Level-Up: Making Friends and Taking Names at Emporium

Collect your hot vax summer social badge at the three-floor arcade bar

For decades, video games have been cast as hobbies for brainy or awkward social outcasts. The nasally-voiced nerds of Big Bang Theory are helplessly addicted to online gaming. The socially inept brats of South Park find themselves so absorbed by their World of Warcraft campaign that their habit is likened to drug dependence. While the “cool kids” go out to parties and bars, the dorks, according to countless portrayals in American media, stay hunched over their consoles at home. 

But with Millennials reaching middle age and Zoomers graduating from college, there are now two generations raised on bleeps, bloops, and button-mashing. And after a year and a half of hunkering down at home, gaming may be more popular than it’s ever been. Adults who hadn’t thought about toggling a joystick since the fifth grade returned to gaming at surprising rates: 82 percent of global consumers played video games at the height of pandemic lockdowns, according to market data firm Nielsen, and 55 percent of US-based consumers told the firm that they picked up or returned to video games because of the newfound time

For many of these players, gaming is not only a good activity for passing excess time at home, but a social conduit, too. The audio app Discord, for example, popular amongst gamers who want to play together simultaneously, saw downloads double in mid-March of last year. Over the course of a few months, it quickly became the site of regularly-hosted meetups between both IRL friends and enthusiasts a world apart, there to gossip and share stories in addition to playing a game. 

Now, the gamers are escaping their dark, basement battle stations to venture into the wild world of San Francisco nightlife. Though it’s too early to tell whether newly-created online gaming communities will become cliques ITRW (in the real world, for those unfamiliar with the digital lingo), the Emporium Arcade Bars, with locations in San Francisco and Oakland, offer many of the same benefits as American’s pandemic-era gaming habit. Here, customers can access entertainment in solo or multiplayer mode, and find an easy social conduit for wading through the unpredictable waters of post-pandemic life. As of this month, the venues have reopened 7 days a week, their San Francisco location inviting patrons to pull the pinball plunger weekends until 2 a.m. 

“It is a really unique venue in the city because it has something for everyone,” says Stephanie Shaner, the event coordinator at Emporium. “We want everyone to feel comfortable when they come here.” 

The Emporium hosts dozens of arcade games, including Dance Dance Revolution, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, Terminator Salvation, Killer Queen, two air hockey tables, skeeball, and arcade hoops. Though, admittedly, some games were out of service when we visited (as is to be expected any time you’re dealing with machinery that’s decades-old), there’s enough options to squarely avoid waiting in line to play. Many of the games are two-player, making Emporium an ideal first date location, while others can host upwards of 8 players, in case your friend group wants to challenge another squad you met at the bar. And though Emporium doesn’t sell any bar snacks, the venue encourages guests to bring food from neighboring establishments inside, and has a broad menu of cocktails and beers available. Grab a barbecue sandwich 4505 Burgers & BBQ down the street, pair it with one of the locally brewed beers on offer and Emporium, and you’re set for a long night of gaming and dancing. 

If you’re looking for friends, just hover near a game for a minute or two. Over the course of an hour on a slow, Saturday afternoon, yours truly was invited to play with a big group of twenty-somethings, just because I was aimlessly milling about near one of the arcade’s most popular games, Killer Queen. For the record, I won the first non-practice round — although my new friends crushed me in every match that followed. 

San Francisco’s Emporium location is inside an old, remodeled movie theater, decorated in elaborate art deco finishings. It has three floors, two of which used to be large balconies for seating and overlook the lower level. Corporate offices, local businesses, and any other party throwers can rent out singular floors or the entire venue for private events, projecting whatever they like on large screens hung on three sides of the theater. In years past, Shaner says party hosts have gone so far as hiring aerialists to dance on silks chained to the ultra-high ceilings to paid actors dressed up as characters from popular video games. The venue’s large open floor plan also makes it suited to live music, with DJs turning the video game room into a crowded disco on Friday and Saturday nights. 

“We’re lucky to be able to do that kind of stuff having such a big venue that can accommodate a lot of people,” says Shaner. “We just try to do our best to make them the most seamless events we can have.” 

It’s the bar’s staff, however, that really make it. At Emporium, what you see is what you get — and what you see as soon as you come in is a group of chilled out employees in t-shirts and jeans, shooting the breeze, running over for a quick game of pinball when business gets slow, waiting to talk to whoever needs the extra company. Unlike many San Francisco bars, Emporium is free of any snobbery; a bar where you could easily ride through solo and still have a great, judgment-free time. Whether you’re raring to go for “hot vax summer” or still keeping your social circle small, toss back a couple shots or slowly sip a local beer, Emporium is a welcoming space. 

“Here, we don’t have the pretension of other places,” says Shaner. “You can dress however you want, we don’t do bottle service, and it’s a lot more casual — just a fun, upbeat kind of a place.” 

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