Emporium Arcade Bar
1366 N. Milwaukee Ave. No phone yet
Rating: 3 (out of four) Off to a good start
Let's get one thing straight: Emporium Arcade Bar doesn't need any press coverage to survive in Chicago. The concept—a throwback arcade that also serves good beer and whiskey—was enough to draw huge crowds when it opened earlier this week. After grabbing some tacos nearby, a few friends and I settled in with our pockets full of tokens to see if the Wicker Park bar would live up to the nerd hype.
Let's get the basics out of the way: If you were compelled to read this because of your undying love of NBA Jam, you probably just want to know the following: Emporium is opening at 5 p.m. on weekdays (for now). All the games (more than 30 video games and three pinball machines; see a full list at emporiumchicago.com/games) take customized tokens, which are four for $1 at an exchange machine near the bar. No, you can't tip with them/exchange tokens for beer. And yes, those metal shelves next to the consoles are for your glass.
Holy dude paradise, Batman: It's not that there weren't any gals in attendance when we stopped in. There were. It's just that there were so many guys. Scraggly haired metal guys. Holstered smartphone-wearing corporate guys. Socially awkward cargo-shorted guys. Behind the bar, at the bar, three deep at the Street Fighter II machine. Stereotype-fulfilling or not, those are the facts. But the ladies in attendance didn't look out of place—no one really seemed to care if the person manning Donkey Kong next to them was in a skirt or not. I expect the ratio to balance slightly as more mixed groups start hitting the spot over the weekend. And if it doesn't? Well, at least there won't be a wait for the ladies' room.
There's always drinking: The games aren't the only draw to Emporium. The bar also features a healthy selection of craft beer on draft, including brews from Bell's, Goose Island, Great Lakes, Left Hand, North Coast and Metropolitan, with prices hovering around $5. Plenty of whiskey is also on display if you feel the need to switch to the hard stuff. But is this the kind of place to just relax with a pint? Not right now. When it's as packed as it was opening night (a crowd you can expect to hold steady into the weekend and possibly beyond), the noise and energy level is just too high for much conversation. Everyone is milling around, chatting over the music and bouncing from game to game. Past 7 p.m., there was a constant wait at the bar, which made snagging a barstool nearly impossible. If the crowds slow down, the abundant seating near the front of the bar would be perfect for a round or two if you're in the neighborhood, but if it's packed and you don't intend on playing anything, don't bother. It's called an arcade bar for a reason.
Where'd you get that popcorn? Brilliantly situated Antique Taco is going to see major business from gamers with the munchies. Since the bar doesn't serve food, you can BYO and this neighboring restaurant's menu is a perfect match. Think crispy fish tacos, guac and chips and the aforementioned popcorn, flavored with habanero, cilantro and cheddar.
Bottom line: If you got excited the minute you heard an arcade bar was coming to Chicago, then Emporium won't disappoint. There's a good variety of games for nostalgia lovers and newbies alike (everyone likes Tetris, right?) and the beer list is solid. If you just want to drink all night, you can take a pass, but if you're looking to grab a fistful of tokens and go to town, be sure to put Emporium on your must-try list.
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