Coming Back

Coming Back

When I arrived a little after 4:30 p.m. yesterday, rows of CRT monitors were flashing, and Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” was blasting, and, as Barcade reopened its doors to declare that it had survived its latest boss fight with the pandemic, it really did feel for a moment like we New Haveners could have things any way we want them. The front area was bright and airy with afternoon light and secondary doors pulled wide open, and then Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s odd, invigorating “Love Missile F1-11” came on before a Letters to Cleo deep cut. Even the playlist at Barcade was already practicing the arcane alchemy that had made the bar a potent draw in more normal times, coolly blending popular Gen X/Millennial touchstones with narrower, weirder experiences that feel either deeply, personally nostalgic or totally fresh.

Of course, not everything at Barcade is the same as it was. COVID-19 is still out there, and masked-up staffers seem quite serious about doing what they can to stave off a sequel. Patrons must wear a mask when away from their seats and not sipping their drinks. Signs posted here and there emphasize the point and encourage social distancing. Another sign in one of the bathrooms details a four-step process of “proper” hand washing. Even so, less literal signs—the absence of plexiglass silos at the bar and no more apologetic reminders that, by law, you have to order food with your drink—reflect the wider progress that’s been made.

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Stopping first at the bar and looking for some progress of my own, I ordered a pint of something general manager Jeff Phelps considers a “classic”: a wheat beer called Purple Haze from Louisiana-based Abita Brewing. Noting its mellow 5% ABV, the menu, which may very well differ from one day to the next, promised “flavors of citrus and tart, freshly picked raspberries.” That was exactly right. The hazy, orangey-pinkish brew was refreshing and easy but had enough substance to keep it interesting until the bottom of the glass.

Still in the mood for fruit, I moved over to the Kim by SingleCut. Billed as a hibiscus- and black currant-infused sour, the sourness was restrained and produced only a mild pucker. Like the Purple Haze, it was low in ABV and very sessionable; unlike the Purple Haze, it actually looked kind of purple.

As for picking a game to play, the bar’s Back to the Future pinball machine felt appropriate. But my first attempt brought an embarrassingly low score, and maybe the selection was too on the nose for a story about a comeback. So I took a break and talked to regular pinballer Ian Applegate, who extolled Barcade as “a functional museum,” noting that most of the games are older than many of the patrons and require a fair amount of upkeep. “It’s not the same as a normal bar. Normal bars don’t have all these moving parts.”

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The Yale Center for British Art reopens on June 4, 2021

Applegate has spent a lot of his time here playing Dialed In, a wacky yet sophisticated pinball machine with a sly penchant for snapping pictures of its players. The game might be Barcade’s youngest resident, a 2017 baby among a sea of ’80s and ’90s kids. Applegate has also sought to master Dialed In’s neighbor at Barcade: The Addams Family pinball machine, which came out in 1992 and is, he says, “the most popular game in pinball history, if you base it on the number of machines manufactured and distributed.” The two games share a legendary designer, Pat Lawlor, and bridge two generations of Applegates. Back in the ’90s, Ian says, he and his father used to squeeze in arcade time before or after Friday night grocery runs. His father would often play The Addams Family, and Ian would often wait, all too transparently, for Dad to fail so he could ask for more quarters to feed into his own favorites.

Drawn in by that memory as well as the realization that Lawlor designed both games, Applegate reports that he now owns Barcade’s highest all-time score on The Addams Family and the second-highest score on Dialed In. Later, as I was about to take Dialed In for a spin, Applegate’s face popped up on the machine’s upper screen, which listed him as the “High Voltage Champ” and the “Quantum Theater Multiball Champ.” These titles were, for the time being, perfectly safe; I performed about as badly on Dialed In as I had on Back to the Future.

Seeking a comfort zone, I headed over to a game I know well: Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, which I played as a teenager at my local movie theater. Shaking off some rust, it wasn’t long before I had destroyed the first Death Star, shot my way off the ice planet Hoth, lost a sand-swept duel with Boba Fett, destroyed the shield generator on Endor, defeated Darth Vader in lightsaber combat and blasted through to the central core of the second Death Star only to see my last shot miss by a hair.

Not bad for $1.50 in tokens.

56 Orange St, New Haven (map)
4pm-midnight “for now”
(203) 889-2966‬
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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