The concept of an arcade bar has been around since someone got the bright idea to put video games in bars. The arcade classic Root Beer Tapper, for example, wasn’t always about serving root beer. The concept has been well represented locally, too, with national chain Dave and Buster’s recreating the classic Chuck E. Cheese experience, and local institution Landmark Lanes recreating a pub crawl in the space of one building. The rise of geek culture as an economic driver means more people are willing to dust off this classic formula and convince nerds to drop money on themed drinks and awkward socialization in bars, rather than action figures and awkward socialization over the Internet.
Recently, 8Bit (5301 22nd Avenue) opened its doors in Kenosha, revamping the old Art Bar space into something more geek-friendly. It’s just a block off the main drag of Highway 158, taking up a decent amount of real estate in a residential neighborhood. Milwaukee Record made the trip to see how well electronic nostalgia pairs with bar food.
The space: 8Bit hasn’t left its origins as an art bar totally behind. The exterior is covered by a mural that pays homage to many classic video game characters while hopefully avoiding any cease and desist lawsuits from the giant corporations that own those characters. The inside walls are covered with a similar mural, though the internal mural has more of a street art feel. The bar space is ringed by various arcade games and pinball machines. The restrooms are hidden by the mural work, which always seems like a good choice for aesthetics but a bad choice for finding the john in emergency evacuation situations. A few TVs dot the interior, while fairly standard rock music overpowers the sound of the arcade games hawking their wares. The games are primarily from the mid-’90s, featuring classics like Mortal Kombat 3 and obscure gems like Die Hard Arcade. A pair of Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man machines in the corner gives the selection some respectable arcade history.
The service: We hit the space shortly after the bulk of rush hour on I-94 ebbed, putting us there early on a Thursday night. We were the only ones there outside of staff when we arrived. As the night wore on, more people trickled in, including a birthday party that was crushing every four-player game in the joint, like NBA Jam and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The security and bartender were friendly and engaging, pointing out drink specials and the curious practice that made all the video games in the bar free, but still charging for pinball. The bartender made her recommendations, chatted us up whenever we were at the bar instead of punching out Johnny Cage, and worked the small bar oven when we put in our food orders. Having the pizza oven/fry station out in the open was a curious choice, and it lowered our expectations for our food orders seeing frozen pizzas and big bags of pre-fried wings being hauled out rather than extracted from the Magical Land of the Bar Kitchen.
Milwaukee Record’s food and drink: The bar offered several themed cocktails at decent prices, with a single at $5 and a double at $8. Both cocktails ordered were quickly made and well received. (Renamed drinks were referred to by their more common names, which was a nice touch instead of forcing customers to play Name That Ingredient to get their favorites in a glass.) The beer list was sparse, featuring about a dozen or so choices, and no geek-themed beers. On the other hand, the bar features $1 domestic bottles on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, which is practically like drinking them inside the liquor store. What the drinks lacked in stage dressing, they made up for in value and directness.
The small menu featured three of the four main gamer food groups: pizza, buffalo wings, and mozzarella sticks. (Perhaps a Mountain Dew-themed cocktail or two would round out the assortment.) The pizza was the least impressive choice of the modest menu: a frozen pizza that probably improves the later into the night it gets thrown into the oven. The wings were also pre-fab and a bit pricey at a buck a wing for something out of a bag, though the sauces rallied to make it a solid choice. The cucumber dill and garlic Parmesan sauces were excellent and almost made us forget that the bar didn’t have a classic buffalo sauce as a choice for the wings. The best picks for value and deliciousness were the $5 mozzarella sticks. The sticks were a step up from the usual over-breaded bar food, featuring a crunchy outside and a gooey inside. The bartender sheepishly informed us after we ordered that they were out of marinara, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise—the wing sauces tasted better on the cheese sticks than the wings.
The verdict: 8Bit isn’t a must-see nerd destination, but as a stopover during a greater trip to the area, it might be worth it to finally beat Smash TV.