If you haven’t noticed, boozy video arcades are a growing phenomenon across the country. Some are hip, grungy haunts focused on craft beer and vintage games. Others buzz with dance-club neon lights and feature funky cocktails next to new multi-player machines. But the one thing they all share is a common Grandaddy, the grown-up Chuck E. Cheese that started it all: Dave and Buster’s.
Blast way back to the late ’70s, when James W. “Buster” Corley started his very first restaurant. It was called — wait for it — Buster’s. According to the D&B website, it was known for its “tasty food and friendly service.” Business Insider says it was also known for its enclave of “politicians, bond daddies and cocaine whores.” Probably a little of each was true and, in any case, Buster’s was doing well.
The restaurant was situated next to a few other businesses, one of which was an also-booming video arcade run by Dave Corriveau. Much of the clientele at the gaming spot tended to hop back and forth from Buster’s. Taking note of their shared patrons, the two business owners got to talking. They thought maybe, just maybe, they could combine their establishments into one big, crazy place for adults to cut loose.
From their existing digs in Little Rock, Ark., the new partners placed their crosshairs on a hopping section of Dallas, Tex. They bought up a warehouse and started to work on building the very first Dave and Buster’s in 1982. It seems their idea was a good one, because 35 years later, there are over 80 D&B locations, with recent annual profits clearing the $30-million mark.
At the same time, the number of smaller, independent “beercades” in metro areas seems to be constantly growing. They’re flourishing right alongside the giant chain. A search for “arcade bars” in Los Angeles calls up several well-reviewed spots within 10 minutes of where I’m sitting — but not for Dave and Buster’s in Hollywood; rather, the search results send me to places like hip downtown spot EightyTwo, and funky Echo Park outpost Button Mash. What gives?
Maybe Google is watching me closer than I think and tailoring my search results to appease my snobby preferences for indie establishments. In Chicago, for instance, I spent plenty of post-work Tuesdays swilling craft beer with my designer co-workers at places like Emporium, and I even attended a friend’s post-wedding party at Headquarters, huddled around vintage pinball machines. The point is, there seems to be a divide between the hipsterish crowds that frequent smaller arcades, versus the broad flocks of ticket-winning patrons that hit up Dave and Buster’s.
So who’s going to D&B? The short answer seems to be: pretty much everyone else.
Check out the various outposts of the ever-growing Dave and Buster’s empire on Eventbrite and Meetup: they’re well-stocked with business mixers, entrepreneur nights, and networking events galore. You can brush up your dancing skills with the twice-weekly salsa nights at the D&B in Tempe, Ariz. Harpoon Brewery recently hosted a seasonal release party at the Braintree, Mass. location. You can even blast out the final moments before the ball drops on NYE at the Dave and Buster’s in Times Square, complete with open bar and Champagne toast.
Wait, there’s more. If you’re into UFC matches, you’re in so much luck right now. Dave & Buster’s is a full-on corporate sponsor of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, so you could make the adult arcade your new go-to spot to watch the matches. There are screening rooms at each D&B location for every UFC pay-per-view session, as well as every episode of The Ultimate Fighter.
It keeps going. In order to gain a more in-depth understanding of the wide spectrum of regulars at D&B, Thrillist writer Lee Breslouer spent an entire day inside of one, from open to close. He ate the food, drank the drinks, got hit in the head with a vibrator, and was offered both drugs and strippers. How’s that for a meal deal? Then there are the hustlers who have actually made mini-careers by studying the system, beating the house, and making a profit from playing games at Dave and Buster’s. That’s serious business.
But Dave and Buster’s isn’t necessarily a sordid spot, nor is it losing its more wholesome side. It just means it welcomes many different people seeking many different experiences. For instance, Katie Holmes and her daughter spent their Thanksgiving this year at a Dave and Buster’s, so you never know who you’ll run into.
With this wide of an appeal, it’s no surprise that the company, which is now publicly traded, continues to grow and even exceed expected profits.
So what is it, exactly, about the adult arcade model that has us all busting out our wallets? Maybe it’s nostalgia for simpler days of video games and junk food. Maybe it’s the Vegas-like entrapment of a dark building full of glitzy games you think you might just be able to win (but won’t). Maybe it’s just that we all want a few hours now and then where we get to play around and act like kids. Except now, as adults, we can do that with a drink in hand.