome distraction in the Washington region, where people are so often caught up in their high-stakes professions.

“It’s funny to watch people get so excited,” says Steve Teague, co-owner and general manager of Breadsoda in DC’s Glover Park.

The spot will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this May and has drawn a steady crowd – everyone from the elderly to college students to Tinder daters – for its selection of pool, darts, board games and more.

“Shuffleboard is definitely the yelling game,” he says.

A round of shuffleboard or pinball is a natural social icebreaker and can often turn to more serious competition. There are many game leagues around the region for those who want to test their abilities, including the DC Pinball League, which hosts regular gatherings at Lyman’s Tavern and Black Cat. Similar opportunities exist for pool, skeeball and shuffleboard fans.

DC also counts some more unique activities among its retro gaming offerings. For example, take the indoor miniature golf course at H Street Country Club, which quickly became a hit when it opened in 2009.

“We were very lucky to have settled in a great neighborhood where there was a lot of demand,” says owner Ricardo Vergara.

There’s more competition now than there was a decade ago, but Vergara says the combination Mexican restaurant and game bar still keeps customers coming back for hours at a time for new experiences. Some changes have been made to keep things fresh, particularly to the mini-golf course. One hole was rethemed from a Capital Beltway scene to a design build around H Street’s infamous street car. The restaurant is also toying with retiring its increasingly outdated Marion Barry hole.

“We find ourselves having to explain who that is,” he says of the late DC politician and former mayor.

One thing you likely won’t see anytime soon? A new hole reflecting the current presidential administration. After all, games are supposed to be fun, not polarizing.

“We like people to come in here and have a good time and enjoy themselves,” Vergara says. “We hate to have arguments or people bashing the actual figurines.”

As the number of game-centric bars increases, businesses are finding new ways to stand out. Stuert Martens, founder of Kraken Axes, dug deep back in history for inspiration. The ax-throwing company opened its first location earlier this year in Park View and is banking on the sport that’s so popular in Canada catching on in the nation’s capital and around the U.S.

“This is for us, by us,” says the DC-born Martens, who headquartered the company in Washington. “We very intentionally put our facility in a neighborhood.”

Kraken Axes features two throwing arenas that can be booked in two-and-a-half hour increments. Guests can also grab a drink from the fully stocked bar or play a round of cornhole. A beer and wine garden is scheduled to open up once the weather gets warmer, and other locations are planned across the country.

Martens’s spot is becoming a popular destination for parties and offices looking for more creative ways to bond over a beer.

“The days of going around and doing the team trust fall are over,” Martens says.

Check out these four game-filled spots and many more in and around the nation’s capital.

Breadsoda: 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC;
H Street Country Club: 1335 H St. NE, DC;
Kraken Axes: 3400 Georgia Ave. NW, DC;
Players Club: 1400 14th St. NW, DC;

Retro Game Havens

A&D: 1314 9th St. NW, DC;
Atlas Arcade: 1236 H St. NE, DC;
Atomic Billiards: 3427 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC;
Augment Arcade: 645 Florida Ave. NW, DC;
Bar Elena: 414 H St. NE, DC;
Board Room DC: 1737 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC;
Board Room VA: 925 N Garfield St. Arlington, VA;
Carpool: 12821 Fair Lakes Pkwy. Fairfax, VA;
Franklin Hall: 1348 Florida Ave. NW, DC;
G.O.A.T.: 3028 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA;
Gypsy Sally’s Vinyl Room: 3410 K St. NW, DC;
Halfsmoke: 651 Florida Ave. NW, DC;
Jackie Lee’s: 116 Kennedy St. NW, DC;
Lyman’s Tavern: 3720 14th St. NW, DC;
Penn Social: 801 E St. NW, DC;
Pizza Paradiso Game Room: 3282 M St. NW, DC;
Red Derby: 3718 14th St. NW, DC;