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Arcade bar Faceoff: Headquarters vs. Emporium

One city. Two arcade bars. Which nets the high score?

By Samantha Nelson, For RedEye

October 26, 2012

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If you have fond memories of cashing in your allowance for quarters and then plugging them into games at the local arcade, two recently opened bars are offering the chance to relive the past. Emporium Arcade Bar (1366 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-697-7922) in Wicker Park and Headquarters Beercade (950 W. Wolfram St. 773-665-5660) in Lakeview both feature a bounty of classic video games—only this time around, you can play with a beer in hand and stay out way later than your parents would let you. I paid both bars a visit last weekend to face 'em off, Street Fighter-style.

DEBUT DATES
Emporium:
June 15
Headquarters: Oct. 11

OWNERSHIP
Emporium:
Danny Marks, who opened the bar in Wicker Park on June 15 with his brother Doug, previously worked as a manager at an arcade bar in Brooklyn called Barcade. Their family also operated arcades in the '80s.
Headquarters: Mark Kwiatkowski and Brian Galati run Lakeview bar Uncle Fatty's Rum Resort and remodeled adjacent bar The Coach House into Headquarters, which opened Oct. 11. They also have two more projects in the works.

INSPIRATION
Emporium:
Danny thought Barcade's arcade bar concept would work well in his native Chicago and started plans for Emporium after he left Barcade in summer 2011.
Headquarters: The owners were also inspired by Barcade, which they visited while doing research in New York for an artisanal beer-focused bar project they're keeping quiet about.

IT'LL COST YOU
Emporium:
Danny said the bar uses tokens instead of quarters so that staff feels more comfortable doling out replacements, but also because "it's a classic arcade sort of thing," he said. "The games do eat tokens a lot."
Headquarters: The machines are equipped to take quarters but are currently free to play. "We were initially planning on doing it as a grand opening promotion, but we love the response, so it's indefinite," Kwiatkowski said.

GUY-TO-GIRL RATIO
Emporium:
60/40
Headquarters: 25/75

DRINKS
Emporium:
The focus is on American craft beers such as Emmett's black IPA ($7) and Dirty Bastard Scotch-style ale from Founders Brewing ($6), though Emporium also serves PBR to cater to the hipster crowd. The owners are fond of whiskey and have stocked the bar with a serious selection of small-batch brands including Angel's Envy ($11) and locally made Few Spirits ($9).
Headquarters: No PBR here. The bar specializes in lesser-known brews such as Stillwater Kopstootje ale ($10) and Dark Horse raspberry ale ($7). "We're excited to see these quirky beers selling in volume," Kwiatkowski said. A cocktail menu developed by local mixology company Pour Souls capitalizes on the nostalgic vibe with odd but delicious drinks such as Who's Got the Mott's ($9), a blend of apple vodka, cinnamon applesauce and apple bitters served with a cinnamon stick.

PERKS
Emporium:
Little nooks between games provide a place to rest your drink from the bar—and your purse, in my case.
Headquarters: Servers will check in while you're playing to see if you're ready for refills and place your drinks on the nearest convenient surface.

FOOD
Emporium:
The bar sells some locally made snacks like Gunslinger Jerky ($7) and Bee's Nuts ($2) but you're welcome to bring in outside eats. There's a stack of menus in front for nearby restaurants such as Pot Pan Thai, and the whole place can smell mouth-wateringly good when there's a group chowing on grub from Harold's Chicken across the street.
Headquarters: Servers will bring you a book of delivery menus for eateries such as Panes, Pompei Pizza and Fogo 2 Go, and the bar also sells Dirty potato chips ($2) and beef jerky ($9) made by Etno Village Grill chef Chris Cason.

ON THE WALLS
Emporium:
A chalkboard listing high scores.
Headquarters: Video game-themed propaganda posters such as a Ms. Pac-Man version of Rosie the Riveter.

NUMBER OF GAMES
Emporium: 45
Headquarters: 37

MOST POPULAR GAMES
Emporium:
X-Men, Mortal Kombat and The Simpsons.
Headquarters: Street Fighter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

OUT OF ORDER
Emporium:
The Simpsons is normally a four-player game, but it was only allowing two or sometimes one player at a time when I visited. And in Mortal Kombat, players couldn't compete against each other. Games are constantly rotating in and out at Emporium as they break down and get repaired. Danny said he maintains them "with great care, determination and frustration. It's a constant battle."
Headquarters: Area 51: Site 4 kept restarting after I cleared the first level, though other players seemed to have better luck.

OTHER ENTERTAINMENT
Emporium:
You can watch sports or movies ("Underworld" during my visit) on TVs around the bar.
Headquarters: Along with sports, the bar shows video-game themed films and TV shows such as "Street Fighter" the movie and "Pac-Man: The Animated Series."


**THE WINNER**

Emporium has a better selection of multiplayer games, making your night out more social, and the small-batch booze selection is sure to win over any whiskey fan. It also draws bigger crowds, though it's easy to find a seat since most people are waiting their turn for a favorite game while watching other players show off their skills.

But it's Headquarters that nets the high score in my book. It seems like vintage arcade games were made to take as much of your money as possible, so the free-play policy that allows you to spend your cash on beer instead of tokens is a huge plus. While I was able to order drinks at Emporium's bar quickly, the service at Headquarters impressed, with servers checking back to make sure I liked my cocktail and a feedback section on every receipt inquiring what new games and beers customers would like to see. The dynamic might change as Headquarters gets busier, but for now it's my pick for a night of gaming and drinking.

Samantha Nelson is a RedEye special contributor and a video game reviewer for The Gameological Society. RedEye reporters visit bars unannounced and drinks are paid for by RedEye. redeye@trbune.com | @redeyechicago